Where the Waters Meet: Stories of Historic Fort Snelling video transcript

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Alisha Volante: Fort Snelling is like this living breathing artifact.

LaJune Lange:  When you walk the grounds it produces a visceral feeling.

John Anfinson: America’s history is here on this land.

LaJune Lange: People died on those grounds at Fort Snelling. People were confined. There were hardships as well as many noble things in defense of our country in times of war. Alisha Volante: It’s in a critical space where the Mississippi and the Minnesota rivers meet.


Amber Annis: First and foremost, this is Dakota land.

Sydney Beane: Within our Dakota stories, it is one of our main creation places.

female narrator: Before Fort Snelling was built, this region was home to the Dakota, who moved seasonally between communities along nearby rivers, lakes and prairies.

Sydney Beane: The people who I represent in my family were here and found the beauty, found the land that provided for them, found the stories that sustained their families.

narrator: Further north lived the Ojibwe, also known as the Anishinaabe. By the 1800s, the Dakota and Ojibwe had been trading, intermarrying, and forming alliances with Europeans for nearly two hundred years. Both nations had formed deep ties with Great Britain that the United States was eager to break.

LaJune Lange: We came into this whole Midwestern Wisconsin Territory and then eventually Minnesota, trying to stay ahead of competition. But also we discovered, wow, look at all the furs and animals and look at all the rivers. The unique thing about Minnesota and Fort Snelling are the rivers.

JohnAnfinson: Zebulon Pike comes up the river in 1805, the first American explorer to come up the Mississippi River as a result of the Louisiana Purchase, to negotiate a treaty with the Dakota to get this land.

narrator: Two of the seven Dakota leaders present, Cetaŋ Wakuwa Mani (Hawk That Hunts While Walking) and Waŋyaga Inażiŋ (He Sees Standing Up), signed the document. Although Zebulon Pike had no authority to make such an agreement, the U.S. Senate ratified it.

narrator: The U.S. eventually paid the Dakota in goods worth $2,000, though Pike had estimated the land was valued at $200,000 dollars. Following the War of 1812, the federal government decided to build a fort on the land. Construction began in 1820 and lasted nearly 5 years. As part of a policy of westward expansion into American Indian lands, Fort Snelling was intended to secure the area surrounding the upper Mississippi River for the United States. An Indian Agency was built near the fort in an effort to control relations with Native people in the region. Originally named after the nearby Saint Anthony Falls, the Army soon renamed the fort after its first commanding officer: Colonel Josiah Snelling. At the time, Fort Snelling was the northwestern most outpost of the United States. Steamboats brought supplies from more than 700 miles away.

Alisha Volante: You can see this wonderful crossing of these two rivers and how important this space must have been. Especially during a time when that is how you travelled. That’s the two highways.

narrator: Within a few years, around 500 people were living at the fort, including about 250 enlisted soldiers, officers and their families, civilian merchants, laundresses, servants and enslaved African Americans. By the 1830s slavery was against the law throughout the north, and by entering Free Territory, an enslaved person was legally free. However, these laws were ignored at forts across the North, including Fort Snelling. On any given year between 15 and 30 enslaved people cooked, cleaned, and did laundry and other household chores for officers at the fort. In 1836, a doctor brought an enslaved person, a man named Dred Scott, to live at the fort where he met and soon married another enslaved person, Harriet Robinson.

Lynne Jackson: They were here in free territory but they were here as slaves and yet this place, along with Fort Armstrong in Illinois, allowed them to sue for their freedom because they had been in free territory for a significant amount of time.

narrator: The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, writing the majority decision in 1857, declared that Congress could not ban slavery in the territories.

as Roger B. Taney: The black race has for more than a century been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and they have no rights which the white man is bound to respect.

narrator: Far from settling the issue, the Dred Scott decision inflamed passions in a nation that had become bitterly divided over slavery.

Lynne Jackson: This was such a critical, pivotal situation that they found themselves in. It divided a nation. It caused a war.


narrator: In 1861, the Civil War began. Minnesota had been the first state to offer troops for the Union Army. Fort Snelling served as the central rendezvous and training center for Minnesota's 25-thousand Civil War soldiers, and was expanded to meet their needs. as Sgt. James Wright: It made an excellent place for the rendezvous of the Minnesota volunteers where the two great rivers of the state--united and hurried southward to where traitors were plotting and planning to divide the nation.

Eric Ahlness: As a veteran who served in the Minnesota National Guard knowing that it was the place where the 1st Minnesota mustered into Federal Service to fight the Civil War as the first volunteer regiment for the Union, that holds a special place.

narrator: Meanwhile, another war, this one entirely within Minnesota’s borders, was about to begin. For decades settlers had been moving west onto American Indian lands and the US government was determined to make more land available for them. The Dakota and Ojibwe were pressured into signing a series of treaties to give up the land that would become Minnesota. They reluctantly exchanged this land for money and goods, each time hoping that the treaty promises would mean survival for future generations. By the 1860s, there were more than 100,000 settlers living in the new state of Minnesota, and most of the region’s Dakota people were left with a small reservation along the Minnesota River valley.

narrator: Many Dakota were frustrated by years of broken treaty promises, corruption and policies intended to destroy traditional ways. Crop failures and scarce game left many Dakota hungry and in 1862, government treaty payments were late.

as Taoyateduta, Little Crow: We have waited a long time. The money is ours but we cannot get it. We have no food but here are stores filled with food. When men are hungry they help themselves.


