Old Fort Western, built in 1754 and a National Historic Landmark, is America's oldest surviving wooden fort - a reminder of the great contest between cultures that dominated New England life 250 years ago. The Fort was 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. The company and the Province of Massachusetts both were interested in expanding their influence in the area as part of an effort by Britain and her colonies to take final political control of North America and to sever what they saw as the ties between the Abenaki (Maine's Indians) and the French in Canada.
Built at the head of navigation on the river, Fort Western served as a fortified storehouse in support of Fort Halifax, located 17 miles north. Supplies were shipped via sloop and schooner from Boston as many as four times a year, unloaded at Fort Western, then taken by flat-bottomed boat, often against a strong river current, to Fort Halifax.
James Howard's Company garrisoned the Fort and guarded the head of navigation on the Kennebec from 1754 to 1767. A Massachusetts provincial unit, the original garrison was made up of Captain Howard, his sons, and 15 other men, mostly of Scotch-Irish descent, who had first been stationed at Fort Richmond, also on the Kennebec River about 15 miles below Fort Western, then transferred to the storehouse when construction was completed in October.
Fort Western was never attacked directly. Private Edward Whalen, however, was captured in May, 1755, as he attempted to deliver dispatches to Fort Halifax. He spent four years in captivity, first among the Indians, then as a prisoner in France. He was exchanged in 1760. Other garrison members were fired upon as they returned a boat to Fort Halifax in 1757.
Protected behind 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.
Hostilities on the Kennebec came to a virtual end in 1760 following Wolfe's capture of Quebec but the garrison at Fort Western, though reduced in strength, stayed on station until late in 1767 to help maintain an English presence on the river. Finally, when the last of the garrison was discharged, Captain Howard made arrangements to acquire the Fort's buildings and surrounding lands.
Benedict Arnold used Fort Western as a staging point for his assault on Quebec in 1775 during the American Revolution He stayed in the area for a week or more as his bateaux were completed and supplies loaded. Some of Arnold's officers, including Daniel Morgan, Aaron Burr, and Henry Dearborn, lodged in the Fort's main house. But never again after 1767 would soldiers be stationed at Fort Western. Its future instead played out not in military terms but as civilian store and private residence.