Fort Frederick – Frontier Outpost in Washington County


Bone buttons and button blanks from Fort Frederick.  Photo:  MAC Lab

In the mid-1750s, the Maryland frontier was a place of uncertainty and fear as the threat of war loomed large. French expansion from the north into the Ohio River Valley was at odds with Britain’s claims to control of the North American colonies as it spread ever-westward.  By the 1740s, British had begun trading with Native Americans in the Ohio Valley, infringing on previously-established French trade relationships. Tensions eventually erupted into armed conflict in May of 1754, with French forces defeating George Washington during a dispute over control of the French Fort Duquesne.  Several additional defeats the following year led the British to officially declare war on France in 1756 (Cowley and Parker 1996). The French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War) ended in British victory in 1763 with the French ceding New France east of the Mississippi to Great Britain.

Fort Frederick, located in Maryland’s Washington County, was built as an English stronghold during the French and Indian War. Serving primarily as a staging area for the British, the fort did not see any battles during the war, although provincial troops from Virginia and North Carolina, county militia groups and a company of royal regulars were garrisoned there for frontier duty.  In 1763 the fort was occupied briefly, both by troops and nearby residents seeking protection during the Pontiac Rebellion. During the American Revolution, captured British troops were imprisoned at the fort (Fort Frederick 2017).  The fort was eventually abandoned altogether and the land sold and farmed.  Today, the fort walls and some of the buildings have been reconstructed to their 1758 appearance and it serves as a state park.

The fort at Fort Frederick State Park

The reconstructed Fort Frederick today.

The fort has been investigated archaeologically several times since it was acquired by the State of Maryland in 1922 (Boyd et al. 2001).  Artifacts recovered inside the fort walls paint a picture of military life on the frontier. In addition to military equipment like musket balls, gunflints, shot molds and bayonet fragments, other artifacts speak of the more social aspect of living there. Blue and grey German stoneware ale tankards, Chinese porcelain cups, clay tobacco pipes and a jaw harp evoke images of bored soldiers socializing to pass the time on the frontier. Another way soldiers could occupy themselves during their off hours was by making bone buttons. A number of the buttons, as well as the larger fragments of cow bone from which they had been cut, were discovered at the fort. Covered with fabric or string, these buttons were an expedient way to replace missing buttons in a place where obtaining replacements would have been difficult.


Copper alloy linked buttons with green glass insert.  The glass insert is missing from the button on the left. Front and back views.  Photo:  MAC Lab.

A number of fancier linked buttons, including the set pictured here, were also found within the fort walls. These buttons were most commonly used for shirt sleeve cuffs, but could also be used as collar attachments (Rivers Cofield 20).

Taken together, the artifacts excavated at Fort Frederick help paint a picture of what everyday life was like for troops stationed at a remote colonial outpost that did not see much action.  As with soldiers everywhere, the adrenalin-rush of combat and intense training was interspersed with long periods of drudgery and boredom.   The men of Fort Frederick followed a familiar military routine of finding activities to keep themselves busy and entertained.


Boyd, Varna G., David Berg, James Kochan, Nancy H. Anthony, Kathleen A. Fergerson, Carey A. O’Reilly, and David L. Weinberg.   2001  Archaeological Investigations Report Fort Frederick State Park, Washington County, Maryland. Report on file at the Maryland Historical Trust.

Cowley, Robert and Geoffrey Parker, editors.   1996  The Reader’s Companion to Military History.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Fort Frederick.   2017  Fort Frederick State Park History. Celebrating Our Past, Creating Our Future. Maryland Forestry and Parks Centennial, 1906 -2006. Website accessed February 10, 2017.

Rivers Cofield, Sara.  2002 [2014] Linked Buttons, Cufflinks, and Studs.  Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland.  Accessed February 10, 2017.

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