Where has the Seventeenth Century Gone? The National Park Service, Battlefield Preservation, and America’s Colonial Military Past

by Kyle F. Zelner

Every year, millions of people visit U. S. National Parks that commemorate, interpret, and memorialize wars, battles, and military sites where Americans served, were wounded, or died. The National Park Service (NPS) administers a total of 408 units—both parks that showcase America’s natural beauty as well as a large number that protect and interpret our history (a sizeable number of these highlight America’s military past). Tourists can visit sites connected to almost all of America’s major conflicts, from Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields to old western forts to World War II home-front locales to sites that honor the late twentieth century’s Global War on Terror. However, the country’s military history is anything but evenly covered. Out of the 81 “military parks,” be they National Historic Sites, National Historic Parks, National Battlefield Parks, National Military Parks, National Battlefield Sites, National Monuments, or National Memorials, only five parks—or 6% of the total—commemorate, memorialize, or interpret sites primarily associated with America’s colonial military past.[1] This in spite of the fact that the English colonial period (conservatively 1607-1775) makes up 41% of the 408-year history of America (1607-2015). As a historian of colonial America, I’m used to “my period” getting short-shrift in the nation’s story, but this situation requires change.

The conflict most represented in the National Park system is unsurprisingly the Civil War, with 28 units or 35% of all of the “military parks.” Parks such as the National Military Park at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and the Antietam National Battlefield are what most people think of when they consider historic military parks. Next in number are the parks associated with the War for Independence, with 13 units or 16% of the total, including Minute Man National Historic Park which commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord or the Yorktown Battlefield part of Colonial National Historic Park in Virginia.[2] There are 12 units (15%) that interpret nineteenth-century conflicts between Native Americans and the U. S. Army, often at forts like Fort Laramie National Historic Site or combat zones like Little Bighorn Battlefield National Memorial. World War II has recently, with an influx of new parks, taken over the fourth spot with 10 units (12%) such as Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama or the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Site in California. Only then comes the five (5) colonial military parks, despite the fact that 41% of America’s timeline (169 years of 408) falls on the colonial side of the scale. If that isn’t bad enough, the number of colonial parks are in a tie with the five parks commemorating the two-year long War of 1812 (including the River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Michigan and the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore Harbor).

The author in St. Augustine,  Florida, 2014. Photo courtesy of Kyle F. Zelner.

The author in St. Augustine, Florida, 2014. Photo courtesy of Kyle F. Zelner.

While this situation should be addressed (more on that later), the colonial military units of the National Park Service are wonderful locations that deserve widespread visitation.[3] Interestingly, the majority of the “colonial military parks” memorialize and illuminate not the Anglo-American military past that most people think of when examining the period, but instead other colonial powers’ military pasts. Two of the parks honor the early Spanish military presence in the Southeast, while one memorializes the short-live French fortification of Florida in the 1560s. The most visited of the colonial military parks is also the most impressive—Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest masonry fortress in the continental United States.[4] While the Spanish founded the town of St. Augustine in 1565, the current stone fort wasn’t begun until 1672, after several early wooden forts were destroyed by fire, weather, or privateers. The stone fortress withstood two sieges by English forces, once in 1702 during Queen Anne’s War and the other in 1740 as a part of the War of Jenkins Ear. The fort never fell, but it later changed hands several times in the late-colonial and Revolutionary periods, until the new United States took over the post in 1821. The fortress was an active military post until 1900; it was transferred to the National Park Service in 1933. Today, Castillo de San Marcos remains a marvelous example of seventeenth-century Spanish military architecture, with an impressive collection of early artillery pieces from the fort’s long history.

Fort Matanzas. Photo courtesy of the author.

Fort Matanzas. Photo courtesy of Kyle F. Zelner.

