First State Heritage Park is a state park in New Castle County, Delaware. The park preserves the former site of Fort Duquesne and other features from the time when it was part of the British Empire’s largest military installation during the French and Indian War.
Today the park hosts events such as historical reenactments by costumed interpreters and living historians, who demonstrate life in the 18th century at Christmastime. The park also includes an open-air firing range to allow visitors to experience cannonading for themselves. Visitors can tour seven restored or reconstructed fort buildings, including barracks, magazines, powder mills, carpenter shop, schoolhouse, church, and waterfront warehouse.
Other sites on the grounds include Stoney Point, where the Fort Duquesne earthwork begins; the “Bloody Marsh”, where thousands of soldiers were slaughtered after the Battle of Germantown (December 1777); and Fort Cheshire, which was built atop the ruins of Fort Duquesne. In addition to the interpretive center, there are picnic facilities and playgrounds, and an outdoor fire ring near the main parking area. There is no admission charge, but visitor passes must be purchased at the gate. The park receives about 640,000 visitors annually.
First State Heritage Park hosted their annual Halloween Haunt in 2016, featuring actors dressed as colonial soldiers, nurses, and witches. Reenactors at the park wear period clothing, and interact with attendees as they perform daily duties in the 1700s. For instance, during breakfast, guests may join tuckahoe farmers as they discuss crop production, while others attend to business in the general store, where items such as soap, candles, and sugar can be bought. Outside of the fort, there are picknickers, soccer fields, volleyball courts, horseshoes, and softball diamonds.
A portion of the land within the modern park had been occupied since the 1600s, most recently as a farm until 1791. That year Lieutenant Colonel George Washington arrived with his army at what today is known as Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, looking for a location to set up camp prior to crossing the Appalachian Mountains into the interior of North Carolina in order to fight against the Iroquois in the French and Indian War. At first he stayed at White Clay Creek, then moved to Conococheague Creek before finally landing at the present day site of Fort Duquesne on September 5. He named the post in honor of Louis de Buade de Frontenac, a nobleman and governor of New France in the late seventeenth century.
On October 27, just four days after Christmas, General John Cadwalader, commanding officer of the Continental Army, visited Valley Forge with a large force of men and material. Among those present were Generals Henry Knox, Horatio Gates, Benedict Arnold, and Peter Jefferson, father of President Thomas Jefferson. They inspected the troops, dined with officers, and held a review of the encampment. This visit would prove to be one of several important strategic planning sessions that took place at Fort Duquesne. It was here that plans were made to invade Quebec, capture Fort Niagara, and ultimately drive the British out of America. After this meeting, Cadwalader rode back to Philadelphia, leaving behind a garrison under the command of Major William Thompson.
On January 3, 1778, Cadwalader formally accepted the surrender of Fort Duquesne, ending the siege of Philadelphia. With the end of the fighting between Patriots and Loyalists, attention turned toward rebuilding the shattered forces. Men like Asaad Hand, a veteran artillery captain, were needed to oversee the massive task of removing debris, burying dead bodies, and setting up new batteries to protect the city. Others, like ironmaster Mark Bird, provided supplies and materials necessary for the war effort. In June, Congress authorized raising a new infantry regiment, the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment under the command of Colonel Timothy Dwight, Jr., son of educator Timothy Dwight. One hundred and twenty men were assigned to garrison Fort Duquesne, with thirty more sent later to reinforce the post if necessary. Construction began on July 20, 1778.
Despite heavy rains, mud, and freezing temperatures, work continued throughout the winter. By March 1780, enough guns and mortars had been mounted to form a battery of ten pieces, along with three howitzers. Additional batteries were added in May, bringing the total to thirteen. Further modifications and improvements were made over the next few years, with fourteen more guns and mortars being received in 1783. However, despite these additions, Fort Duquesne still lacked sufficient firepower to defend itself against the much larger ships of the Royal Navy. When the American Revolutionary War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1784, serious efforts were made to improve the defenses of the port.
An additional five companies of men were stationed there, increasing its strength to nearly 200 men. Two sieges lasted for months, with the British attacking in 1789 and again in 1793. Although they failed to take the fort each time, the raids caused extensive damage to the town and surrounding countryside. Fearing further attacks, the government decided in 1796 to build a new fort outside of Wilmington, closer to the harbor mouth. Named Fort Nelson, after Lord Nelson, it was completed in 1800, superseding Fort Duquesne entirely. Only two men remained at Fort Duquesne to man the new fortification, which now featured 30 guns on three levels. But even this proved not to be adequate protection, and soon after the signing of the Jay Treaty in 1794, the need for a strong coastal defense became apparent once again.
Another attempt was made to improve matters, with a new plan calling for three forts – Fort Albion, Fort Independence, and Fort Chiswell – designed by Robert Erskine, Thomas Johnson, and Matthew Brown, respectively. Approved by Congress in 1800, construction started on Fort Albion, which replaced Fort Nelson entirely. Built across the river from Fort Duquesne, it included twelve 12-pound cannons plus two 6- and 8-inch mortar batteries. Work on Fort Independence, meanwhile, was begun in 1801. Designed by Joseph Galloway, a prominent engineer, architect, and politician, it too included twelve 12-pound cannons, mounting 24-pounder shot and 4- and 6-inch shells.
Completed in 1802, Fort Chiswell was intended as a replacement for Fort Alexander, located near Baltimore. Built adjacent to Fort Albion, it housed eight 10-and 14-gun vessels, supported by a land force of 1,200 men. All three forts were heavily fortified, with walls 11 feet high, containing 32 gun ports, and backed by 68 heavy guns of various sizes. Fort Duquesne was abandoned in December 1812, when all three forts were deemed unnecessary following the resolution of earlier conflicts. Demolition of the fort began in 1815, and only the moat and parts of the walls remain visible above ground. Parts of the fort have been reconstructed on film sets, such as the church and magazine. The park has long been rumored to hold black mass ceremonies using the remains of Fort Duquesne, though no evidence of this has ever surfaced.
According to local legend, the state park is home to a colony of young women known as the Daughters of Liberty, who perform services for the Catholic Church around the holidays season. No resident priest lives nearby, so instead of going to Mass, the girls go to Holy Communion every Sunday morning at 7am sharp. Every Labor Day weekend, the park holds a fireworks show to celebrate the arrival of fall. Due to the threat of hurricanes, the State of Delaware announced in August 2017 that fireworks shows will not be held for the 2018 season.