By the time Fort Snelling was built in the 1820s, slavery was a reality in the Northwest Territory. Fur traders often utilized the labor of enslaved people and some officers at the post, including Colonel Josiah Snelling, owned enslaved people. Other officers rented the use of enslaved people from US Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro. It is estimated that throughout the 1820s and 1830s anywhere from 15 to more than 30 enslaved African Americans lived and worked at Fort Snelling at any one time. These people likely cooked, cleaned, and did laundry and other household chores for their owners.
The officers and civilians who enslaved African Americans at the confluence were in violation of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which stated that slavery was forbidden in the territory gained through the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36°30' latitude line (except within the boundaries of the state of Missouri). Slavery had existed in this region prior to the compromise, however, and it continued in spite of it.
US Army officers received extra pay to retain a servant, something that was expected in the rigid class structure of the military. Some officers utilized enslaved labor instead, adding the extra pay to their overall income. Officers submitted pay vouchers, often using the descriptor “slave,” to collect this extra pay, which was provided to no other government officials. The US Army thus incentivized slavery and essentially paid its officers for enslaving people.
When the First United States Infantry Regiment replaced the Fifth United States Infantry Regiment at Fort Snelling in 1828, slavery at the confluence entered its peak years. The commander of the unit was Lieutenant Colonel Zachary Taylor, future president of the United States. At least seven enslaved people had lived at the fort under the Fifth Infantry, but under the First Infantry, the number swelled to 30 or more. Indian Agent Taliaferro seized the opportunity and imported more enslaved people to the confluence, becoming the region’s largest slaveholder.
Slavery continued at Fort Snelling, ending just before Minnesota statehood in 1858, with only a brief hiatus from 1845 to 1850. The practice of slavery spread to newly constructed Fort Ridgely in 1854. From 1855 to 1857, no fewer than nine people were enslaved at Fort Snelling, the highest number since the 1830s. Slavery at the fort did not end because of legal action. The Tenth United States Infantry Regiment, the last slave-holding unit to garrison the fort, was transferred to Utah in 1857.