The next NPS unit from the colonial period is closely associated with the first. Fort Matanzas National Monument is located several miles to the south of the Castillo de San Marcos. The small artillery fort was built by the Spanish in 1742 to guard the southern approaches to St. Augustine after the English besiegers of 1740, led by Governor General James Oglethorpe, attacked the city from the narrow inlets to the south. The fort was named for the Matanzas inlet it sits adjacent to; the name of the inlet translates from Spanish as “slaughters,” which alludes to a much earlier military attack in 1565, when the Spanish massacred a surrendered force of French colonists from northern Florida. The small fort (built by convicts, slaves, and soldiers) held five cannon that were designed to stop another sea-borne invasion. That is exactly what the garrison did in 1742 when General Oglethorpe tried to raid the area again— this time Oglethorpe’s forces were driven off by the garrison at Fort Matanzas before the British got to St. Augustine. The Spanish let Fort Matanzas fall into disrepair in the later colonial period and by the time the United States took control of Florida in 1821, the fort was uninhabitable. The NPS took over the site and started restoring it in 1933. Today the site hosts over a half a million visitors a year.

The third colonial military park is also located in Florida and is closely connected to the Spanish forts around St. Augustine. Fort Caroline National Memorial commemorates the first French colony in what would become the United States, established in 1564. Located today in the city of Jacksonville, the exact original site of the fort is unknown. In 1953 the NPS established the National Memorial and built a reconstruction of the original fort’s palisade in the Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve. The original fort was built to protect the French settlers, mostly Huguenots under the leadership of René Goulaine de Laudonnière. When the Spanish established St. Augustine the next year, the two rival colonial powers soon came to blows. In 1565, Spanish forces sacked Fort Caroline, slaughtered most of the inhabitants (at the Matanzas Inlet—see above) and occupied the fort until 1569. While it was short lived, Fort Caroline demonstrates the bitter rivalry over American land between colonizing powers—over two hundred years before the American Revolution.

The forth colonial military park in the NPS system is also in the southeastern United States. Fort Frederica National Monument preserves the archaeological remains of a fort and town built in the new English colony of Georgia in 1736 by Governor James Oglethorpe. The fort and town were laid out according to the Oglethorpe Plan based on Enlightenment principles. Located on St. Simons Island in Georgia, around 630 troops garrisoned the fort from 1736 to 1748. English troops from the fortress beat back two attacks by Spanish forces in 1742 at the Battles of Bloody Marsh and Gully Hole Creek during the War of Jenkins Ear. With the end of King George’s War in 1748, the fort was abandoned as a military post. The associated town soon fell into economic decline and was mostly deserted by 1755. Archaeology sponsored by the NPS and the Fort Frederica Association began in 1947. Visitors today can see a large collection of artifacts uncovered by archaeologists, as well as the foundational ruins of some of the fort’s buildings.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield. Photo courtesy of Kyle F. Zelner.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield. Photo courtesy of Kyle F. Zelner.

The last NPS unit that memorializes the military history of the colonial period is Fort Necessity National Battlefield. The only battlefield in the NPS system from the 169-year colonial period commemorates the battle in the wilderness of Pennsylvania that included the initial blows of what became the French and Indian War.[5] The battlefield, in an area known as Great Meadows, has as its center a reconstruction of the small, temporary fortification (Fort Necessity) that a young George Washington had built to shelter his soldiers and supplies from the attacking French and Indians in July of 1754. After a sharp battle where he was surrounded by numerically-superior forces (and with no hope for reinforcements), Washington surrendered to the French, in the process signing a document (written in French—which Washington could not read) that included a “confession” by the young colonel that he and his men had murdered the French commander’s brother earlier that summer at Jumonville Glen. This incident and the battle at Fort Necessity sparked the French and Indian War, which was eventually fought around the globe. The park, originally a National Battlefield site under the care of the War Department, was transferred to the National Park Service in 1933.

