I simply could not find anything to see in Maine that begins with an X, other than Xavier Loop, a street in Augusta. So because I am passionate about history, I’ve taken the liberty of substituting Fort Webster. I had two other Ws: the Winslow Homer home and Wadsworth Longfellow House, but Fort Western had a rocking history and is linked to the Plymouth Pilgrims.
In 1625, the Plimoth Colony Pilgrims sailed up the Kennebec River in a single masted, open hulled vessel called a shallop, named for Elizabeth Tilley. Elizabeth was one of the original passengers on the Mayflower and it was my privilege to portray her during one of the Pilgrim’s Progresses in Plymouth when I was a child. The Pilgrims wanted to establish a trading relationship with Native Americans in the area, since they were already operating a year-round trading post south of where Fort Western is now found.
Fort Western was built in 1754 built by the Kennebec Proprietors, a Boston-based company seeking to settle the lands along the Kennebec River that had been granted to the Pilgrims more than a century earlier. It is America’s oldest surviving wooden fort – a reminder of a clash of cultures that dominated New England life 250 years ago. This company, along with the Province of Massachusetts, wished to expand their interest in the area as part of the British and colonial effort to take political control of North American and sever the ties between the local Abenaki Indians and the French in Canada. The Fort was named for Thomas Western of Sussex, England, a friend of William Shirley, the longest-serving governor of the Province of Massachusetts (1741–1749 and 1753–1756). Crony capitalism in the 1700s. Fort Western served as a fortified storehouse to support Fort Halifax, 17 miles to the north. Supplies were shipped from Boston, unloaded there and then taken by a flat-bottomed boat upriver to Fort Halifax. Captain James Howard was the first permanent resident; he shipped alewives (a plentiful fish) down the Kennebec and his family operated a store within the fort.
Since the fort was a secure location, it attracted trappers and other settlers. Benedict Arnold stayed at the Fort with his Quebec Expedition in September of 1775. Some of Arnold’s officers, including Daniel Morgan, Aaron Burr, and Henry Dearborn, lodged in the Fort’s main house. The Fort’s military role ended after that, although the Fort itself survived because of the trading post/store. Fort Western was never attacked directly. Protected by its four-pound cannon, the garrison spent most of its time doing routine duty, including boat repair, cooking, baking, brewing, and getting wood, in addition to helping re-supply Fort Halifax.
The main building of the fort was eventually sold by the Howard family, and was converted into a tenement house. It was repurchased in Howard family descendants in 1919, and restored the following year. They oversaw the construction of two new blockhouses and a stockade, which was again rebuilt in 1960. The Fort’s main building is a little-altered example of an 18th-century trading post. The fort was declared a National Historical Landmark in 1973, and it and the store are maintained as a museum and are open to the public during the summer months.
Don’t forget to guess, after “Z,” which two sites I will visit this summer when I am in Maine. A copy of Death in a Dacron Sail is the prize for the right guess!