Search Website Design and Content © by Eric Krause, Krause House Info-Research Solutions (© 1996)
      All Images © Parks Canada Except Where Noted Otherwise
Report Assembly/Rapport de l'assemblée © Krause House Info-Research Solutions

Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada

Fort Sewall

Please click on the image to enlarge it


This earthen breastwork recorded in 1644 may have been erected earlier on the outermost promontory that overlooked both harbors. As a defense against England's enemies, marauding pirates or fierce northern Indians, its preparedness see-sawed from peacetime neglect to frantic reconstruction in wartime. In 1701 Queen Anne's powder tax was returned for the rebuilding of the "wooden fort" on Gale's Head and to provide a health station for checking contagion aboard vessels from foreign ports. Sir Harry Frankland and £550 arrived in 1742 to renew the main ,fortification of one of the busiest and most successful seaports.

In the desperate years of the American Revolution patriotic volunteers rebuilt and manned the fort, putting on an impressive show of strength whenever enemy vessels patrolled offshore. British spyglasses observed this activity and the fort was never attacked. Little did they know that the fort had no gunpowder! 

As a national military base (1794), the fort had its heyday with quarters and parade grounds covering the whole headland and bands playing for drills, parades and parties for famous visitors. One diarist wrote: " .... general neatness, habitual discipline ... the salute from the artillery handsome ... the fort in the best style ...." In 1814 the U.S. "Constitution," piloted by a Marbleheader, sailed in to safety under the fort's guns, out of the range of the British attackers. Only during the War of 1812 were prisoners kept in the lower dungeon which is still under the earthwork, as are the magazine, the kitchen and guard quarters (which, hopefully, can be open to the public in the future). Soldiers were stationed there in the Civil and Spanish-American wars; the fort was then put in the custody of the town until Congress returned it to Marblehead ownership after 128 years. The title states " ... for perpetual use as a public park ...." 

Moses Maverick's bill of sale in 1674 of 2 acres to Ambrose Gale excludes where "... the fort is built and a high-way link" (Fort Beach). Thereafter, it was called Gale's Head until renamed for an honored citizen, Samuel Sewall ....

Fort Sewall might best be called a "stabilized ruin" of one of the earliest forts in the American colonies. Since 1644 the earthen breastwork has been the key to the defense of Marblehead with major reconstructions in 1742, during the American Revolution and again when it was ceded to the new United States in 1794. Then as an official military reservation, the fort was reactivated in the War of 1812, the Civil and the Spanish-American Wars. Its cannon protected the "Constitution" ("Old Ironsides") as she scudded into the harbor to avoid capture by British vessels in 1814. The fort was later named for native Samuel Sewall, Chief Justice of the Mass. Supreme Court. Fort Sewall was officially returned to Marblehead in 1922 for a public park ...

[Page 38] 

The town was spreading out from Little Harbor. The waterfront on the Great Bay now became a deep anchorage for larger vessels, and to the south and west houses, gardens, orchards, pastures were changing hands and they weren't all Commoners' hands. A few stout souls decided they'd build on the "Necke." The selectmen usually acted as a land court unless hotheads appealed to the Salem Quarterly Court; moreover variations or abatements were often granted for shops, seasonal warehouses, the old and the poor. 

In 1666 the mounting tension caused by the prowling French, Dutch and pirate ships is evidenced by a new item in the town budget, the fort, which would reappear regularly for the next two centuries. The second largest expenditure in a total budget of £167 was £39 for the carting and landing of twenty-five hundred foot of boards and one thousand foot of planking "for the forrt." It was simply a last defense for the harbor if any enemy vessel should maneuver the hazardous offshore islands and, though seldom used, the fort stood as a sentinel of reassurance to the town. 

Lookouts were kept on the Neck to watch to the east and south, though that was a lonely post, for only a few families lived there. By 1669, the Commoners thought better of the island and not only claimed all the land not specified in earlier Salem grants, but also laid our a convenient way for the drift of cattle ...