While these five sites are all poignant, historically significant, and highlight important fragments and periods of America’s military past, there is an entire century and a half—the seventeenth and early eighteenth—left out of the historical coverage these NPS units offer.[6] The seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries witnessed some of the most momentous military engagements and conflicts in the history of America. In New England, the Pequot War (1634-1638) and King Philip’s War (1675-1678), to name just a few, raged from the coast to the frontier. The Anglo-Powhatan Wars (on and off from 1610-1646) were fought in the Virginia colony, while the Tuscarora War and the Yamasee War were instrumental to the early history of the Carolinas. And of course, there were momentous imperial conflicts in the seventeenth century that were fought both in Europe and in colonial America, including the Anglo-Dutch Wars (17th and 18th Centuries), King William’s War (1688–1697), and Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713). In order to best understand, interpret, and protect our entire military past, seventeenth-century war sites should be identified, acquired, and brought into the National Park Service system.[7]

I realize this is a tall order in today’s economic climate. However, there is some hope for the future. In 1991, the Secretary of the Interior ordered the National Park Service to establish the American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP). The ABPP’s main goal is to promote “the preservation of significant historic battlefields associated with wars on American soil. The goals of the program are 1) to protect battlefields and sites associated with armed conflicts that influenced the course of our history, 2) to encourage and assist all Americans in planning for the preservation, management, and interpretation of these sites, and 3) to raise awareness of the importance of preserving battlefields and related sites for future generations.”[8] To that end, the ABPP has given grants to state and local governments, tribal organization, universities and colleges, and private organizations to help study, identify, and protect over 100 battlefields in 42 states and territories—over 429 projects have been started. While the vast majority of the grants have gone to protect battlefields from the Revolutionary War period forward, there have been several grants made to help protect colonial battlefields.

Since they were first awarded, planning grants have been given to study and protect battle sites from the Yamasee War in South Carolina, an early Indian raid on Dutch settlements in Delaware in 1631, King Philip’s War in central Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Indian attacks on French troops in 1730s Mississippi, the French and Indian War in upstate New York, and the Battle of Bushy Run during Pontiac’s War in Pennsylvania. The most grants for a colonial conflict have gone to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center for their research into the battlefields of the Pequot War. The museum and its dedicated staff of archaeologists, historians, and museum professionals have, with the assistance of the ABPP and the Mashantucket (Western) Pequot Nation, identified several key combat zones, including sites associated with the English and Allied Indian attack on Mystic Fort in May 1637 and several battles in the vicinity of Fort Saybrook. The museum has set up two essential websites (one on the Pequot War and a new one on King Philip’s War) to disseminate their reports and keep the public informed on their various projects. The work of the “Pequot War team” at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center—identifying, studying, and interpreting the battlefields of that critical conflict—could possibly lead to a new National Park someday, dedicated to some of colonial America’s earliest warriors and their legacy.[9] I certainly hope so.

Kyle F. Zelner, PhD, is a Co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Miss, as well as the Chair of the History Department. His book, A Rabble in Arms: Massachusetts Towns and Militiamen during King Philip’s War (New York University Press, 2009) was a social history of the men who fought in that seventeenth-century conflict and the town-based militia system that impressed them.

[1] For a listing of all the sites the NPS administers, see: http://www.nps.gov/. The listing on Wikipedia can also be useful: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_the_United_States_National_Park_System_official_units.

[2] Colonial National Historic Park contains parks at Jamestown (commemorating the first permanent English settlement in the area that became the United States) as well as the Yorktown Battlefield of the American Revolutionary War, connected by the Colonial Parkway.

[3] The latest statistics for NPS visitation is from 2014 and are available here: https://irma.nps.gov/Stats/SSRSReports/National%20Reports/Annual%20Park%20Ranking%20Report%20%281979%20-%20Last%20Calendar%20Year%29. Interestingly, it is not Civil War sites that garner the most “military park” visitation. The ten most visited military parks are, in order, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (DC), the World War II Memorial (DC), the Korean War Veterans Memorial (DC), Colonial National Park (VA), Boston National Park-which includes Bunker Hill (MA), Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (GA), Valley Forge National Historic Park (PA), World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (HI, AK, CA), Minute Man National Historic Park (MA), and Gettysburg National Military Park (PA).

