About 22 miles (35 kilometres) north-east of downtown Tampa, FL, US Highway 301 crosses the Hillsborough River. Most travellers notice the large, well marked State Park entrance to the west. Few notice the small sign a little to the north on the other side of the two-lane road identifying Fort Foster, State Historic Site, next to the entry gate of 2 Rivers Ranch.
Even fewer know that there is full-size reconstruction of a fort from the The Second Seminole War on the site.
Shortly after the Territory of Florida came under the control of the United States a treaty was signed with the Seminole tribes. A military post and agency were established at Fort King, present-day Ocala, FL. A road was constructed to transport supplies to this post: The Fort King Military Road. When the road crew reached the Hillsborough River they found an area with a natural ford1; not far upstream of this spot the river was joined by a tributary, Blackwater Creek. A short distance downstream the river spreads into a marshy area known today as the Seventeen Runs. The area at the ford was the most logical place to cross, a bridge was built here in 1828. Today the route of the US highway generally follows the path of the old military road, quite often within a few hundred yards (meters) to either side.
After the Indian Removal Act was signed into law, Government relations with the Seminoles became strained. Without going into the details, the date of 1 January, 1836 was set to begin the Seminole's relocation. A few incidents of resistance occurred as the date approached. The most significant to this entry was the killing of Private Kinsley Dalton. While carrying dispatches between Fort Brooke and Fort King, he was shot and killed near the bridge crossing the Hillsborough River.
Major Dade's March
In late December 1835 a force was sent north to re-enforce the troops at Fort King, as the date set to remove the Seminoles from Florida had almost arrived. The command fell upon Major Francis Langhorn Dade, accompanied by eight officers, 100 men, a six-pounder cannon, and a supply wagon. On Christmas eve they reached the Hillsborough River and found the bridge had been burned. They camped there for the night in a hastily built compound and spent most of the following day fording the river.
Three days later the column would be ambushed by the Seminoles; all but three lay dead on the field by nightfall.
When General Scott ordered his three-prong attack for 25 March, 1836, the troops under Colonel Lindsay, marching north from Fort Brooke on Tampa Bay met resistance soon after crossing the Hillsborough River. On 18 March Colonel Lindsay ordered a temporary stockade to be built on the south bank of the crossing. He named it for the Alabama volunteers who composed the main force of his troops. He left a company2 to defend the post. By 27 March there were also about 30 men, too sick to continue duty in the field at the post. The Seminoles attacked; they killed and scalped one man who was outside the walls when they arrived. Two other men were wounded.
On 14 April Colonel Lindsay again moved his troops north into the field. On 17 April, while crossing the river at Fort Alabama, one of the teamsters, driving a wagon, was killed. Later that night one of the Alabama sentinels was wounded.
On 25 April the first man to venture through the stockade's gate was almost immediately struck by three rifle balls. On 27 April the post was ordered to be abandoned. A musket3 was placed in a barrel of gunpowder with a string tied to the door. The troops reported hearing a loud explosion while only about two miles (3.2 kilometres) from the post.
On 28 November, 1836, Colonel William Foster was ordered to re-establish Fort Alabama:
A strong picket work, with blockhouses4 at opposing angles, to be constructed without delay.320 men marched north with Colonel Foster on 30 November to begin construction.
General Jesup had been given over-all command of the troops in Florida. Having served as quartermaster of the Army, he understood the importance of supply. He was determined that adequate supplies would be available to the troops in the field without long marches away from their assigned areas of operation.
Construction of the Fort
The men, soon after arriving at the river, were divided into teams, one for each blockhouse, one for the picket wall, central storehouse and powder magazine, and a fourth was assigned to rebuild the bridge.
The fort was built from the native timber that surrounded the site. This not only provided an abundant supply of building material, but left a clear field of fire for those who would defend the fort.
The bridge built by Colonel Foster's troops was about 700 feet (213 meters) downstream of the earlier structure. This forced anyone crossing the river to expose themselves to the full effect of fire from the north-east wall of the fort. By 22 December the work was considered almost complete; Colonel Foster and the bulk of his troop were transferred north to the next proposed fort site. In late December General Jesup visited the fort and issued an order that its name be changed to Fort Foster.
