Fort Independence

Fort Independence from the Water Floating Hospital in Foreground
Fort Independence from the Water
Floating Hospital in Foreground

That Bostonians are thankful people truly appreciating their public blessings is amply proved by the way in which they turn out to Fort Independence, Castle Island, now a part of the Marine Park of their city, for the fresh air and unexciting recreation it offers. Other citizens of other cities create parks from their historic places and, then, content to know that they have them when they want them, allot the day and night watchmen entire seclusion in these domains. With Bostonians it is different: On any bright and cheering day throngs can be found at the old fort, of various classes and of widely sundered poles of thought; but joined together in one great common heritage, a capacity for making use of that which they have and of taking their pleasure in a devout and noiseless manner not to be seen amongst the habitants of any other great American city.

It is a pleasant place, Castle Island, and the air there on a sunny day sweeping in from the great reaches of Boston’s environing waters is a true elixir. The views in various directions are entrancing, showing, in one direction, wide expanses of blue with dim islands in the distance and cottony clouds overhead; in another, the shipping and sky line of Boston harbor and the jumbled city. Geographically stated, Castle Island is a body of hard, rocky land, most of which is occupied by the historic old fort, and it is situated three miles from the head of Boston Harbor and two hundred yards from City Point, South Boston, to which it is connected by a wooden causeway. On the mainland, close at hand, lies Boston’s famous Aquarium, where the frying fishes a play!

Main Entrance, Fort Independence, Castle Island, Boston, Massachusetts
Main Entrance, Fort Independence, Castle Island, Boston, Massachusetts

Viewed from the head of the causeway, the fort is a very gay and martial figure though in sober earnest it has never fired a shot in anger in its life. Structurally speaking, it is a pentagonal, five-bastioned enclosure whose granite walls occupy all of the crest of the eminence, which makes up the island. To the right, from this standpoint, one sees running off a long thin shallow strip of gravelly sand, which geologists assert has been a gift from the sea since the erection of the fort. Originally, they say, the main portion of the island was larger than it is now; so what was taken from one place seems to have been added on to another.

Passing over the causeway one sees to the left hand, across a ribbon of water, the island, which Fort Winthrop crowns in a very modest and inconspicuous fashion. Passing over a drawbridge one enters the reservation and finds one’s self beneath the shadow of the walls of the fort and on the historic ground which its predecessors and itself have held in fief for many, many years.

Benches may be found here and there for the rest seeking wayfarer, but if one is inspired to wander around the walls he will find many interesting sights, and will be increasingly struck by the strength and formidableness of the abandoned military work, highly suggestive of the time when this island was the seat of military power of his Majesty, the King of England, in his colonies in America.

Historically speaking. Fort Independence is one of the oldest fortified spots in America and it was of exceeding great dignity in the early days of this country. But four years subsequent to the incorporation of the town of Boston, an interesting event which took place in 1630, Governor Winthrop and a party of his Puritans visited the island and, we are told, were detained by the ice without shelter for a day and a night. Nevertheless so well able were they all to detach themselves from their personal petty feelings that they each subscribed five pounds sterling of Great Britain from their own pockets in order to raise the place to the dignity of a fortified point. Two “Platforms” and a fort were to be erected, these platforms being in the nature of bateaux with guns mounted upon them. In the July following their adventure, which had taken place in early spring, they induced the legislature to consent to fortifying the place. The first fort has been described as a “castle with mud walls.” The masonry was of lime made from oyster shells.

In 1644 the arrival of a French man-of-war in the harbor of Boston so alarmed the citizens of the province that the fort which had gone into decay was rebuilt at the expense of six neighboring towns. It was now constructed of pine trees, stone and earth, was 50 feet square inside and had walls 10 feet thick.

In 1665 the fort was repaired and enlarged, – the spirit of military preparedness which had been awakened by the Frenchman’s arrival having evidently been kept up. A small castle was added with brick walls and three stories in height. There was a dwelling room on the first floor of this “castle”; a lodging room above; a gun room over the latter furnished with “six very good saker guns ” and three lesser guns were mounted upon the roof. In this same year occurred an event, which gave rise to much curious speculation at the time and is retained in legend. On the 15th of July a stroke of lightning entered one of the rooms of the fort, killed Captain Richard Davenport, the commanding officer, and did not enter the magazine, only a step away, beyond a thin partition, where there was stored enough gunpowder to have blown the fort beyond the seas.

