Fort Frederick Heritage Preserve

The date was January 1, 1863, when former enslaved Beaufortonians crossed over into Fort Frederick from Port Royal, Beaufort, and the surrounding sea islands to hear the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in the southern states. This event marked the most dynamic occurrence in the fort’s 289-year history.

Fort Frederick was built by the British colonial government between 1733 and 1735. It is the oldest surviving tabby fort in South Carolina and the oldest tabby structure in Beaufort County. Tabby was a building material used in the early days of the coastal south. Sand, lime, oyster shells and water were burned and mixed to form an early version of concrete. Tabby was poured into molds to form foundations, walls, columns, and blocks. Examples of tabby can still be seen all throughout the historic district of Beaufort. Even the city’s sea wall is made from tabby.

Fort Frederick was established after the Yemassee War in Port Royal to protect against possible attacks by the Spanish. It also served as an outpost to signal “Beaufort Town” of approaching ships. The fort remained active until 1758. The small 75-ft by 125 ft fort contained barracks, a powder magazine and gun platforms. It was located along the Beaufort River behind a parapet with a battery of guns protecting the river and town of Beaufort.

British Regulars were posted at the fort, but luckily never saw attack. A larger, stronger fort was established just upriver, and Fort Frederick was abandoned.  The deserted fort fell into disrepair and wouldn’t see use again until 1861. Union Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson brought activity back to the fort site after the Battle of Port Royal. After the historic reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, newly freed citizens were given the opportunity to enlist in the Union Army. He and his new regiment of black soldiers used the property as headquarters. The site was named Camp Saxon, after General Rufus Saxon, commander of the Beaufort District.

Before the start of the Civil War, Fort Frederick was absorbed into the Smith Plantation. Parts of the tabby structure were used as a dock for boats serving the plantation. During Beaufort’s “Great Skedaddle” Smith’s Plantation was abandoned, and the Union troops moved in. Colonel Higginson and his new soldiers would become the African American 1st South Carolina Regiment of Volunteers. Together they listened to the first reading of the Emancipation in the center of a crowd which was estimated well into the thousands. In 1863 the fort and its surrounding plantation land were sold for non-payment of $93.40 in back taxes. The US government purchased the property for $1,000.00. Part of this site was developed into the US Naval Hospital in 1949.

Image from the SC Department of Natural Resources.

Archaeologists with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of South Carolina excavated the site in 2014 to inventory the grounds. They also rebuilt the remaining tabby walls to give visitors a more complete image of what the fort once looked like. This work also protected the remaining tabby material. A portion of the structure is underwater today due to the river changing course.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Beaufort County now maintain the area as the Fort Frederick Heritage Preserve. The six-acre park is a mix of hardwood forest, maritime forest, and salt marshes on the Beaufort River. Located at 601 Old Fort Road in Port Royal, the preserve is open to the public daily, from dawn to dusk. The preserve includes a public access point, parking area and picnic pavilion, as well as the tabby fort ruins.

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