The fort was stocked with supplies:
- 50,000 Rations
- 10,000 bushels of corn
- 50,000 ball and buckshot cartridges
- Rifle powder and balls for an additional 40,000 rounds.
Two cannons were also supplied for the defence of the post, a field piece and a howitzer5, each supplied with 100 rounds of suitable ammunition. While these quantities seem quite large, they would not last long with well over a thousand troops in the field.
From the first outbreak of hostilities the US Navy played an active role in the removal of the Seminoles. As early as 26 January, 1836, Three Revenue cutters (the period equivalent of the modern US Coast Guard) were transferred from the Treasury Department to Naval command. Reconnaissance up inlets and rivers were regularly conducted, as well as patrolling the straights between Florida and Cuba, to prevent any possible trading in weapons or powder.
During the afternoon of 1 January, 1837, Lieutenant Thomas Leib, of the sloop of war Concord was ordered to detached service, accompanied by 60 sailors and two midshipmen, to take command of Fort Alabama; evidently news of the name change had not yet reached the Navy.
When Lieutenant Leib arrived at the fort he found about 14 Army artillery men also under his command, a minimum number to man both of the cannons. Although the sailors were almost all well trained in serving the 'great guns' of their ships, the Army drill for their land-based cannon differed considerably from naval training. Perhaps they were just reluctant to share their precious weapons.
On 2 January a supply wagon arrived at Fort Foster carrying several barrels of whisky in addition to the expected supplies, with a note 'compliments of the commanding general'. While alcohol was strictly forbidden at army posts, at least among the enlisted troops, the Navy still practised the age old custom of 'grog call' every noon6. This was probably the General's recognition of the customs of the Navy.
With the fort packed full of supplies and several units coming in to partake of them, most of the troops were forced to camp outside the picket wall. In the event of an attack they could quickly retreat behind the protection of the walls. On 20 January Leib reported that several shots were fired into the campfire of a unit of Alabama Volunteers. On 4 February Leib sent another report that the post had been fired into on a sporadic basis, and on the previous day a party of Seminoles had been spotted on the opposite bank. It was seen that they were carrying a bucket with fire in it, and he believed they intended to burn the bridge. A few sharp volleys of musketry and a few rounds from the cannons drove them back into the hammock7. This would be the last time that guns were fired in anger at Fort Foster. After the attacks had been reported, several units of the US Marine Corps were added to the garrison at Fort Foster, bringing the total to about 150 men.
In early March of 1837 it appeared that the Seminoles were prepared to end the war8. The West India Squadron, to which Lieutenant Leib and his men belonged, had many responsibilities beyond the conflict in Florida. One of the concerns was the tensions between the newly won republics of Texas and Mexico. Even more serious were the French threats to blockade Mexican Ports. Both endangered the trade of US merchant ships. In late March the naval personnel were allowed to return to their ships and the Army resumed command of the post. The Seminoles began to gather at Fort Brooke, awaiting ships for their removal.
Army Command - Spring 1837
On 24 March, 1837, Brevet9 Major Richard Zantzinger of the US 2nd Artillery arrived at Fort Foster to take command. Although the full strength of the command placed the total at about 350 men, it appears that the actual number of troops at the fort at this time were always fewer than 200.
In an interesting twist of fate, one of the missions of Fort Foster, a long day's march away from Fort Brooke, was to protect the Seminoles from those who wished to profit at their expense. Whiskey dealers, slave catchers and fast talking conmen were not allowed to pass the post. The Seminoles who wished to join the others at Fort Brooke were helped along their way.
By late spring the health risks became apparent. The officer in charge of the medical department of the fort, Assistant Surgeon Baldwin, reported that cases of illness were increasing at an alarming rate. In his report Dr. Baldwin cited cases of dysentery or diarrhoea, scurvy and the 'usual diseases of the region10', all of which he attributed to the 'Miasmic Gases' rising from the nearby marshes.
The troops garrisoned at the post were reduced in mid May and it was totally abandoned by the middle of June. There has been much speculation why the post was not destroyed by the Seminoles. Conclusions range from the fact it was no longer a strategic position, to fear that another trap like the explosion at Fort Alabama might have been left behind. We will never know the true answer.