Still the spirit of fire had its due, for in 1673 the fort was burned to the ground. In the year following a new fort of stone was erected. It had four bastions, mounted thirty-eight guns and sixteen culverins, in addition to a water battery of six guns, and was a very imposing work indeed.

In 1689 the people of Boston, favoring the Cromwellians in England, seized the royal governor, Edmund Andros, and placed him in confinement. They took possession of the castle and appointed Mr. John Fairweather commander to succeed Captain John Pipon.

But all dissension is smoothed down by the hand of Time. Under the administration of Sir Williams Phipps, an appointee of King Wilham, the fort was named Castle William and the Crown donated a large sum of money toward the erection of a stronger structure. The ordnance then became 24 nine-pounders, 12 twenty-four pounders, 18 thirty-two pounders, and 18 forty-eight pounders; and the bastions became known by the names of the “Crown,” the “Rose,” the “Royal,” and the “Elizabeth.” This augmentation of Strength was the more necessary as a French invasion of the New England colonies was apprehended.

And so we run on through the years: In 1716 Lieutenant Governor William Dummer, a well known name in the history of Massachusetts, assumed command of Castle William, agreeable to orders from the Crown, and thereby incurred the ill feeling of the general court of the province which heretofore had had prerogative in the appointment of a commandant. In 1740 the fort was repaired in anticipation of war with France and a new bastion mounting 20 forty-two pounders was created and named Shirley bastion.

Ordnance presented by the King arrived in 1744; a second magazine was built in 1747; and a third added during Shirley’s administration. In 1747 a riot occurred in Boston and the governor took refuge at the Castle. Upon assurance that his authority would be sustained the governor returned to the city two days after his flight.

Harbor side, Fort Independence, Boston Massachusetts
Harbor side, Fort Independence, Boston Massachusetts

On the 15th of August 1757, Governor Pownal arrived to assume the government of the province. Sir William Pepperell, conqueror of Louisburg, held command of Castle William. In accordance with custom Sir William surrendered the key of the castle to the new executive and said, “Sir, I hand you the key of the province.” Not outdone at all, Governor Pownal replied,” Sir, the interests of the province are in your heart. I shall always be glad, therefore, to see the key of the province in your hands.” Thus the doughty old warrior was maintained in his command until his death in 1759.

In this same year died Captain Lieutenant John Larrabee, who had lived for fifty years on the island in the service of the Crown. In 1764 the Castle was used as an inoculation station during the ravages of a plague of smallpox, which swept the little city.

It was about this time that the fort began to take part in the events with which Boston is associated before the outbreak of the American Revolution. Stamps by which revenue was expected to be raised from the colonies were brought to Boston in 1765 and for security were lodged in Castle William. Vigorous opposition in America caused the repealment of the act of which they were intended to be the tokens of enforcement and they were taken back to England at the expiration of not many months. These, it will be seen, were not the stamps, which figured, in the famous Boston Tea Party, but they were of the same nature. The maintenance of a large force of military at Castle William by the Crown in the years immediately following this was a source of irritation to the patriots of the day, and had an influence in determining the events, which brought about the separation from the Mother Country.

Captain Sir Thomas Adams, who died on board the frigate Romney, was buried on Castle Island October 8, 1772, and his obsequies were conducted with great pomp. In removing earth to Fort Independence thirty years later his corpse, enclosed in a double coffin highly ornamented, but upon which the inscription had become illegible, was dug out, and, no one discovering at the time whose remains the coffin contained, it was committed to the common burying ground at the south point of the island where its resting place was soon not to be distinguished from that of the common soldiers which surrounded it.

With this coffin necessarily others were removed, and one was favored with an inscription, which betrayed, we may assume, either native simplicity or British sarcasm. It read: ” Here lies the body of John, aged fifty years, a faithful soldier and a Desperate Good Gardner!”

It does not appear that the force quartered on the island was engaged in the first two battles of the Revolution. The commandant of the castle had been sent in February 1776, to seize powder and other military stores at Salem; but he was delayed at the ferry by the militia until the objects of the depredation had been moved beyond his reach. He returned peaceably to the island. The same officer was ordered from Castle William at this time with five hundred men to draw the Americans, by a false attack, from their posts at Roxbury. The attack did not succeed and the burning of five or six houses in Dorchester was the only result.

