National Monument; a three hundred-acre park surrounds Fort Frederica, which is primarily a series of archaeological sites founded in 1936 by an act of Congress. It is preserved and maintained by the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. The fort embraced military buildings and a small town and was laid out by James Edward Oglethorpe in 1736. Built along the lines of traditional early eighteenth century British military defense, most buildings were constructed of tabby and wood. The fort and town burned to the ground in 1758.
National Park Service
Fort Frederica National Monument
Route 9, Box 286-C
Saint Simons Island, GA 31522
ph.: (912) 638-3639
Fort Frederica, located on Saint Simons Island off the coast of Georgia, played a critical role as a strategic military outpost for Britain during the colonial expansion of the mid-1700’s. Fort Frederica marked the boundary of an area the British claimed as theirs, contesting Spanish claims to the land at a time when the British, French, and Spanish vied furiously for territories in what is today the U.S. southeast. Established in 1736 by James Edward Oglethorpe, Fort Frederica housed a military garrison and protected a small town inside its walls. It served as the launching point for Oglethorpe’s unsuccessful assaults on the Spanish colony of St. Augustine, Florida, in 1740 and 1743. The Spanish counterattack was turned back at a pivotal encounter at Fort Frederica, the Battle of Bloody Marsh, in 1742, marking the end of the Spanish threat to Georgia and South Carolina.
Fort Frederica’s existence dates back to a period when three European colonial empires–Britain, Spain, and France–held claims in the area that is now Georgia. The British North American colonies were in the ascendancy, their total population growing from 200,000 in 1689 to 400,000 in 1715. The colony of South Carolina, founded in 1670, was expanding to the south, in spite of skirmishes with the Spanish and their Indian allies. The Spanish, who first settled the area and claimed it as their own, were on the defensive by 1715. Although St. Augustine, Florida, established in 1565, was well fortified, the Spanish empire had been declining since about 1660. By 1715, only about two thousand Spanish inhabited Florida.
During the first two decades of the eighteenth century, the French strengthened relationships with southern Indian nations and built a fort in what is now Alabama. However, indiscipline and a series of political missteps left the French vulnerable overseas. The British colonists in South Carolina, feeling threatened by the Spanish and the French and their Indian allies, built and garrisoned a string of small forts along their southern frontier between 1716 and 1721. This incensed Spain, which vigorously protested the outposts. The British continued to claim that the border between Florida and South Carolina had never been clearly defined, and the matter remained unsettled.
In order fully to understand the colonization of Georgia and Fort Frederica, one must understand its founder and trustee, James Edward Oglethorpe, whose utopian and expansionist vision created Georgia. Born in 1696 into a well-to-do British family, he became a member of the British Parliament at a young age. Bright, energetic, and idealistic, although sometimes brash and autocratic, Oglethorpe was named chairman of a parliamentary committee formed to study the conditions of British jails, and in particular, the unfair and abusive conditions to which London’s imprisoned debtors were exposed. The idea of creating a new colony in America, where debtors could have a fresh start in their lives, presented a creative solution to the problem for Oglethorpe and many of his colleagues.
A new province also meant further expansion of Britain’s imperial domains, as well as a much-needed buffer between the fledgling colony of South Carolina and Spanish Florida and French Alabama Country. However, as the concept of establishing Georgia–named after reigning monarch King George II–took hold, the founding ideals changed. In fact, Georgia’s board of ninety-six trustees marketed their new colony too brilliantly, creating an unrealistic image of contented prosperity. The result was that, upon setting sail for America in 1732 with his colony’s recruits, Oglethorpe did not accompany a group of released and redeemable debtors, as originally planned. According to historians Phinizy Spalding and Edwin L. Jackson, he instead led a “cross-section of eighteenth century British society . . . including small businessmen, unemployed laborers, and a few from the upper middle classes and a sprinkling of adventurers.”
To Oglethorpe, Georgia represented a new beginning that could be shaped with strong leadership. The trustees designed legislation to create a flourishing community of small businesses and, according to Spalding and Jackson, “make the province into a sort of idealized agrarian state.” To accomplish this, they restricted land grants to male heirs, and rum and other hard alcohol were prohibited, as were slaves and servants. As the harsher realities of life and politics set in, these rules became difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. Oglethorpe arrived in Georgia and established Savannah in July, 1733. Politically astute, he immediately began cultivating supporters, first by opening his new colony to people suffering religious persecution.
