The parking lot across from Bahia Mar, fronting the beach. A site just west of Tarpon Bend at present-day SE Ninth Avenue and SE Fourth Street, one block south of the cafes and bistros of Las Olas Boulevard. A site on the north bank of the New River, at present-day SW Eighth Terrace and SW Fourth Court, not far west of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
These locations share a special history: Each was home to “Fort Lauderdale,” the actual army post.
It can be fun with tourists or out-of-town guests – and even some unprepared residents – to ask “Have you visited the old fort yet?” They typically are caught off guard. They might have visited Fort Sumter in Charleston or Fort McHenry in Baltimore.
“No, that would be interesting. Where is it?”
“Nowhere, friend, there isn’t one. And there hasn’t been one for nearly 200 years.”
Let’s recap some history: The original fort, at the SW Eighth Terrace location on the New River, was a 30-foot square, two-story-tall blockhouse that was later enclosed within a 60′ by 50′ stockade. The U.S. Army post was established in early 1838 by a Tennessean, Major William Lauderdale.
General Thomas S. Jesup had dispatched Major Lauderdale and his 200 mounted Tennessee Volunteers to root out hostile Seminole Indians in the area.
But the major and his troops were not alone. He was joined by Lieutenant Colonel James Bankhead and four artillery companies from Fort Dallas. Major Bankhead assumed command of the 600-man force.
Wait, what is Fort Dallas? Did Bankhead come all the way from Texas?
No. Fort Dallas was a military post on the banks of the Miami River in what is now downtown Miami. The post was named in honor of Commodore Alexander James Dallas, who commanded U.S. naval forces in the West Indies. The U.S. Navy patrolled Biscayne Bay to halt trading between the Seminoles and traders from Cuba or the West Indies.
When hostilities between early settlers in that area and the Seminoles died down, the troops departed. Fort Dallas was turned into a plantation.
But wait – another Seminole War broke out in 1844 and the U.S. Army came back and seized the estate anew. That lasted until 1858, when that war ended.
The barracks and surrounding land for the fort were abandoned this time.
But wait – it was occupied again by Union forces during the Civil War.
Finally, in 1891 pioneer Julia Tuttle bought the property, a remnant of the battlement was moved to Lummus Park, and Fort Dallas was no more.
That’s the thing about forts in South Florida: They don’t last long.
After the Seminoles in this neck of the woods retreated into the Everglades later in 1838, Major Lauderdale was released from duty to recuperate from ill health. The remaining troops left the New River post soon after, and within a month the Seminoles returned and burned it to the ground.
In early 1839, Company K of the 3rd U.S. Artillery under Captain William Davidson established a new fort near Tarpon Bend. Although Major Lauderdale had already succumbed to illness in Baton Rouge, the name was retained. The new location was closer to the ocean, where the Seminoles had returned to loot shipwrecks. It consisted of tents surrounded by pickets, a single watchtower and a log blockhouse.
At some point it was decided to build a better fortified post closer to the ocean, in the area of the present-day beach parking across from Bahia Mar. This, the third and final fort, was designed to be a more permanent one. It featured two-story blockhouses at three angles and a substantial stockade. But nothing is permanent down here. By 1842 it was gone. So were the Seminoles in this area, which was virtually deserted.
More than half a century later in 1896, Henry Flagler re-routed his railroad to put the burgeoning New River Settlement on the map. He agreed have a plat drawn up for a new town called Fort Lauderdale. The city was incorporated in 1911 – nearly 70 years after the last traces of any fort were gone.