[4] Of the five colonial-era military parks, Castillo de San Marcos National Memorial (FL) was the most visited in 2014 with 760,708 visitors. Next, in order of number of visitors: Fort Matanzas National Monument (FL) with 568,529; Fort Frederica National Monument (GA) with 228,103; Fort Necessity National Battlefield (PA) with 219,546; and Fort Caroline National Memorial (FL) with 187,843.

[5] The other NPS colonial military sites have battlefields associated with them, but the battlefields are not the main attraction of the site.

[6] There are a few—very few—historic sites, owned and operated by the states or private organizations that interpret seventeenth century battles. That, however, is will be the subject of another (future) blog post.

[7] This is not to say that private organizations and state park systems have not done a wonderful job preserving some of the country’s most important historic sites. However, I believe that at least a few battle sites from the seventeenth century should be highlighted and preserved at the national level.

[8] The American Battlefield Protection Project, National Park Service, “Mission Statement” http://www.nps.gov/abpp/index.htm

[9] It should be noted that creating a National Park at the site of the Mystic Fort Fight is in no way the stated objective of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center’s Pequot War project. It is simply a suggestion, based on the fanciful hope of the author.

About Heather Stur

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She writes and teaches about U.S. foreign relations, gender and war, the Vietnam War, and 20th century war and militarization in a global context. She is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge 2011). Dr. Stur spent the 2013-14 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam, where she was a visiting professor on the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.
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2 Responses to Where has the Seventeenth Century Gone? The National Park Service, Battlefield Preservation, and America’s Colonial Military Past

  1. Kyle Zelner says:

    It has been pointed out that I missed a colonial military park, the San Juan National Historic Park in Puerto Rico (http://www.nps.gov/saju/index.htm), which houses several Spanish fortifications on the island, which was fortified as early as 1539. Thanks to all who pointed out the omission. I’m not happy with the oversight, but it does mean that now I have to take a trip to Puerto Rico to visit what looks to be an amazing site. My basic point remains, however–the National Park Service has neglected seventeenth and early eighteenth century English colonial sites, especially military ones.


  2. Pete Payette says:

    Here is my full list of military sites administered by the National Park Service (minus the memorials and monuments in Washington DC). The so-called “official” list on the NPS website omits several dozen sites.

    European Wars for Empire Forts and Battlefields in NPS system
    – Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
    – Fort Matanzas National Monument
    – Fort Caroline National Memorial
    – Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve
    – De Soto National Memorial
    – San Juan National Historic Site
    – Virgin Islands National Park
    – Christiansted National Historic Site
    – Salt River National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve
    – Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
    – Fort Frederica National Monument
    – Sitka National Historical Park
    – Tumacacori National Historical Park
    – Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
    – San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
    – Grand Portage National Monument
    – St. Croix Island International Historic Site
    – Natchez National Historical Park
    – First State National Historical Park
    – El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail

    French and Indian War Forts and Battlefields in NPS system
    – Fort Necessity National Battlefield

    American Revolution Forts and Battlefields in NPS system
    – Colonial National Historical Park
    – Morristown National Historical Park
    – Valley Forge National Historical Park
    – Saratoga National Historical Park
    – Fort Stanwix National Monument
    – Cowpens National Battlefield
    – Guilford Courthouse National Military Park
    – Ninety-Six National Historic Site
    – George Rogers Clark National Historical Park
    – Arkansas Post National Memorial
    – Kings Mountain National Miltary Park
    – Minute Man National Historical Park
    – Longfellow House – Washington’s HQ National Historic Site
    – Boston National Historical Park
    – Moores Creek National Battlefield
    – Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail

