Words and images by Ryan Hutchins
If you appreciate a little history and have the urge to venture on a mini road trip, not even two hours up Interstate 95 are two hidden gems along coastal Georgia.
A pair of historic British forts, Fort Frederica and Fort King George, stand just 30 minutes apart from one another. It’s a perfect opportunity to take in some Georgia history while learning a couple things you may have not already known about Colonial America.
I know I hadn’t.
The two forts are located on St. Simons Island and in the town Darien and I’d never been to either part of Georgia before.
Fort Frederica on St. Simons was built in 1736 by the British, namely James Oglethorpe.
Frederica’s main purpose was to provide a buffer for the Southern colonies in the case of Spanish raids. At one time, Frederica had over 500 colonial residents living at the fort and was named after King George II’s son, Frederick Prince of Wales.
Fort King George in Darien is the oldest British fort on Georgia’s east coast. It was built in 1727 to provide the southernmost outpost for British troops.
These forts and others were built to encourage settling in the Southern regions along the Savannah and Altamaha rivers.
The first stop on my trip was Fort Frederica, which is a national monument and a U.S. National Park. It’s not your typical fort.
Fort Frederica was actually a place to live for many of the soldiers and families stationed at there. The fort is located at the edge of the river, but you can see the remnants of the streets and alleys and artifacts recovered from the different sites.
Frederica has become a hotbed for archaeologists, that’s one of the main takeaways I got from talking to volunteer Gail Lindeman and Fort Frederica site manager Steve Theus.
“Georgia was an important buffer colony,” Lindeman explained. “It kept distance between (British) South Carolina and the Spanish in Florida.”
On that day Lindeman was dressed in traditional women’s clothing of the time period and she was standing by a fire making pea soup and toasting bread. Her presence, along with that of many other volunteers at the historical site, added a sense of authenticity to the historic site.
The volunteers, who are there regularly, do a great job of interacting with the visitors and give a realistic feel to how the Colonists lived back in 1736.
In addition to the re-enactments by these volunteers, other events are also scheduled. They include guided tours, concerts and even an Arbor Day celebration in which one of the many massive oak trees on the property will be officially registered into a national live oak registry.
Theus hinted at even bigger upcoming celebrations.
“2016 is the centennial celebration of the National Parks Service, we’ll be doing special events year round leading up to the big national celebration in August,” Theus said.
Just up the road in the small coastal city of Darien is another old British fort, Fort King George, the oldest British fort on Georgia’s coast.
It was officially settled in July of 1721. Unfortunately due to its location on a marshland, the fort has been rebuilt twice. Historians believe the original location of the fort is actually where a cemetery on the property now lies.
At Fort King George the visitors’ center and museum contain historical artifacts from the fort. After I explored inside for a bit, it was time to go outside and do some more exploring.
Outside the visitors’ center is the replica of Fort King George. There are also model houses of the kind in which settlers used to live.
The remodeled fort is erected right on the marsh, looking out over the river. Canons line the fort walls and I even climbed to the top story of the fort, which gave an excellent view of the surroundings.
Walking back to the main building of the complex I had the opportunity to chat with two men who work at various forts and parks in the area. On this day, they were teaching guests about ball games the Colonists used to play.
For Alex Furness, who’s a Darien native, it’s a joy to give back to place he visited many times growing up.
“I remember coming here on field trips growing up and learning all about the Colonists and how they lived,” Furness said. “It’s cool to come back and teach people and kids about the fort and its history.”
Both Furness and his co-worker Patrick White agreed that few people seem to possess much historical knowledge about southeastern Georgia. Their job is to change that.
So the next time you find yourself with a spare weekend day, keep this coastal Georgia fort road trip in the back of your mind.
Not only will you gain a little bit of information about little-known spots, you’ll also find plenty of good old-fashioned Southern hospitality from the many volunteers and preservationists who make these forts alive again.