A Jewish contingent and a community of Lutheran Salzburgers settled in and near Savannah early on, crediting Oglethorpe’s involvement and paternalistic concern for their eventual success. Oglethorpe also made a point of befriending the Yamacraw Indian chief and of learning and openly admiring Indian customs and languages. He and the other trustees passed the Indian Act of 1735, which regulated the sometimes questionable practices of European traders by establishing a schedule of exchange rates for skins and pelts and requiring European traders to operate with proper licenses. Though this act strained relations with South Carolina, whose traders did not appreciate being curbed by upstarts, it gave Oglethorpe a solid foundation of Indian support.
Oglethorpe also earned the respect of his recruited settlers by disdaining creature comforts and living as his colonists did. A man of austere tastes, his home in Savannah was as plain and simple as the others around him. His habit of sleeping on floors or outdoors in his cloak whenever the occasion arose was favorably interpreted as an effort to share the experiences of his settlers. Frontier life was not easy, especially when colonists worked in the summer heat, swarmed by gnats and flies, and particularly when fever swept the settlements.
In early 1735, a rising tide of fear of Spanish attack led Oglethorpe and other trustees to begin plans for a defensive fort on the west side of Saint Simons Island. The island had once served as a site for a Spanish mission. The planned site for Fort Frederica was well situated, close to both the mouth of the Altamaha River and to the mainland. It was named to commemorate the royal wedding of Frederick, Prince of Wales and George II’s only son, to Augusta of Saxe Gotha in 1736. (Fort Augusta was built simultaneously along the Savannah River.) Oglethorpe returned to England to appeal for funding of the fort and to recruit new settlers. Both were easily forthcoming, the recruits in spite of Oglethorpe’s honest warnings about discomforts of life on the frontier, especially for those doing double duty as laborer and fort guard. The 257 recruits departed England in December, 1735, aboard the Symond, after long delays due to foul weather. They arrived on the shores of Georgia in early February, 1736. Oglethorpe accompanied them on board, refusing the offer of passage on an escort ship that would have been uncrowded and quiet.
The compassion, fairness, and effective leadership Oglethorpe displayed throughout the arduous voyage won over his new group and no doubt contributed to their patience with him when, upon arrival at the mouth of the Savannah River, he stopped the journey for two weeks to attend to business in Savannah. The group waited and recuperated from the journey downriver at Tybee Roads. Then, Oglethorpe and his new settlers encountered a major obstacle to moving on to Saint Simons Island: The captains of the ship refused to sail further south into the uncharted waters of Jekyll Sound (present-day Saint Simons Sound). Likely, they were afraid of encountering Spanish warships. Eventually, Oglethorpe and a group of his men used a small scout boat to identify inland waterway (now Intracoastal Waterway) entrances to the island; the remainder of the Frederica group followed, rowing arduously in small, wooden open boats.
Finally, in March, 1736, after five days of rowing, all the settlers convened on Saint Simons Island and began construction of Fort Frederica. They started by building huts covered with palmetto fronds for shelter while assisting in the construction of the fortified town. Oglethorpe organized the group into parties, each with specific jobs, and he stayed on-site long enough to ensure that the town’s streets were marked off, shelters provided, and the fort underway. According to historian Larry E. Ivers, “Fort Frederica was a square-shaped fortification, 124 by 125 feet on the inside with regular bastion at each corner and a spur battery that jutted beyond the fort on the river side. Sod-faced earthen walls and a row of palisades planted in a moat surrounded a storehouse, powder magazine, well and blacksmith ship.” The main entrance opened onto the river. Broad Street, lined with Seville orange trees, divided the town into north and south halves.
An area of about thirty-five to forty acres was laid out in lots divided regularly by spacious streets. Garden plots were located about a half mile to the north, east, and south of town. Fifty-acre grants were situated on various parts of the island, and a large meadow near the town permitted settlers to graze cattle. The settlers planted potatoes, Indian corn, carrots, onions, peas, beans, flax, hemp, melons, and assorted squash, among other produce, and also hunted game and fished from the river or ocean. The first settlers numbered forty-four men and seventy-two women and children. Their early houses were rudimentary, like very large tents made from palmetto leaves. Later houses were more permanent, made of tabby or wood. Wealthier residents even imported brick and glass windows. Each freeholder had a lot approximately sixty by ninety feet for house and a garden, though the lots fronting the river were smaller.
In 1738, a regiment of foot soldiers arrived to protect against Spanish invasion, and in 1739 the town was further fortified with two gates, one at the land entrance on the east and the other at the water entrance on the west. The town also was encircled by a ten-foot-high fence of cedar stakes and a moat. A small fort with a watchtower, Fort Saint Simons, was constructed on the southern tip of the island, near the present-day lighthouse. It guarded the entrance to Saint Simons Sound and was connected to the main fort nine miles away by the Military Road. Civil government was administered by Frederica townspeople who served as bailiffs, constables, and tithingmen. A town court tried all civil and criminal cases. (Interestingly, no lawyers were allowed in the town, by decree.) By 1740, the main responsibility of the thousand Fort Frederica inhabitants was defense, and each kept firearms at home ready for use. Military training took place every day and discipline was strict. The stage was set for a confrontation with the Spanish, who were increasingly bothered by Britain’s uninterrupted expansion.
