Fort Frederick Heritage Preserve — an Update
At just three acres, tiny Fort Frederick Heritage Preserve in Beaufort County is one of the smallest properties among the 74 cultural and natural preserves and seabird sanctuaries overseen by the SCDNR’s Heritage Trust program, a part of the agency’s Land, Water and Conservation Division. But Fort Frederick packs a big punch in terms of its cultural, historical and archaeological value. Fort Frederick Heritage Preserve was acquired and dedicated in September 1999 to protect a Colonial British tabby fort and its associated archaeological remains. SCDNR accepted the donation of the property through the National Park Service Federal Surplus Property for Public Park or Recreational Purposes program. The property was ranked as the 30th most critically significant cultural site in the 1990 Statewide Assessment of Cultural Sites. The preserve may also soon have a role to play in Beaufort’s Reconstruction Era National Historic Monument, recently designated by the National Park Service.
Fort Frederick isn’t currently open for public visitation. The remains of the tabby-walled fort constructed by the British Colonial government in the early 1730s are located immediately behind the U.S. Naval Hospital in Port Royal, S.C., on the banks of the Beaufort River. A small boat ramp that once provided access to the preserve was closed after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks due to national security concerns. Since that time, public access to the preserve has been limited, but in 2014, Beaufort County began moving forward with plans to build a new boat ramp adjacent to the property, which would again provide an avenue for the public to be able to visit this unique historic site. In late 2014 and early 2015, archaeologists with the SCDNR and the Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of South Carolina in Columbia began excavating the site to inventory what might be there beneath the ground. In addition, the fort’s remaining tabby walls were rebuilt with fresh tabby in order to both give visitors a more complete picture of what the original structure looked like and to protect the remaining original tabby material. All of this work, which included a series of “public days” when school groups and other member of the public could visit the site and learn about the project was captured in a series of award-winning documentary videos.
The fort is believed to be the oldest tabby structure in South Carolina. It was built in its strategic location along the Beaufort River to serve as a defense against possible attacks by the Spanish, and as an outpost that could signal to the upriver settlements of “Beaufort Town” (via cannon fire) whenever a ship approached from the river’s entrance on Port Royal Sound. In fact, a portion of the fort’s walls now extend into the river, a result of it’s changing course slightly over the intervening 200-plus years. The fort was occupied by regular British troops until 1757. It’s role in Colonial-era history would be relegated to just a footnote, but the property would also later become a major part of this region’s Civil-War era history, after federal troops occupied the South Carolina Sea Islands shortly after the beginning of the war. By that time, the old fort’s walls had become a part of “Smith’s Plantation” and were used as supports for a crude dock used by boats serving the planation. When federal troops advanced on Beaufort, local plantation owners retreated to safety, and Smith’s Plantation eventually became “Fort Saxton,” a key stronghold for the federal army in the Lowcountry and a gathering point for African slaves freed from the plantations in the area. Camp Saxton soon became the headquarters for the 1st South Carolina Regiment of Volunteers, a regiment of African-American soldiers, and on New Year’s Day 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was read aloud for the first time in South Carolina to a crowd estimated to be in the thousands – made up of both whites and freed slaves. Many who came to the celebration arrived at Camp Saxton via boat and were most likely unaware that they were treading across tabby walls built some one-hundred-thirty years earlier, in response to the fears of a very different conflict.
Fast forward to this past January, when, after a powerful community-based advocacy campaign, Camp Saxton was included as one of several initial sites included in what will be a National Monument to the Reconstruction era in Beaufort County. Other sites will include the historic Brick Church and Darrah Hall at the Penn Center on nearby St. Helena Island, where after the war’s end, freed slaves gathered to worship and begin learning the skills needed to survive and prosper as free citizens in the post-war South. The rest, as they say, is history, in all its complicated and fascinating glory, and there is no doubt that the new National Monument will provide a boost to the area’s fast-growing reputation as a must-visit spot for “historic tourism.” Whether in Colonial times, the Civil War era and Reconstruction, and beyond, the Lowcountry of South Carolina has played a pivotal role in the history of the nation in many ways. There is a huge appetite for destination travel and educational experiences among people interested in that history, which tourism-oriented businesses in the area will be well-positioned to capitalize on once plans for the new National Monument are in place and Fort Frederick Heritage Preserve is able to be opened to the public.
At this point, it isn’t clear yet exactly how the Fort Frederick property will dovetail with what is planned for the National Monument’s Camp Saxton site on the adjacent U. S. Naval Hospital, but SCDNR officials been in contact with the National Park Service about these plans, and the SCDNR will work with the Park Service as a plan for the National Monument is developed. Beaufort County is also moving forward with its plans to develop a public boat ramp and access on county-owned property adjacent to Fort Frederick. That process has been slow, requiring wetlands activity permits and a mitigation plan approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, but it is still on track.
With all this activity sure to bring more visitors to the surrounding area and shining a welcome light on the important history of the Fort Frederick site, it seems certain that at some point in the not-too-distant future, visitors will be able to come and see first-hand this important Heritage Trust program cultural preserve and learn more about the role of Fort Frederick’s tabby walls in the early history of South Carolina.