    War of 1812 Forts and Battlefields in NPS system
    – Horseshoe Bend National Military Park
    – President’s Park
    – Cumberland Island National Seashore
    – Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve
    – Chalmette Battlefield
    – Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine
    – Fort Washington Park
    – Oxen Hill Farm
    – River Raisin National Battlefield Park
    – Castle Clinton National Monument
    – Governors Island National Monument
    – Statue of Liberty National Monument
    – Ellis Island
    – Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial
    – Fallen Timbers Battlefield and Fort Miamis National Historic Site
    – Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail
    – Natchez Trace Parkway
    – Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail

    Mexican-American War Forts and Battlefields in NPS system
    – Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site
    – Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site

    Civil War Forts and Battlefields in NPS system
    – Pea Ridge National Military Park
    – Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park
    – Fort Pulaski National Monument
    – Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park
    – Antietam National Battlefield
    – Monocacy National Battlefield
    – Catoctin Mountain Park
    – Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park
    – Civil War Defenses of Washington
    – Vicksburg National Military Park
    – Tupelo National Battlefield
    – Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site
    – Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield
    – Pecos National Historical Park
    – Gettysburg National Military Park
    – Fort Sumter National Monument
    – Fort Moultrie
    – Fort Donelson National Battlefield
    – Shiloh National Military Park
    – Stones River National Battlefield
    – Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area
    – Manassas National Battlefield
    – George Washington Memorial Parkway
    – Richmond National Battlefield Park
    – Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Battlefields National Military Park
    – Petersburg National Battlefield
    – Appomattox Court House National Historical Park
    – Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park
    – Fort Monroe National Monument
    – Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
    – Cape Hatteras National Seashore
    – Cape Lookout National Seashore
    – Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
    – Gulf Islands National Seashore
    – Andersonville National Historic Site
    – Cane River Creole National Historical Park
    – Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area
    – Dry Tortugas National Park

    Western Indian Wars Forts and Battlefields in NPS system
    – Lewis and Clark National Historical Park
    – Fort Scott National Historic Site
    – Fort Larned National Historic Site
    – Fort Smith National Historic Site
    – Washita Battlefield National Historic Site
    – Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site
    – Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site
    – Fort Union National Monument
    – Fort Davis National Historic Site
    – Fort Bowie National Historic Site
    – Fort Laramie National Historic Site
    – Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
    – Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site
    – Nez Perce National Historical Park
    – Big Hole National Battlefield
    – San Juan Island National Historical Park
    – Fort Vancouver National Historical Site
    – Fort Point National Historic Site
    – Alcatraz Island
    – Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area
    – Yellowstone National Park
    – Whitman Mission National Historic Site
    – Lava Beds National Monument
    – Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
    – Pipe Spring National Monument
    – Yosemite National Park
    – Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

    20th Century Military Sites in NPS system
    – U.S.S. Arizona Memorial
    – War in the Pacific National Historical Park
    – Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
    – Aleutian WWII National Historic Area
    – American Memorial Park
    – Golden Gate National Recreation Area
    – Presidio of San Francisco
    – Cabrillo National Monument
    – Gateway National Recreation Area
    – Fort Hunt
    – WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument
    – Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial
    – Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve
    – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
    – Big Bend National Park
    – Redwood National Park
    – Manhattan Project National Historical Park
    – Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
    – Springfield Armory National Historic Site

    National Cemeteries administered by NPS
    – Andersonville National Cemetery
    – Andrew Johnson National Cemetery
    – Antietam National Cemetery
    – Battleground National Cemetery
    – Chalmette National Cemetery
    – Custer National Cemetery
    – Fort Donelson National Cemetery
    – Fredericksburg National Cemetery
    – Gettysburg National Cemetery
    – Poplar Grove National Cemetery
    – Shiloh National Cemetery
    – Stones River National Cemetery
    – Vicksburg National Cemetery
    – Yorktown National Cemetery


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