[Page 67]

The Colonies were now involved in the parallel version of Europe's War of Spanish Succession, which, in America, was attributed to Queen Anne. As in the other indecisive wars, this was confined to the northern frontier and eastern seaboard, so the northeast seaports were seldom free from war alerts or defense expenditures. Thereupon began a long jousting match between Marblehead and the Province to decide who was going to foot the bill. The Province [c. 1704] appropriated £40 to repair the Marblehead fortifications, provided the town would put in £60. The town shot back a petition decrying the "miserable decayed state" of the fort and its armament and insisting that further financial pressure would "damnify the Principall Manufactory." That petition failed. A few months later Marblehead went back complaining that the collectors of the "powder tax" from ship entries were remitting the money to Salem or for her Majesty's castle and forts at Boston. The demand that powder tax collected at Marblehead should remain there to support its fort was voted on affirmatively, but, said the Assembly, Marblehead must insist there be "great exactness" in tax collection with no one escaping ...

[Page 211]

Action was begun by Senator Lodge in the 67th Congress to convey the Fort Sewall Military Reservation permanently to Marblehead, instead of the mere custody the town had obtained in 1890. In 1922 Senate Bill S.2736 was passed by both houses of Congress and Fort Sewall was returned to Marblehead for its perpetual use as a public park without the right to ever sell that property; if not used for public purposes, the two-and-one-half acre site would revert to the United States. The fort had originally been conveyed by the Marblehead selectmen to the new United States in 1794; and for 128 years its use and maintenance had swung on the pendulum of war and peace, just as it had in the colonial days when it was simply the breastwork on Gale's Head. 

Fort Sewall was one of the earliest official colonial forts in America, for in 1644 the General Court's permission to build is recorded with agreement to supply two guns. From then on it appears in the abutters' deeds, as when in 1674 Moses Maverick sold the point of land to Ambrose Gale ". . . except whereon the fort is built ...." It was this Gale after whom the headland was named. The town's "Sundry Disbursements" in 1691 listed planks and boards, an ammunition house, carriages for the "grate guns," powder and shot which cost the town one half its annual budget. At the beginning of the next century the Colony sought to recover its additional fort expenses from the British throne, "... Marblehead ... being [an] avenue by which the enemy may make Impression upon us." From then until the Revolution the support of the fort by the town, Colony or throne was dependent on the mounting tension or series of wars with France. The most thorough and professional reconstruction of the fort occurred under Sir Harry Frankland in 1742 when the "good and sufficient breastwork" supported twelve mounted cannon. The captains of the fort were local men who, from Azor Gale to Thomas Gerry, were always outstanding citizens of the town. 

Never was the fort rebuilt so rapidly as when Marblehead became a cornerstone in the battle for independence. The British threatened but never attacked the fort which provided a training ground for [Page 212] the militia and acted as a guardian of a vital privateering and naval seaport. Its postwar condition, as reported in 1791 by Dr. Bentley of Salem after reviewing three hundred men in blue and white uniforms and carrying rusty arms, was "disappointing" and may have contributed to its conveyance to outside government hands for the first time in history. Town Meeting on August 25, 1794, ceded the fort to the United States of America. A witness to that release was young justice of the Peace Samuel Sewall. 

A new formality and social life came with the national military installation and parades, reviews, teas, dinner parties and harbor sails were planned for visiting American and foreign celebrities. The entire neck of land was then covered with barracks, officers quarters and a parade ground adjoining a well-maintained fort. Yet, the fiercely independent town didn't take kindly to all the soldiers their midst, as one tragic incident in early 1812 revealed. Two tired soldiers returning from Boston on a wintry night were refused entrance to several homes; next morning their frozen bodies were found a mile from the fort where they had perished in the storm. Their formal funeral service was attended by almost three thousand grieving citizens who formed a procession to accompany the cortege. A commentator observed the public embarrassment, yet added, "Such is our aversion to a standing army and the vulgar fear of soldiers ..." Garrisoned during the War of 1812, the fort serve nobly during the British naval blockade battles and was very instrumental in protecting the vessel, "Constitution," but was subsequently, abandoned by the military and deteriorated, except when national war emergencies in 1861 and 1898 temporarily restored it. 

The fort was given an official name only once in history - Fort Sewall after Samuel Sewall. This longtime town official and state and national representative, who in 1814 became chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, was so appreciated in Marblehead that the town named its oldest extant public site for him. On September 19, 1898, a national military garrison left Fort Sewall for the last time, for the fort was already in the custody of the town. Finally, in 1922, Fort Sewall, protector of Marblehead for 278 year was returned to the town "forever." ...


Just so you'll know, the fort is still used for a military enactment camping weekend, usually the second weekend in July, by Glover's Marblehead Regiment, a major source of support for Gen. George Washington in the American Revolution. That group has a Web site at .... in case you're interested.

Return to the Previous Page

Retour à la page précédente