Fall 1837 to Spring 1838
When the cooler fall weather arrived the troops were again sent into the field. In late October Brevet Major Francis S Belton was ordered to re-establish the post at Fort Foster. He had about 60 men under his command. The isolation of the post was relieved to some extent by allowing a merchant to travel regularly to the post and sell approved goods to the soldiers. How much contraband such as alcohol and gaming paraphernalia were smuggled into the post is not recorded.
After the major battles with the Seminoles in South Florida in late December it became obvious to the men at Fort Foster that they were just another outpost, far removed from the seat of war. General Jesup was replaced by the hero of the Battle of Okeechobee, newly promoted General Zachary Taylor. As the hot summer months again approached, with the threat of illness, the fort was abandoned once more. It would not be occupied again during the conflict.
This period has the most detailed accounts of the day to day activity at the fort, thanks to the letters of 2nd Lieutenant William Warren Chapman11 to his fiancé, later wife, Helen Blair. These letters were preserved by their descendants.
Major Belton appointed Chapman, a recent graduate of West Point Academy, Assistant Commissary of Subsistence and Quarter Master of Fort Foster. He reports erecting several out-buildings: store houses, officer quarters and a blacksmith shop, as part of the restoration of the post. He writes about hunting in the hammocks near the post, shooting alligators for sport and sand-hill cranes12 for food. He also addresses the apparent success of the war and their Christmas celebration at the fort. By April Lieutenant Chapman found himself in command of the post, due to illness among the senior officers.
Deaths at Fort Foster
There are reports of only four deaths at Fort Foster, none from enemy action. This does not include any from Fort Alabama or among the Seminoles, who usually carried off their dead. At least two, more probably three, Seminoles were killed at the explosion when Fort Alabama was abandoned.
- William Hawk Disease Unknown 31 Oct 1837
- John Jones Disease Unknown 17 Dec 1837
- Joseph Gordon Unknown Disease 26 Jan 1838
- John Byrne Typhus Fever 9 Mar 1838
After the Green Corn Festival13 in 1849, a small group of half a dozen or fewer young men made a few attacks on settlements. Speculations are that they were rebuked by the tribe at the festival and were acting in defiance to embarrass the elders. In any event, they attacked a small settlement on the Indian River north of Fort Pierce. Here they killed one man, wounded another, then they burned or pillaged several of the homes.
They then crossed the state14 to attack the Kennedy Darling store on Payne's Creek near Port Charlotte. Here they killed two men, wounded a third, and looted the store.
Rumours of the attacks spread and grew larger with the re-telling. Soon tales about a band of at least one hundred Seminoles running amok threw the public into panic; troops were sent into Florida. Fort Foster was briefly re-activated at this time. When the Seminole leaders themselves arrested the criminals and turned them over to the Army, the scare subsided.
The road known today as US Highway 301 was built around 1934, bypassing what remained of the old log fort. Little is known of this time in the fort's history. One Researcher will share a story from a visitor:
As I recall it was in the late 1990s, we were hosting an event and several hundred visitors were touring the fort and camps. I saw a woman who appeared to have earned the title senior citizen through years of service. She seemed to be alone, I approached and asked if she had any questions.
'I knew this place as a little girl', she began, 'My father raised hogs near Zephyrhills. Once a year we would drive them to market in Tampa. When we reached the river we would swim them across rather than risk the danger of traffic on the [US 301] bridge. After the crossing we used to pen them up for the night here, there was still a corner or two of the old picket wall standing, we completed the pen with some wire.'
Sometime in the late 1930s a wildfire swept through this area and the next year it was all gone.
The effort to preserve the fort site reached its first significant milestone on 13 June, 1972, when it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. A full archaeological investigation was conducted at the site. The exact position of all the walls and buildings were recorded from the 'post moulds'. Several artefacts were also recovered, many of them are on display at the small interpretive centre in the park across the highway.
After many years of planning and almost a year in construction, the site was ready for its first tour in January 1980.
Park rangers began conducting tours by tram from the park's interpretive centre. Many rangers wore period Army uniforms, rather than their official park uniforms. A number of volunteers soon began arriving at the site, providing an image of an active post. Some would sit near a campfire boiling coffee, others would be cleaning their weapons, a few would even lie in the infirmary imitating the effects of fever.
