Our Freda's Fort

John & Susan Simpson
Sat 11 Jun 2022 23:18
St Simon’s Island is a 200 mile drive north from New Smyrna Beach into Georgia.  Today it's a small coastal town on the Intra Coastal Waterway (ICW) with sandy beaches, gift shops, boutiques, cafes, restaurants and a fisherman’s pier.

On our history tour of early British colonial settlements we’ve stepped back in time from the settlement at New Smyrna Beach (1768) to the early 1700’s when Great Britain had established colonies from Maine down to Carolina and Spain still held Florida further south.  Britain planted the Georgia colony as a buffer on the southern frontier to protect its established colonies from Spanish attack.  In the 1720’s there was a mood to do something about the huge numbers of unemployed people or jailed debtors in England, Georgia provided an opportunity.  Prominent Englishmen petitioned the King for a land grant south of the Savannah river and a vast tract of land larger than Britain itself was granted.  Money was raised and in January 1733 James Oglethorpe and the first shipload of 114 people arrived from England to form the settlement which is now Savannah, Georgia. 

Spain saw the creation of Georgia as a threat to their Florida territory and by 1734 James Oglethorpe was scouting for suitable places to build fortified settlements to protect Savannah from Spanish attack.  St Simon’s island provided the perfect place and in 1736 he founded Frederica (named after King George’s only son Prince Frederick - not sure why he used the feminine form but my Grandma, aka ‘our Freda’, would have approved!).  Fort Frederica was built first, swiftly followed by a small town of 84 lots of land, most 60 x 90 feet.  Each family was given a lot of land and 50 acres for crops.  The first dwellings, huts made of palms, were replaced by houses built of wood and stone.  The main street stretched from the fort to the town gates and was shaded with Orange trees.  The population reached about 500 and tradespeople, such as bakers and blacksmiths, supported Oglethorpe’s regiment of soldiers.  Despite several skirmishes between the British at Fort Frederica and Spanish at St Augustine, neither fell to the other through battle.  Oglethorpe sailed to England for the last time in 1743 and his regiment was disbanded in 1749.  Without the soldiers, Frederica could no longer prosper and the town was reported to have fallen into ruin by 1758.

Fort Frederica is a US national monument and we were impressed by what we saw there.  Although very little is left of the town besides the moat, some of the fort and the stone foundations of the houses, the site itself is impressive and it’s possible to get a feel for the scale of the grid system on which the town is built.  We liked the idea of the town giving people a second chance at life and James Oglethorpe’s efforts did seem to fare better than those of Dr Turnbull at New Smyrna Beach.  It may be that the layout of the town helped; a central street surrounded by a community of houses.  Dr Turnbull’s plan for New Smyrna was to space the houses in a long line along the banks of the river, which apparently didn’t give a sense of community there. 
Fort Frederica is placed on a bend in the river so that cannons could have fired on ships coming from either direction

St Simon’s Island was - and still is - covered in Live Oak trees.  They’re very impressive with their covering of dangling Spanish Moss, which was used to stuff mattresses and even for making clothing.  This is a view of the site of Frederica town and the Live Oak would have been cleared in order to build the houses.  Even this specimen, which was the oldest on the site, was too young to have been there in 1738.

We were surprised to see references to John and Charles Wesley in Fort Frederica.  The Wesleys sailed for Savannah in 1735 at the request of James Oglethorpe and John Wesley became the first minister in the newly formed Savannah parish.  It was on the voyage to Savannah that John Wesley first came into contact with Moravian settlers and their religious practices heavily influenced his ideas in developing his theology of Methodism.  John Wesley fled the colony and returned to England in 1737 after he became involved in a legal dispute over denying Communion to a young lady with whom he had been in love but who had married another man when Wesley decided he needed to remain celibate.  As all that happened in only two years it seems that life was lived at an intense pace in the colonies!

Next stop on our American history tour …. St Augustine, Florida.