ARTS AND HUMANITIES: One town prospers, another one fails

December 14, 2018

Almost everyone is familiar with the founding of Augusta in 1736 as a buffer between the nascent Georgia colony and French interests in what is now Alabama. That same year, James Oglethorpe established yet another fortified town – this one on St. Simon’s island – to protect English colonial settlements from any attacks from the Spanish in Florida. The purpose of each town, protecting British interests against the encroachment of that country’s two biggest continental rivals, was the same; but their fates could not have been more different.

As was the custom for Britain’s overseas colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, place names were often selected to honor members of the royal family. Thus, Oglethorpe and his fellow trustees named their colony, the last of the original 13, after George II. Frederica on St. Simon’s was named after Frederick Louis, George II’s eldest son and heir to the throne; Augusta was named after his wife, Princess Augusta.

Noble Jones, one of Oglethorpe’s most capable followers, laid out Augusta. Extending from the fort on the river was to be a grid composed of 40 house lots. A similar rectilinear plan was chosen for Frederica. Moving from the fort set on the inland waterway – sometimes called the Frederica River – is a grid of 84 lots, most 60 by 90 feet. The principal downtown roadway in both Augusta and Frederica was called Broad Street.

Although Oglethorpe visited Augusta only once – he stopped in town for about 10 days after negotiating a treaty with neighboring tribes – what was once the colony’s western outpost and trading center prospered from its inception. In contrast, Frederica, where Oglethorpe himself set up a personal residence for a time, ceased to exist as a municipality by the end of the 18th century.

Augusta flourished ultimately as a commercial center; Frederica rapidly declined after it had served its defensive military purpose. From the fortified town on St. Simons, Oglethorpe led in 1740 an expedition of 900 soldiers and an equal number of Native Americans into Florida to attack St. Augustine. When that plan misfired disastrously, Oglethorpe expected a Spanish counterattack; and it came in 1742. Approximately 3,000 Spanish troops landed on St. Simons but were repulsed in the Battle of Bloody Marsh.

In essence, the British-Spanish military conflict ended in a stalemate. With no more British incursions into Florida planned and no further Spanish attacks expected, however, Frederica lost its principal reason for being. The soldiers were assigned elsewhere, and the fort fell into decay. A 1758 fire ravaged most of the town, and successive hurricanes left part of the island submerged.

On a recent trip to Florida, I visited the beautifully preserved Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fortress in our country and the bastion that successfully protected the citizens of St. Augustine and the interests of Spanish America. Travelling back to Aiken, I wanted to stop on St. Simon’s to see what remained of the fortified town that served as the Castillo’s opposite number in the struggle to gain supremacy over our South Atlantic coast.

Now administered by the National Park Service, just like the Castillo de San Marcos, Fort Frederica is only a fractured fragment of its former self. All that remains of the fort are the north wall of the magazine and the tower of the barracks; all that remains of the town are the foundations of some of the homes and places of business. Still, as one strolls down the grassy verges that once were busy streets toward the river and what remains of the military fortification, history can come alive to the discerning visitor.

A stop at the welcome center helps charge the imagination. The 23-minute video entitled “History Uncovered” provides basic information, and a host of informational placards and showcased artifacts found on site enhance the National Park Service’s narrative of the town’s importance during the colonial period. The fact that most of the town’s original footprint is intact and carefully preserved since 1945 is worthy of note.

Augusta’s colonial counterpart, Frederica, may no longer be a bustling municipality. Yet, what remains brings us closer to the story of our country’s roots.

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