Traveler's Checklist: Fort Frederica National Monument
Visiting Fort Frederica National Monument reminded me that learning history in school was never as much fun as walking around this site.
Fort Frederica is a small 250-acre unit in back of St. Simons Island in southern Georgia. After driving on a causeway, past restaurants, high-end gated communities, and stables of pampered horses, I arrive at a historic sign explaining the Battle of Bloody Marsh. The entrance to the monument is just a little further up Frederica Road.
In the 1700s, Britain and Spain seemed to be fighting constantly. Spain controlled what is now Florida and tried to move north into Georgia while the British tried to move south. South Georgia was "debatable" land, claimed by both Spain and Great Britain.
James Edward Oglethorpe, who founded Savannah and had a hunting camp on Cumberland Island, created a colony for the deserving poor in 1734 here. These were drifters and folks without jobs who had landed in debtors' prison in England.
The colonists built a fort around the town, and created a replica of an English village. The brick outlines of many houses are still on the site. So is the magazine that stored gunpowder and other equipment. Two battles ensued here between Great Britain and Spain: Battles of Gully Hole and Bloody March. Both were won by the Brits, of course, and this land remained British - until the American Revolution.
In 1742, the Spanish advanced toward Frederica. Oglethorpe's men met them at Gully Hole Creek and fired, causing the Spanish troops to retreat. The British then pursued the Spanish. The next skirmish lasted only an hour before the Spanish retreated again. It was said that the marsh was red with blood - hence the name, Bloody Marsh.
After the future of Georgia was set, the army disbanded and the community died. In 1748, 1,000 people lived in Fort Frederica. By 1757, it was called home by barely 100. Then a fire started. "There was nothing suspicious about the fire," says Ranger Cynda Carpenter. "When you have a lot of wood, you’re going to have a good chance of fire." The fire finished off what was left of the village.
The Colonial Dames of America, a leading group in working to preserve historic sites, started buying up the land and petitioned the National Park Service to preserve and protect the site. It became a national monument in 1945.
The site is now a quiet grassy area with several sets of ruins, a museum, and many live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. A sign outside the Visitor Center helps to plan your visit. It reads:
Museum 20 minutes
Film 25 minutes
Self Guided Tour 45 minutes
I explored the site for much longer than the 45 minutes the park suggests. Let's take a look at what you get for those suggestions:
The small museum has several tableaus of settlers going about their daily lives. Highlanders with rifles are shown marching in formation. Glass cases display artifacts such as nails, bits of leather, chains, and pottery chard.
The fort protected Savannah from the Spanish. The narrator reminds us that we're only 75 miles north of St. Augustine and Castillo de Marco. The film shows a reenactment of the two battles, Bloody Marsh and Gully Hole Creek.
In 1947, archeologists started exploring the remains of the village. This must have been a dream job. History was uncovered, literally, as archeologists excavated the foundations of the various houses and the barrack. They then focused on the colonial lifestyle and even diet of the villagers.They had some original records because the British know how to document. Francis Moore, Oglethorpe's secretary, had published A Voyage to Georgia in 1743. The archeologists worked to match descriptions and maps from this journal to what they uncovered.
The doctor and the tavern keeper shared a common wall. These were the first houses to be identified. An archeologist explains that from there, they could figure out where other colonists lived.
Walk the site
Outside the visitor center, you'll cross a moat and enter the town within the walls of the fort. Street signs have been put up and you can walk on Broad Street to see several house foundations that have survived. A plaque explains who lived in each dwelling. The houses were built on a foundation of bricks and tabby (lime, sand, and oyster). Now the outlines of the house sites are filled with shells.
Oglethorpe brought over skilled craftsmen and merchants. You can see where the doctor, the bakery, and the candlestick maker lived and worked. Presentation cases contain plastic replicas of artifacts, bits of spoons, pottery, and nails, found on site.
The site originally was completely cleared of trees by the local Yamacraw Indians, but residents planted Seville orange trees. There are now plenty of hanging oranges.
Walk toward the Frederica River where the ruins of a magazine still stand. This stone building stored guns and ammunition. Cannons protected the entrance to the fort. In 1904, a plaque was put up by the Georgia Society of Dames of America on the stone walls.
An information plaque explains that the fort was not self-sufficient but depended on supplies from England. For the first year, rations for a man included one pint of strong beer per day when he worked, but not otherwise. He was also entitled to 312 pounds of beef or pork. There's no information on what women were given.
Within the site, remains of the barracks still stand. It's set back in front of live oaks that encircle the fort.
There was no church when the colonists lived in this village. But Oglethorpe brought two ministers from England - John and Charles Wesley. John Wesley visited Fort Frederica from Savannah several time and conducted Anglican services. After he went back to England, he had a religious experience and is now considered the father of the modern Methodist Church.
On your way back to the parking lot, continue past the visitor center until you see a fence. The cemetery is inside. A period herb garden tended by volunteers is just outside the cemetery. It shows what settlers might have grown at the time.
I visited Fort Frederica on a recent family visit to Florida. On the trip, I was rereading Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray, a nature writer. She writes about her childhood in South Georgia interspersed with discussion of environmental problems in the area. She describes her roots as "Descendant of Oglethorpe's debtor prisoners." The first time I read the book, the phrase didn't make an impression, but now I knew what she meant.