The settlement and fortification of Fort Frederica had exacerbated tensions between the British and the Spanish, with the latter protesting vehemently. In late 1736, Oglethorpe and Governor Francisco Sanchez of Florida finally agreed on their common border, but their solution was not long lasting. Madrid, horrified by Sanchez’s concessions, called him home and eventually hanged him. London, on the other hand, was so pleased with Oglethorpe’s efforts that he was rewarded with a new infantry regiment, the Forty-second Regiment of Foot, and command of all forces in Georgia and South Carolina. For the time being, the Altamaha River remained the de facto boundary.
Another important cause of friction between Britain and Spain surrounded the Asiento of 1713, which allowed the British to sell slaves and only one shipload of trade goods each year within the Spanish West Indies. Yet Britain violated the trade rules so flagrantly and Spain conducted its searches and seizures with such arrogance and cruelty that tensions increased between the two countries. Then, in the spring of 1738, Robert Jenkins, captain of a British merchant ship, fanned the flame of public resentment by displaying his severed ear before a parliamentary committee. Jenkins had saved the ear in his handkerchief after it had been cut off by the Spanish during a search and seizure seven years before in which Jenkins was caught smuggling. Parliament’s ire was aroused, and the government protested to the Spanish, who in January, 1739, agreed to pay damages to British merchants. Because the Spaniards refused to punish their captains or stop their search practices, however, the British declared war; thus, the War of Jenkins’s Ear began in October, 1739.
Oglethorpe was ready to take advantage of this turn of events, and by January, 1740, he had personally participated in two scouting trips to the St. Augustine area. During the second, he captured two small forts, isolating St. Augustine from Spanish settlements to the west. Oglethorpe felt that the Spanish had reacted to his incursions with timidity, and this fueled his ambition to attack St. Augustine directly while he had the chance. By May, 1740, he had raised a force, moved it from Fort Frederica to St. Augustine, and set up a naval blockade. He had hoped to maneuver the Spanish defenders away from heavily fortified Castillo de San Marcos and into the open. This strategy failed, however, and in mid-June he began a seige of the Spanish fort.
The seige did not go well for Oglethorpe and the British. In an effort to lure the Spanish out, he sent a decoy group of forty Indians and eighty-five Europeans to rove around the fort. The Spanish ambushed the party, killing fifty and capturing twenty. Also, British ships were too large to maneuver in shallow waters and could not support the ground troops or completely seal the port. Cannon shelled the fort for three weeks but had little effect on the reinforced structure. By early July, Oglethorpe’s troops were becoming ill and starting to desert, and hurricane season was threatening. When three small Spanish ships slipped through the blockade and relieved the fort, it seemed clear that the campaign would not succeed, and Oglethorpe lifted the seige.
After the failed campaign to take St. Augustine, Georgia lost all outside support to fend off the expected Spanish counterattack. South Carolina authorities, disappointed at the defeat, jealous of Oglethorpe, and frightened for their own safety, blamed Oglethorpe for the debacle and withdrew their forces from Georgia. Oglethorpe, who had been seriously ill following the Florida invasion, was depressed by the South Carolina accusations and the general lack of support from Parliament and his trustees. Momentum had shifted to Spain, which was also encouraged by a new alliance with France. By late 1741, they had developed a plan for a major expedition to destroy Georgia and all South Carolina settlements up to Port Royal, and then to incite South Carolina’s slave population to revolt with offers of freedom and land in Florida. The Spanish force, including 1,950 troops from Spain, Cuba, and Florida, sailed from St. Augustine in June, 1742, under the command of Governor Manuel de Montiano of Florida. Oglethorpe’s total force may have been as large as nine hundred, but only around five hundred were available to defend Saint Simons Island. When the Spanish arrived on Saint Simons Island, they captured Fort Saint Simons, which the British had hastily abandoned.
The fate of Fort Frederica was determined in two small but decisive battles that took place on July 7, 1742. On that day, Spanish parties numbering one hundred men were sent out to reconnoiter the island, coming to within a mile and a half of Fort Frederica before being detected by Oglethorpe’s group. Oglethorpe collected what forces were immediately available and personally led them headlong into the advancing Spaniards. In a savage attack, the Spanish group was completely routed, while the British lost only one man. Oglethorpe, expecting the Spaniards to counterattack, established a defensive site about five miles away from Fort Frederica, on the western edge of what is now called Bloody Marsh. Oglethorpe deployed a group of rangers and Highlanders on one side of the path and regular troops on the other. By noon, retreating Spaniards from the mauled reconnaissance party returned to base camp and reported the clash.
