Women's History Trail Banner
Home Button

Fort Western

Fort Western, adjacent to the Cushnoc site, is the major historical presence in City Center. Today, Fort Western is a museum and National Historic site. In the eighteenth century, it was established as a fort to protect British interests on the Maine frontier. It was home to some of the first women of European descent to settle the area, the site of the first store, and a center for early settlement life.

Captain James Howard first commanded Fort Western, taking charge in 1754. Historians note that “he was soon followed by his family.” (North, 87) Most accounts reference only the sons as following. It is quite possible, however, that Captain Howard’s wife, Mary [McCurdy] Howard, and their daughter, Margaret, were also among the earliest inhabitants of the Fort. Mary and the children had already lived with the Captain on the Maine frontier, at St. George’s River (1736-1745). Margaret and her young brother, William, were born there. We can say with a degree of certainty that Mary and Margaret were among the first women settlers of European descent in Augusta, although the exact date they came to the Fort has yet to be documented. [Note: James Howard was appointed Judge for the Court of Common Pleas in 1784 and historical references generally note him as Judge Howard after this date.]

In 1754 the Proprietors of the Kennebec Purchase agreed to build Fort Western at Cushnoc (Augusta), while Governor Shirley of Massachusetts agreed to build Fort Halifax at Taconic Falls (Winslow). Fort Western was strategically important as the upper most navigable point on the river, and it served as a supply station for goods going upriver to Fort Halifax. The forts were established on the Kennebec to protect settlers and British land claims from the feared Abenaki and French assault. Fort Western actually never saw battle, although there were skirmishes. After Fort Western was decommissioned, James Howard purchased the building (in 1769 for $500) and converted it to his residence and a store. Martha Howard (daughter of James’s brother Samuel) married her cousin William Howard and moved in around 1770. Some historians propose that James’s daughter, Margaret, was the first woman to be married at the Fort (1763 to Captain James Patterson). The Fort was an important site in early settlement life, and we know of certain domestic activities through Dame Martha Ballard’s diary (1785–1812). Martha was a midwife and healer who lived in the Fort Western part of “Ancient Hallowell” (now Augusta) who tended the sick at the Fort settlement and vicinity. She observed and commented in her diary about the area residents, including the Howard family. Other women known to be associated with the early Fort include: “the Old Lady” [Howard] and “Mrs. Betsy” [although unmarried], mother and sister to Martha (Ulrich, 67); young Isabella Howard (died at age 7 years 6 months), daughter of James Howard and Susanna Cony Howard [born Johnson], James’s second wife. Susanna was the widow of Lieut. Samuel Cony and some 45 years younger than the elder Howard. In addition to daughter Isabella, they had a son, James, who survived until age 24 and had children. Susanna married William Brooks after James died and they had one daughter. Susanna’s offspring entangled the Howard family inheritance for generations, but Howard women lived at Fort Western up into the middle of the nineteenth century. In the mid-1860’s, the house became a tenement, and remained so until the city took the building by eminent domain in 1919-1920 and restored it to its historic origins.

Benedict Arnold and his 1,000 plus force stopped at Fort Western for six days in the fall of 1775, on their ill-fated march to Quebec City. Two women are known to have accompanied the troops, but it is possible there were more since “camp followers,” as the women were called, were common in the Revolutionary War. We know for certain two who were associated with the soldiers from the start: Jemima Warner, teen-age wife of Private James Warner, and Suzannah Grier, wife of Sergeant Joseph Grier. Jemima and Suzannah followed their husbands into battle with Captain William Hendrick’s Cumberland (Pennsylvania) Rifle Company. Jemima buried her husband in Maine, then took his place in the company. Jemima was captured (later released) in Quebec when she carried a proposal for surrender to the British from Brig. General Richard Montgomery, who had joined Arnold after his success at Montreal. Jemima died in combat at St. Roch on December 11, 1775. Suzannah died in Quebec during a gunfire exchange in April 1776. A young Abenaki woman named Jacataqua is part of the history and the local lore of Arnold’s trek through Maine (noted in Sprague’s Journal of Maine History). She and one of the troops, the young Aaron Burr, are said to have fallen in love, but her story after the soldiers moved on is not known.

Today the Fort is a National Historic site and a living history museum. The main building is the original 1754 structure (with improvements by the Howards and subsequent restoration). The main house has late 18th and early 19th century furniture and artifacts, some of which belonged to the Howard family. During museum hours, visitors can observe and participate in military and late eighteenth and early nineteenth century home activities with volunteers and museum staff who portray historic characters. Activities include making soap and candles, weaving, spinning, cooking, preserving, needlework, tending the sick, shopping in the Fort store, and military drills. Special programs take place throughout the year, and the Fort has an active school workshop program.

The restoration of Fort Western as a historic site, which began in the 1920’s, is dedicated to Sarah (Sadie) Hill Gannett, wife of W. H. Gannett and mother of Guy P. Gannett (prominent Maine publishers). Sadie was a generous benefactor to other local institutions and charities in addition to the historic fort.

The Parlor at Ft. Western Museum

A Fort Western volunteer staff member warms herself by the fireplace in the parlor. Her authentic costume was painstakingly stitched by hand, as all clothing in the eighteenth century would have been.

Photograph: P. vonHerlich, 2001

Site #4.1 Sources:

Augusta, Maine Sesquicentennial. Special reprint of articles from Daily Kennebec Journal, Augusta, Maine, Sesquicentennial Edition, Wednesday, July 30, 1947.

Hill, Henry F., Jr. Remembrances, Etc. of Gannett’s Wood. Augusta, ME, 1966. [No publisher noted.]

Adams, Jay (Director, Old Fort Western). Interview by Phyllis vonHerrlich, 3 April 2001, Augusta, Maine.

North, James W. The History of Augusta Maine. Somesworth, NH: New England History Press, 1981. New forward by Edwin A. Churchill. Originally published in 1870 by Clapp and North of Augusta, ME.

Old Fort Western. Online resource available at http://www.oldfortwestern.org/. Accessed 6 June 2001.

Park, Edwards. “Could Canada have ever been our Fourteenth Colony?” In Smithsonian, December 1987, Volume 18, Number 9, New York.

Ralph, Ray. A People’s History of the Revolutionary War: How Common Peopled Shaped the Fight for Independence. New York: The New Press, 2001.

Sprague’s Joural [sic] of Maine History, Vol. VII, Nov. Dec. 1919, Jan. 1920, No. 3, Pages 119–122 as published on ROOTSWEB Genealogical Data Cooperative. Online resource available at www.rootsweb.com/-mekenneb/augusta/oldfort.html. Accessed 10 March 2001.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990; paperback: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, 1991.

Visits to Old Fort Western by the author in March and May 2001.

Women as Warriors in History. Online resource available at http://www.lothene.demon.co.uk/others/women.html. Accessed 18 March 2001.

Women in Military. Online resource available at http://thehistorynet.com/MilitaryHistory/articles/1999/08992_text.htm. Accessed 18 March 2001.

Zuver, Dudley. The Lengthened Shadow of a Maine Man. Freeport, ME: Bond Wheelwright Company, 1956.
The University of Maine
The University of Maine