narrator: On August 18th, 1862, a group of Dakota began attacking trading posts, farms and settlements. Soldiers from Fort Snelling were organized and sent to fight. Minnesotans were frightened and confused, including many Dakota, who were divided over the conflict. After six weeks of fighting that left hundreds dead, the Dakota were overpowered. After the war, many white Minnesotans demanded swift retribution. More than 300 Dakota men were imprisoned and 38 men were executed in Mankato, Minnesota, the largest mass execution in United States history. Later, two leaders within the Dakota war party, Sakpedan and Wakanozanzan, were imprisoned, tried and executed at Fort Snelling. About 1700 Dakota, mostly women, children and the elderly who had not fought in the war, were marched to several concentration camps around Fort Snelling, including a cramped wooden stockade in the river bottom below the bluff, to eventually be expelled from Minnesota.

Amber Annis: People at that point, disease-stricken. People dying. Children dying. What that must have been like.

narrator: More than 100 died that winter.

Amber Annis: And then the subsequent removal, exile. Indian people being treated like cattle. Being shoved onto steamboats because it was to exterminate Indian people from the state of Minnesota.

narrator: In spring 1863, most of the remaining Dakota were removed to reservations outside of Minnesota. Hundreds more would die in prison, during the removals, on barren reservations and in decades of continuing clashes with the U.S. government. Today, many Dakota have returned to Minnesota, although most remain outside its borders. The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 left Dakota society fractured and the war’s effects can still be felt as Dakota people work to rebuild communities and preserve their culture. In 1987, Dakota communities built a memorial on the site of the camp below the Fort; a reminder of this painful chapter in the histories of the Dakota people and Minnesota.

Gaby Tateyaskanskan: That confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota River is a really important site to Dakota people because it marks another geographic and ancient sacred place. And then on top of that, that’s where the concentration camp was and where people were in prison, so it has a bittersweet connotation there. It’s a place of rebirth and birth, but it’s also a place of great tragedy.

narrator: By the time the US-Dakota War ended in fall 1862, the bloody war between the North and the South had been raging for seventeen months. The Civil War would drag on for over two more years and result in the deaths of more than three quarters of a million Americans. Though Minnesota was one of the newest and least populated states, its soldiers played a crucial role at Gettysburg and in many other major battles. When the war ended, slavery was abolished, and the Dred Scott decision was undone, but this only signalled the beginning of a long struggle for civil rights. The fort continued on as a major base of military operations in the wars on American Indian nations on the western plains. By the 1880s, it was home to the 25th Infantry, an African American regiment renowned as the “Buffalo Soldiers” who served in those western campaigns. By the early 20th century, the United States had become a global power. Units mustered at Fort Snelling served in Cuba, the Philippines, Mexico and Europe. During the First World War, the fort was the first stop for thousands of Midwestern recruits. It also housed an officers’ training school and a hospital for returning veterans. Gradually the face of the fort changed as old buildings were torn down and new ones were built. By the 1940s, the only original structures left were the Round Tower, the Commandant’s House, the Officer’s Quarters, and the South Battery. World War II saw more people stationed at Fort Snelling than ever before.

Harold Brown: Fort Snelling was big time, a big recruitment place. I was just one of the mob, got my paperwork and I was on my way to Biloxi, Mississippi. Fort Snelling is where my whole career in the military started and that was a big starting point in my life.

army officer: Men, you’ll be at this reception center about five days. After that time you’ll be sent to some other camp for your basic training. We don’t know where you’re going, neither will you until you leave for the train. While you’re here, keep your eyes and ears open, learn to do things the Army way, and you’ll get along swell.

narrator: During the war, more than three-hundred thousand men and women passed through Fort Snelling. Most only stayed a few days before being shipped to other bases to begin their basic training. Fort Snelling was also home to the Military Intelligence Service Language School. Most teachers and students were Japanese American men and women who had volunteered or been drafted from internment camps.

Bud Nakasone: To have combat with Japan you need to understand the language and the people and the background of the people and the culture of Japan, history of Japan and so on.

Sally Sudo: They did a great service in letting the American public know that we are not the enemy. That we are fighting for our country just the same as anyone else.

narrator: After the war, U.S. military leaders estimated that the Language School’s contributions helped shorten the war by two years, saving millions of lives. Fort Snelling closed as a regular military base in 1946. In the 1950s, plans for a new freeway running through the old fort inspired a public effort to save the remnants of the fort’s oldest buildings. In 1960 Fort Snelling became Minnesota’s first National Historic Landmark. More recently, it was named the state’s first Site of Conscience and its first National Treasure. Today the fort exists as a symbol, one of pride and strength to some, to others, one of struggle and imprisonment.

Eric Ahlness: Fort Snelling provides a rich array of experiences from people from all kinds of different perspectives and affinities. It’s something we really have to preserve because it provides lessons from so many perspectives.

Amber Annis: All those stories are indicative of the kind of power that Fort Snelling has for people. Juxtaposed right next to that patriotism and that honor and that pride, is despair. It’s Indian exile, it’s Indian removal, it’s a concentration camp for Dakota people. Because we understand that, that only makes us better people. It only makes us stronger.

Sydney Beane: The stories here resonate at all levels as to people’s relationships to the land, to the water, to their homelands, to the conflicts in life they experience. And so I think in one sense that’s the history of all of us.