Montiano responded by sending a larger group of troops back up the path. The British, concealed in woods along the path, opened fire on the approaching Spaniards, who responded in kind. Many of the British regulars became unnerved and fled north, back toward Fort Frederica. Those that remained held their ground. After an hour of exchanging fire across the marsh, and unaware that nearly half the British force had left the battlefield, the Spanish beat an orderly retreat south to Fort Saint Simons.
The battles on July 7 were important psychologically for the British. Although few troops were involved and the fights were little more than skirmishes, British forces had turned back the Spaniards twice in the same day and finally had the upper hand. The British also had full confidence in their strategies, while the Spanish were increasingly hesitant to leave the protective walls of Fort Saint Simons. From an escaped British prisoner, Oglethorpe learned how terrified the Spanish had become. To heighten Spanish anxiety, the British decided to hold a night raid on a Spanish camp. Just as the raid was about to take place, a Frenchman pressed into British service discharged his musket, alerting the Spaniards and spoiling the raid. The Frenchman then fled into the Spanish camp. Oglethorpe, concerned that the Frenchman would reveal how small British forces actually were, developed a clever ruse to confuse the Spanish. The next day, he freed a Spanish prisoner, giving him money to deliver a letter to the Frenchman.
The Spaniards, as expected, interrogated the freed prisoner and found the letter, which suggested a conspiracy between the Frenchman and the British. Oglethorpe’s letter offered the Frenchman more money if he could lure the Spanish up the river to be ambushed by hidden British batteries and convince them to spend another few days on the island, until British reinforcements from Charleston could arrive. Montiano did not really believe the ruse, but he could not afford to dismiss it either, and when sails were sighted to the north later that same day, he and his expedition departed immediately for St. Augustine.
The southern frontier of Georgia was never in question again. Correspondingly, Fort Frederica was destined to diminish in importance. Oglethorpe returned to Britain in 1743 to defend himself against the charges of a jealous fellow officer and to seek compensation from Parliament for the personal funds he had spent on Georgia’s defense. The charges against him were dismissed, and he was reimbursed. Oglethorpe never returned to Georgia. Although the war continued until 1749, most of the Georgia forces were disbanded in 1747 because the border with Florida was relatively quiet and the British were trying to reduce military expenditures in North America. A skeleton garrison occupied Fort Frederica until 1758, when a mysterious fire burned the fort to the ground, never to be fully reoccupied as a military base or town again.
In 1936 the U.S. Congress established Fort Frederica National Monument, a three hundred-acre park surrounding the site where the fort once stood. Several of the fort’s structures remain, including the soldiers’ barracks and the magazine where ammunition was kept. Wayside exhibits use text illustrations and artifacts to describe the town and the lives of its inhabitants. A visitors’ center houses a small museum and sponsors films about the history of the fort, as well as tours and living history presentations. Six miles from the fort, on the southern tip of the island, stands the Bloody Marsh Memorial, where the 1742 battle established Britain as the dominant colonial power of the southeastern region.
Inscoe, John C., ed. James Edward Oglethorpe: New Perspectives on His Life and Legacy. Savannah: Georgia Historical Society, 1997. A biography of Oglethorpe and a history of Georgia during the colonial period, circa 1600 to 1775. Ivers, Larry E. British Drums on the Southern Frontier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1974. An interesting, detailed, and very readable account of the military encounters between the British and Spanish during the colonization of Georgia in the 1730’s and 1740’s. Ivers includes colorful accounts of the battles around Fort Frederica. Peckham, Howard H. The Colonial Wars: 1698-1762. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. Chronicles the geopolitical background of the big colonial powers–France, England, and Spain–and provides a sweeping view of the southeastern United States between 1689 and 1762. Spalding, Phinizy. Oglethorpe in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. The definitive word on James Edward Oglethorpe and his influence on Georgia. Spalding, Phinizy, and Edwin L. Jackson. James Edward Oglethorpe: A New Look at Georgia’s Founder. Athens, University of Georgia, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, 1988. A broader, briefer outline of Oglethorpe’s Georgia connection. Spalding, Phinizy, and Harvey H. Jackson, eds. Oglethorpe in Perspective: Georgia’s Founder After Two Hundred Years. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989. A collection of essays by fellow historians to provide different views of Oglethorpe.