Fort Frederick: Protecting its people

April 15, 2012|By PAT SCHOOLEY | Special to The Herald-Mail

BIG POOL — This is the 192nd in a series of articles about the historical and architectural treasures of Washington County.

The French and Indian War, the New World extension of a great European conflict between England and France, arrived in Maryland on July 9, 1755.

Gen. Edward Braddock, commander in chief of British Colonial forces, fought with French forces near Fort Duquesne, which was located at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. The British defeat and death of Braddock opened the area to savage attacks upon the farmers who had moved to the frontiers of Maryland.

On Oct. 4, 1755, Lt. Col. Adam Stephen of the Virginia troops wrote George Washington, then a 23-year-old officer in the Virginia Regiment and survivor of the Braddock campaign:

"Matters are in the most deplorable Situation at Fort Cumberland ... Our Communication with the Inhabitants is Cut Off. By the best Judges of Indian Affairs, it's thought there are at least 150 Indians about us & ... They divided into small parties, have Cut Off the Settlement of Paterson's Creek, Patowmack, Above Cresops (Thomas Cresap), and the People on Town Ck about four miles below his house & ... They go about and Commit their Outrages at all hours of the day and nothing is to be seen or heard of, but Desolation and murders heightened with all Barbarous Circumstances, and unheard of Instances of Cruelty."

At that time, the only major fortification in Maryland was Fort Cumberland, an outpost along the frontier where westward-moving Maryland settlers encountered French colonists and their native American Indian allies from New France (Canada).

Maryland was unable to protect its residents on the frontier, and many were abandoning their homes and retreating east after murders and atrocities were perpetrated on their neighbors. Fort Cumberland was located too far away from major settlements in the colony to protect its inhabitants.

Building of the fort

The Maryland Assembly's Lower House finally voted funds for a frontier fort in March of 1756, but the Upper House did not approve this taxation. Thomas Cresap, who lived near present-day Oldtown, gathered a group of armed frontiersmen at Frederick and threatened to march on Annapolis if the Assembly did not approve protection for the frontier. The Assembly finally agreed to build a fort at North Mountain, 60 miles east of Fort Cumberland.

Colonial Governor of Maryland Horatio Sharpe had preferred the forks of the North and South branches of the Potomac as the site for a fort, but unable to persuade them, deferred to the Assembly's choice and arrived at North Mountain in June 1756 with 150 men to build the fort there instead.

He wrote, "My presence here will, I apprehend be absolutely necessary till the Work is pretty far advanced all our Men being raw & undisciplined & all our Officers ignorant of everything that relates to Fortifications or Place of Defence."

He purchased 149 acres of land, parts of land patents "Skie Thorn" and "Johnsons Lot," next to the Potomac River near present day Big Pool. Because he understood the weaknesses of wooden forts, Sharpe insisted that the walls of Fort Frederick, (which he named after Frederick Calvert, the sixth Lord Baltimore and Proprietor of Maryland), be built of sandstone, which could be found nearby.

After the enlisted men's barracks were completed, Sharpe returned to Annapolis Aug. 16 to learn that Fort Granville, a wooden fort in Pennsylvania, had been attacked by a French and Indian war party.

These attackers set the fort on fire, killing several of the soldiers who were trying to put the fire out and taking the rest captive.

Sharpe wrote, "This Accident has a good deal alarmed the Inhabitants of Pens while it makes our people see the Expediency of my building Fort Frederick of Stone, which measure alone (tho it is expensive) is the only one that can secure a Garrison against the Savages conducted by European Officers as it is certain these Indian Parties are."

Roughly square in shape, 180 feet on a side, with bastions at the corners, the fort measured about 360 feet from bastion point to bastion point. Walls were 17 to 18 feet tall and three-feet thick, with the bastions tapered from four feet at the base to two feet at the top. The only entrance centers on the south wall and is closed by a large, two-leaf wooden gate with a smaller wicket gate in it, which opened to admit individuals. Sentries guarded the gate, and the large main gate was opened only for wagons. The northeast bastion was filled with earth and may have been the location of an underground gunpowder magazine.

Two enlisted men's barracks ran parallel to the east and west walls. These two-story wooden buildings were 118 feet by 28 feet, clad in clapboard, with porches. The officers' quarters, parallel to the north wall, was 96 feet by 28 feet. It had two stories and was built in the Georgian style with arched doors and windows.

At the northeast end of the barracks was a well. James Kenny, a wagon driver who delivered supplies to the fort, describes a guardhouse somewhere in the compound and "a great space in the middle." Kenny also describes a small village of about 18 houses outside the fort.

The original 1756 money bill passed by the Maryland Assembly supported two companies of Maryland Troops to be stationed at Fort Frederick, with a third company activated Nov. 1, 1756. Two more companies were raised for a total of 500 troops. These troops were paid professional soldiers and were highly respected for their fighting abilities. All five of these companies were supported until Oct. 8, 1757, and were mustered out between May 1758 and April 1759.

