National, state, and local parks are known for their natural beauty and recreational opportunities. Yet many of these landmarks started life as military installations, dating back to the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Others saw action when the U.S. Army clashed with Native Americans. Even after those conflicts, several were in use during the Second World War. (Here’s how every war in U.S. history ended.)
To determine 33 of the oldest early American forts, encompassing fortifications that were built between 1775 and 1851, 24/7 consulted sources including the National Park Service and various state and regional tourism websites. (Sites that contain only unrestored earthworks were largely excluded.) In many cases, the original forts have not survived intact, but the sites contain ruins, reconstructed facilities, or historically accurate replicas on the original grounds. Through extensive renovation by federal, state, and local authorities, many of these remain open for tourists who want a glimpse into the country’s past. (To see fortifications that predate those on our list, see the oldest military forts built before America was a country.)
Even in their heyday, many forts were not exclusively Army or naval outposts. Instead, they were used initially or partially for commerce or as a stopping point for westbound travelers. Fort Vancouver in Washington, in fact, was a fur trading outpost and never a military base. Others, like the Fort Osage in Sibley, Missouri, served two purposes: It housed soldiers guarding the newly acquired Louisiana Territory as well as serving as a way station for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Two of the forts here, incidentally, weren’t originally in the possession of the British or The Presidios of San Francisco and Santa Barbara were established by Spain to protect its California colony.
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