Historic Fort Snelling: A Brief History of Fort Snelling
- Development of the U.S. Northwest
- An Outpost in the Wilderness, 1819-1839
- New Roles for an Old Fort, 1851 to early 1900s
- Fort Snelling in WWII
- The Fort Rebuilt, 1950s to Present
Historic Fort Snelling
The story of Fort Snelling is the story of the development of the U.S. Northwest. While surrounded today by freeways and a large urban population, Fort Snelling was once a lonely symbol of American ambition in the wilderness.
The United States gained control over the Upper Mississippi Valley through the Revolutionary War with Great Britain and later Louisiana Purchase from France. This vast territory inhabited by fur traders and Indians still loyal to the British in Canada lay well beyond American settlement. After the War of 1812, the government took physical possession of the valuable Northwest frontier by establishing a chain of Indian agencies and supporting forts from Lake Michigan to the Missouri River.
An Outpost in the Wilderness
These outposts denied non-citizens commercial use of American rivers. British control of the rich fur trade ended. The United States Army kept American Indian lands free of white encroachment until appropriate treaties were signed; apprehended outlaws; and protected law-abiding travelers and traders.
In 1819, the 5th Regiment of Infantry arrived at the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers to build the northwest link in this chain of forts and agencies. Here, where traffic could be controlled on two major rivers, Fort Snelling was completed in 1825. Colonel Josiah Snelling's officers and soldiers permanently changed the landscape. They made roads, built a gristmill and sawmill at St. Anthony Falls, planted hundreds of acres of vegetables, wheat and corn, cut hay for their livestock, felled trees for their fires and made the first documented weather recordings in the area. All the while they enforced the laws and policies of the United States.
Near the fort, at the St. Peter's Agency, Major Lawrence Taliaferro mediated disputes between Minnesota's Dakota and Ojibwe (sometimes spelled Ojibwe or Ojibwa or referred to as Chippewa or Anishinabe) Indians. He attempted to ease tensions between both tribes and their new white neighbors.
For almost 30 years, Fort Snelling was the hub of the Upper Mississippi and the meeting place of diverse cultures. Dakota and Ojibwe gathered at the agency and fort to trade, debate government policy and perform their dances and sports. Traders stopped at the fort while their goods were inspected. The American and Columbia fur companies built headquarters nearby and employees' families settled at nearby Mendota.
Army officers, government officials and an increasing number of eastern tourists stopped at the fort for lodging and supplies. Even Swiss, Scotchish and French immigrants from Lord Selkirk's unsuccessful colony in Canada were given temporary refuge. Forced by the Army to move down river in 1839, they formed the small settlement that grew into the city of St. Paul.
New Roles for an Old Fort
By 1851, treaties had opened much of the new Territory of Minnesota to settlement and pushed the frontier farther west. Newer forts Ridgely, Ripley and Abercrombie took over frontier duties while Fort Snelling was demoted to a supply depot. In 1858, the year Minnesota became a state, the fort was sold to a land developer and platted as a town site. Plans for the city of Fort Snelling were abandoned, however, with the outbreak of the Civil War.
Between 1861 and 1865 Minnesota expanded the fort as a training center for thousands of volunteers who joined the Union Army. After the war, the regular Army returned. Fort Snelling became headquarters and supply base for the military Department of Dakota, which extended from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Regulars from Fort Snelling served in the Indian campaigns and in the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Between 1880 and the early 1900s, scores of new barracks, officers' quarters, and storehouses were built at the post while the decayed buildings of the old stone fort were demolished. During World War II Fort Snelling processed over 300,000 inductees and trained soldiers in duties from operating railroads to speaking Japanese. At war's end the old fort was finally closed and turned over to the Veteran's Administration.
The Fort Rebuilt
In the 1950s, the threat of a freeway through the old fort inspired public effort to save the remnants of Minnesota's oldest buildings. The U.S. Department of the Interior designated Fort Snelling as the state's first National Historic Landmark in 1960, and since then both public and private funds have been used to rebuild the fort. Within its impressive walls costumed guides present a vivid picture of early military, civilian and American Indian life in the region. The adjacent Fort Snelling History Center provides orientation films and changing exhibits on aspects of Minnesota's past, while Fort Snelling State Park below offers dozens of hiking trails and natural settings.