Another type of soldier which served at Fort Frederick was the Maryland Militia. Gov. Sharpe estimated that Maryland had about 26,000 white men who were physically able to bear arms.

However, civil officers, members of certain trades, servants and Roman Catholics were exempted from service.

He went on to say, "The militia of this Colony are near 16,500, One third of whom at least are entirely destitute of Arms & many of the Guns that are the property of the Rest are very bad & scarcely fit for use. For want of a proper Militia Law (which the assembly has been frequently in vain solicited to make) the people are undisciplined as well as badly armed & cannot be compelled to serve in Defence of the County."

Things were not easy for the governor.

In 1758 another expedition against Fort Duquesne was planned, led by Gen. John Forbes. Fort Frederick was considered as a staging area for this campaign, but on April 10, 1758, George Washington wrote to Gen. John Stanwix:

"Ft. Frederick, I hear, is mentioned for this purpose, & in my humble opinion, a little improperly: In the first place, because the country people all around are fled, and the troops will, consequently, lack those refreshments so needful to Soldiers. In the next place; I am fully convinced there never can be a road made between Fort Frederick and Fort Cumberland that will admit the transportation of carriages: for I have passed it with many others, who were of the same opinion. And, lastly-because this is the place to which all Indian parties, either going to or returning from war, will inevitably repair."

This opinion, followed by an outbreak of smallpox at Fort Frederick in May, further diminished the fort's roll in the Forbes' expedition to that of a supply base, but this, none the less, was an important part of the battle. Faced with Forbes' advancing army, lack of supplies and deserting Indian allies, the remaining French forces at Fort Duquesne blew up their fort on Nov. 24, 1758, and disappeared.

By December 1760, the need for Fort Frederick had passed, and the governor was charged with leasing the land "in the best manner he can so as to preserve the House already built thereon and that the Rent for the same be paid to the Governor to be applied by him for the Countrys Service in such manner as he shall think necessary."

Dr. Henry Heinzman leased the fort for 30 pounds a year, "Whereas there is not any garrison or soldiers at the said Fort Frederick, and several persons who live at or near the said fort do, and if not prevented, will continue to make great waste and destruction of the said fort and improvements by burning the planks and other materials."

In 1763, when Chief Pontiac besieged Fort Pitt, 700 settlers took refuge in Fort Frederick.

After the war

In 1778, it was used as a prisoner of war camp during the American Revolutionary War.

In 1791, Maryland sold the fort at auction to Robert Johnson for 375 pounds, and it became part of a farming operation. During the Civil War, companies of Maryland infantry occupied the fort to protect the C&O Canal and the B&O Railroad. On Christmas Day 1861, these troops repulsed a Confederate attack, the only military battle ever fought at Fort Frederick.

Just before the Civil War, Nathan Williams, a black man who had purchased his family's freedom, bought the fort. The great stone walls corralled livestock; one of the bastions was destroyed to build a bank barn. After 51 years, Williams' family fell into debt and had to sell the farm to Homer J. Cavenaugh on Jan. 3, 1911.

The fort languished, forgotten, slowly decaying, until the remains of the great stone walls were rediscovered by one of the founders of the Maryland Historical Society. Once the Society had published Gov. Sharpe's correspondence, prominent Marylanders began lobbying the state to acquire the fort to preserve its history.

In 1922, Maryland purchased the remains of the fort and 189.5 acres of land surrounding it for $12,000 in order to reconstruct the fort and to create a state park. This has been no easy task. No original plans for the fort have been found, and the Colonial Assembly's reluctance to provide money for its construction makes it uncertain that the fort was ever even finished.

During the 1930s, a Civilian Conservation Corps was told to reconstruct the fort. They established the foundations of the three structures in the acre and a half enclosed space, but, without the aid of a professional archaeologist, most of the artifacts ended in CCC backfill.

When the nation began to prepare for its bicentennial, another push to reconstruct the fort began. Contractors were hired before research was done.  A 1778 letter from Samuel Hughes to Gov. Thomas Johnson was discovered that described the barracks as two-story frame structures with porches. Using archaeology, period documents and details of similar structures, barracks were built within the fort. The fort was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1973.

With the fort's 250th anniversary approaching in 2006, funds were designated to reconstruct the officers' barracks. Ground was broken, but the project never got off the ground as state agencies could not come to consensus about what this structure had looked like.

Just recently, it has been decided that the money reserved for this project will be used for repair projects around the fort.

It is another pause in the fort's existence. Some later group will take up the cause, some new information will be found, but the fort continues to enhance our lives and instruct us of our past and of all its mysteries.


 Bastion: a projecting portion of a fortification designed to allow defense of the curtain walls and crossfire between bastions.

Wicket gate: a small gate built into a larger gate.

If you go ...       

What: 18th Century Market Fair

When: Thursday, April 26, through Sunday, April 29

Where: Fort Frederick, 11000 Fort Frederick Road, Big Pool

Cost: Admission costs $3; $2, ages 6 to 12; free for ages 5 and younger.

Contact: Call 301-842-2155 or go to

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