Another group, portraying the Native Americans, also joined the site. While most represented the hostile Seminoles, a few presented the story of the Creeks, and other tribes, who volunteered to act as scouts and guides for the Army, with the hope of avoiding, or at least delaying, their own removal.
In the late 1980s a crew had been working at the Fort Foster site. At noon they all returned to the state park for lunch. When they returned to complete their projects they found the east blockhouse fully engulfed in flames. The fire departments were called as well as the park's own fire-fighting detachment. Before the fire was contained, the blockhouse was totally lost, as well as a good part of the picket wall. Even today singed areas can be seen on the south-east walls of the storehouse and powder magazine by an informed observer. Many casual visitors mistake these as merely the ageing of the logs.
By 1992 the funds were in place for repairs. The blockhouse was rebuilt and the entire picket wall replaced. The work was interrupted for several months due to the severe destruction of property in South Florida by Hurricane Andrew. Restoring entire communities was rightfully put ahead of the desires of those who loved the fort. At last the work was completed and tours resumed.
The Site Today
At the time of this writing, spring 2012, the fort is available for tours by the staff of Hillsborough River State park. Public tours are given weekends, Saturday at 2:00pm and sometimes at 4:00pm, depending on demand, also at 11:00am on Sundays. Tour times are arranged for the convenience of those staying at the park's large camp grounds and campers usually make up a large portion of the visitors, although many come just for the tours. Special tours can be arranged at almost any time for groups with sufficient interest.
Again at the time of this writing there are two major events held at the fort every year:
A large festival is held in the middle of February, usually the third weekend15, this is the Fort Foster Rendevous. Outside the fort's walls many people portraying the Mountain Men16 of the early US frontier set up camps and stores. While the activity portrayed was far from the territory of Florida, much of it was still occurring at the same time the fort was active.
Inside the picket walls the soldiers continue to tell the story of the fort. Across the river the Seminoles set up elaborate camps. There is always an attack, the Seminoles will attempt to burn the bridge and the Mountain Men join the Militia, unless they cross the bridge before the battle and fight for the other side. The muskets bark and the cannons roar. For less than an hour Fort Foster is again in action, but soon peace is restored.
Several of the volunteers at Fort Foster objected to the carnival atmosphere of the Rendevous.
A second event to be held on the 2nd weekend of December was planned, with the goal of showing how the actual defence of the post was conducted. This has been very successful, particularly as it has evolved into a night-time event (starting shortly before sunset). After the visitors have had an opportunity to examine the fort, enjoy cider and cookies, perhaps listen to some period music, the Seminoles will attack.
The night is split by the long, orange burst of flame from the muzzles of black-powder rifles and muskets. The roar of the cannon is louder and brighter as it punctuates the skirmish. Again the battle is short, but it helps to bring a long forgotten struggle back to life for a moment. We all respect those who suffered on both sides.
The Garrison of Fort Foster
The staff and volunteers at Fort Foster are a diverse group. While the Rangers are assigned to the fort as a part of their paid duties, many of them have had a keen interest in history and have requested the assignment for that reason. Others who have joined the park service for an interest in environmental protection, when assigned to the fort soon acquire an interest in the site and its history.
The other component of the garrison are the Volunteers. They come from many different backgrounds and education. All of the garrison have some interest in the history of the fort. These range from the actual historic events surrounding the post, the correct uniforms and equipment of the troops, the military tactics and manoeuvres employed, to a vague interest in the personal lives of the private soldiers who were, or may have been, stationed there.
On the Seminole side there are some who can trace their own family to Native American ancestors, and others who are not sure, but identify with the Seminole cause. Among the Seminoles interests also vary widely. Some have a primary interest in dress, craft and beadwork. Others study language, culture and their stories about nature. A few study the ceremonies and religions of the Seminoles.
Why Fort Foster?
In the larger view of history Fort Foster was a minor outpost that served a useful, although brief role in the history of Florida. Compared to the Castillo San Marcos in St Augustine, or Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Fort Foster is almost insignificant. Perhaps little more than a general store in a log cabin to the casual observer, for the men who lived, and the few who died here it was perhaps the most important place in the world while they were posted there.
This site is the ideal place to present the tedium of war, not a grand battle or a heroic stand, just a supply post that did its duty.