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TThe history of the Free State is fraught with cultural clashes, wars, victories, surrenders, peace treaties and conventions. Two of the most significant events that unfolded here and helped shape the history of South Africa were the arrival of the Voortrekkers and the South African War (also known as the Second Anglo-Boer War).
The history of the Free State is a portrait of turbulence and turmoil. Previously called the Orange Free State, South Africa's Free State province is located between the Orange and Vaal rivers and has seen its fair share of bloodshed.
In the 1800s, the notorious Zulu chief Mzilikazi rampaged through the region, all but wiping out the indigenous peoples that inhabited the area.
Then in 1824 the first Dutch, German and French Huguenot farmers arrived from the Cape, followed by the first families of the Great Trek – a mass migration of Dutch-speaking colonists known as the Voortrekkers, who left the Cape in search of independence.
These settlers clashed with Mzilikazi, but the infamous Zulu chief was later defeated and fled north. The Dutch, German and French settlers who established themselves as Afrikaners, and many of whom established themselves as farmers, or Boers, attempted to establish an independent republican government, but struggles with the invading British armies put paid to this.
The region's troubles were far from over. The Afrikaners clashed further with local indigenous peoples and then took up arms against the British in the South African (Second Anglo-Boer) War. This bloodiest of wars raged unabated for 3 years, ending on 31 May 1902 with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging, which placed the Orange Free State (and South African Republic) under British rule.
In 1910 the Orange Free State became a province within South Africa. It remained so until after the first democratic elections, when it was renamed the Free State.
There are numerous sites scattered around the province that tell the story of these skirmishes, including battle sites, blockhouses, cemeteries and monuments.
The history of the Free State also includes the discovery of gold, after which the province experienced a gold rush, and mines sprang up overnight. Entire cities were planned around the rich gold deposits, which are today rated among the best in the world.
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
Free State Tourism
Tel: +27 (0)51 409 9900
How to get here
Fly direct from any of South Africa’s major cities to Bloemfontein.
If you’re driving from Johannesburg or Cape Town, take the N1 south and north respectively to Bloemfontein. From Durban, take the N3 out of KwaZulu-Natal, and pick up the N5 at Harrismith to Bloemfontein.
Best time to visit
Spring to autumn (September to April). Summer days get very hot, while winter days are mild, with cold evenings. Snow regularly falls on the eastern highlands.
Tours to do
Tour Winnie Mandela House at Brandfort; the region’s various wine cellars; the self-drive tourism routes, including the Battlefields, Friendly N6, BBT Heritage and Goldfields routes; the National Museum in Bloemfontein; the Basotho Cultural Village; the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
What to pack
If you’re keen on hiking, pack some good sneakers or boots and head out to the Golden Gate Highlands National Park for any number of treks.
What to eat
Traditional boerekos (farmers’ food) and potjiekos (pot stew) in most towns and villages; authentic African cuisine at the many African cultural villages; the Free State’s famed mielies (corn on the cob) and juicy cherries.
Traditional arts and crafts at the province's cultural villages and centres; cherry products in Ficksburg.