In the meantime a formidable force of Americans was concentrated in the vicinity of Boston under Washington; so General Howe, the successor of General Gage, evacuated the town March 17, and the British fleet dropped below the Castle. The embarkation had been a scene of confusion and distress, it being the 27th of March before the transports were able to put to sea. At their departure the British troops threw into the water iron balls and shot, broke off the trunnions of the ordnance given to Castle William in 1740, destroyed the military stores and battery apparatus which they could not take with them and finally blew up the citadel, leaving the island a mass of ruins. Part of the British fleet lay in the lower harbor until June, when it was harassed by American troops under General Lincoln and raised the blockade of Boston Harbor after the exact duration of two years. With the British troops the seat of the war was removed from Massachusetts, and Castle Island was thenceforth, unmolested, in American possession.

Colonel John Turnbull was the officer sent by General Washington to take possession of the island after the evacuation. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere was stationed on the island from 1777 to 1779.

Fort Winthrop from Castle Island
Fort Winthrop from Castle Island

At the conclusion of the Revolution it was enacted by the legislature of Massachusetts that all criminals of the State under sentence of confinement should be removed to Castle Island. Pursuant to this law convicts were sent to the island, and though their number never exceeded ninety their audacity taxed the vigilance of the garrison; they made several bold, fruitless efforts to escape, and in their mutinies some were killed and some wounded. Others met their death while endeavoring to form subterranean passages. Stephen Burroughs, whose extensive forgeries gave him great notoriety, here learned the art of a nailer, and in his published memoirs has publicly boasted of his Castle Island exploits.

It was with reluctance that the legislature of Massachusetts could bring itself to the cession of the Castle to the United States government, but the State was nevertheless willing to sacrifice the partial advantage to the public good and, October, 1798, passed an act by which the transfer was accomplished.

In 1799 President Adams visited the fort and was received with due honors. It was at this time that the name was changed to Independence. With regard to this, Captain Nehemiah Freeman wrote: “The baptism was not indecorous and the godfather (President Adams) is certainly unexceptionable; but Fort Independence must count some years before he can entirely divest his elder brother of his birthright; and though the mess of pottage might have been sold in 1776 yet the title of ‘ The Castle ‘ is rather endearing to the inhabitants of Massachusetts and is still bestowed by the greater part as the only proper appellation.”

A new fort was now planned and constructed under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel Louis Toussard, who was inspector of all of the posts of the Eastern seaboard. The first stone was laid May 7, 1801, and the whole superstructure was raised from an original design not influenced by the structure standing hitherto. On the 23d of June 1802, the national colors were first displayed at the new fort. The work was a barbette fortification and was not materially different from the present day structure.

The five bastions of the fort were named, in 1805, as follows: First, “Winthrop” after Governor Winthrop, under whose auspices the first fort was built; second, “Shirley,” who repaired Castle William, erected other works and made it the strongest fortified point in British America; third, “Hancock,” after the first governor of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, under whose administration new works were thrown up; fourth, “Adams,” after John Adams, who bestowed its present name upon the fort and collected materials for its construction; fifth, “Dearborn,” after General Dearborn, Secretary of War, under whose auspices Fort Independence was actually rebuilt.

In 1833 the garrison was withdrawn and the post given over to the Engineers Department for constructing a new work, in effect a modernification and improved edition of the former structure. Work was prosecuted at intervals during the succeeding eighteen years. The post was re-garrisoned July 4, 1851. The garrison was finally withdrawn November 25, 1879, and Fort Independence went out of service.

Not long after that the island was deeded to the city by the Federal War Department for use as a public park. That it could ever be of service as a fighting man now in its old age is extremely improbable. The defense of Boston depends upon batteries located at a far greater distance from the city.

To the north from Fort Independence can be seen the island upon which Fort Winthrop is situated and in the distance at the mouth of the harbor can be seen dimly the site of Fort Warren. Both of these posts have reached a dignified age, but neither has years or historical importance approximating that of their big brother.

Forts, History,

Hammond, John Martin. Quaint and Historic Forts of North America. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, London. 1915.

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