Fort Frederick: Strong, Unique, Still Standing

Fort Frederick
Strong, Unique, Still Standing

Fort Frederick is one of the largest fortifications built by English colonists in North America. It was unique because of its large size and strong stone wall. Most other forts of the period were built of wood and earth.
This fort was Maryland's frontier defense during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). In 1756, the Governor of Maryland, Horatio Sharpe, who personally directed much of the construction, began work on the fort, during the outset of the war.
The French and Indian War was the result of nearly a century of imperial rivalry between France and England over each other's claims in North America and elsewhere over the globe. The two nations had fought three major wars already without final resolution of the issue. In 1754, conflict broke out once again when a young Virginia militia colonel named George Washington was defeated in western Pennsylvania by a superior force of French. After Washington's defeat, the French unleashed their Indian allies all along the English frontier.
When disturbing reports of bloody ravages flooded into Annapolis, Sharpe persuaded the Maryland Assembly to vote for the funds so a major fort build on the colony's frontier may begin. Sharpe named the fort after Frederick Calvert, who was Lord Baltimore and Proprietor of Maryland.
The design of the fort conforms to the style developed early in the 18th century by Sebastien de Vauban, a French military engineer who is considered the father of modern fortification. The exterior of the fort lines are 355 feet from bastion point to bastion point. Its stone wall is about 18 feet high and at least three major buildings originally stood inside that wall.
Work on Fort Frederick lasted for about two years. Expenses mounted, compelling the assembly to cut off funds in 1758, although the fort seems to have been substantially complete by that time. The English capture of French Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh) late that same year relieved the pressure on the Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia frontiers. The war continued further north and on the high seas until 1760 when the English took the last major French control in Canada.
During the French war, a number of different types of troops camped at Fort Frederick and the other Maryland frontier posts such as Fort Tonoloway (Hancock, Maryland today).
Four hundred and fifty men of the Maryland forces were the most important group of soldiers to see service at Fort Frederick. This group was composed of men raised and supported by Maryland as provincial regulars. It is said that the Maryland troops were efficient and spirited soldiers accustomed to the guerilla style warfare of the frontier.
Actual military action never occurred at Fort Frederick during the war. However, it did serve as an important staging area and supply base for English operations further west.
After the fall of Duquesne, the Maryland Forces were disbanded and Fort Frederick was closed.
The fort did not see the end. In 1763, the Ottawa Chief Pontiac led a massive Indian revolt against the English. Governor Sharpe reactivated the fort and sent arms and militia to occupy it. Seven hundred area settlers flocked to the fort for protection. The Indians overwhelmed the new English Fort Pitt, (Duquesne's old site); they never got close to Fort Frederick. Pontiac's revolt was eventually stopped, and Fort Frederick was once again abandoned.
In 1777, because of America's odds with England over the home government's changes in imperial policy, the Continental Congress had Fort Frederick refurbished and back in military service--however, this time as a prison camp. By the end of the Revolution, thousands of British troops were kept there.
When the war finally ended, the new State of Maryland sold the fort and surrounding land at public auction. For the next century and more, the area had become farm land. For much of the 19th and the early 20th centuries, a family of free African-Americans owned and farmed the fort grounds. The family patriarch, Nathan Williams, first bought himself out of slavery, then the woman he planned to marry. They had many children and operated a successful farm there.
In 1922, the State repurchased the collapsing wall and neighboring land with the intentions of developing a new fort and turning it into a state park. In the 1930's, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) undertook archeology at the fort and rebuilt the wall and the stone foundations of the interior buildings, which had long since disappeared. The west barrack was restored, resembling the one that may have appeared in 1758. The east barrack was made into an interpretive center, telling the fort's history through displays and period furnishings.
The state and the CCC aren't finished yet. They plan to continue the fort's restoration in time to celebrate the fort's 250th anniversary in 2006.
The fort is open to visitors daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day and on weekends during the off-season. Special weekday tours for educational groups during the off-season can be arranged through the park's office. Summer activities include performances by volunteer reactivated military units, guided tours, audio-visual programs and a crafts program.
Fort Frederick State Park is located in the Cumberland Valley, 18 miles west of Hagerstown and one mile south of I-70 near Big Pool (Rt. 56, Exit 12) at 11100 Fort Frederick Road, Big Pool, MD.