Fort Snelling: First European military outpost in Minnesota barely survived the interstate highway system

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If you’ve ever wondered what pioneer life was like–and who hasn’t?–spend a summer afternoon at Historic Fort Snelling experiencing an array of “living history” exhibits, talking with actors in costume and in character, and browsing the 17 restored buildings there. The historic fort has seen decay, disruption and change but now has been restored and rebuilt and is much as it was in its beginnings. “With the construction of the fort in the 1820s, the history of St. Paul as a community began,” says Virginia Brainard Kunz in her book St. Paul: The First 150 Years. It’s the site of the Europeans’ first schoolhouse, the first physician’s practice, and oldest home in the state (the Commandant’s house), according to New Light on Old Fort Snelling by John M. Callender. Likely its hospital was the first in the state as well.

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For almost 30 years after its completion in 1825, Fort Snelling was the northernmost outpost of the United States and a hub of activity. It almost magnetically drew many people to its environs: missionaries, Indians, fur trappers, refugees from the failed Selkirk colony, whiskey merchants, and more. Then, as the frontier moved farther west, Fort Snelling’s role diminished. It became a supply depot, and later was sold to a land developer, according to the Minnesota Historical Society’s brochure about the site. The developer’s plans for a town on the site never materialized, and he sold the property back to the Army when it was needed again, when the Civil War came along. The old fort was revived as a training center for Union Army volunteers. This rejuvenation saved the fort for another era, and after the Civil War it became the headquarters and supply base for the military’s Department of Dakota. During World War II it served as an induction center and 300,000 young men had their first experience with the military there.

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In the 1950s the old fort was almost lost again, deserted and derelict, and a freeway (Highway 5, which now passes underneath) was scheduled to run through it. In 1957-58, an archaeological excavation of the site was made possible by a grant from the Minnesota Statehood Centennial Commission. Only four of the original buildings were still standing–the Hexagonal Tower, the Round Tower, the Officers’ Quarters, and the Commanding Officer’s House. In his book, Callendar describes the excavation and history of each building, plus the seven original structures whose foundations the excavation unearthed–the guardhouse, magazine, school/chapel, sutler’s store, hospital, shops and cistern. The excavators also found the foundations of the original wall that surrounded the fort.

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In 1960 Fort Snelling was named the state’s first National Historic Landmark, and now visitors can visit it during summer months to get a glimpse into life in the 1820s. Each of the seventeen original structures has been painstakingly renovated or restored with all feasible historical accuracy. Featured demonstrations include cannon firing, clothes laundering, cooking a meal for Colonel Snelling’s household, and a court martial. Re-enactors in period costume posted around the fort include several women gathered to sew and visit with their neighbors, a midwife, as well as the fort’s surgeon and sutler. Visitors can stop at the fur trading post and go to the schoolhouse for an orientation, which includes an outline of the fort’s history as well as the events of the day. An 11-minute multi-media display discusses the archaeology findings surrounding the fort, plus extensive displays in some buildings, including one about military life in the wooden barracks (the barracks are furnished to show how the soldiers and officers lived, for example sleeping two a bed, four to a bunk on straw mattresses which visitors are welcome to try themselves) and one about the hospital giving details of medical problems and practices in the early days. As the “surgeon” explained, most of his treatments involved “bleeding, blistering, puking and purging.”

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The Minnesota Historical Society, which administers the historic fort, offers special programs each season. The programs vary from year to year but have included, for example:

*Take Tea with Mrs. Snelling, simulating afternoon high tea in 1827, where visitors learn tea etiquette and an 1820s dance;

*Blacksmith for a Day, where visitors try blacksmithing, brick oven baking, woodturning, and other early-19th-century crafts;

*Recruit for a Day, where guests join the soldiers of the fort to try their hand at military drill, attend a sick call and learn to load a cannon; and

*Breadbaking Class, in which Col. Josiah Snelling’s cook demonstrates how to bake bread in a hearth and guests take home their final results.

*Day camps, such as “Little House in the Fort” for girls 8-12.

The fort’s exhibits do not fail to address some of the darker parts of its history, especially those related to Native Americans and their often cruel treatment by the settlers.

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As of summer 2018, general admission cost for Historic Fort Snelling is $12, $10 for seniors, veterans/active military and college students, and $6 for children 5-17. More information is available at 612-726-1171 or http://www.mnhs.org/fortsnelling. The fort is open Memorial Day weekend then early June through Labor Day, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Parking is free. Plan two to three hours for a thorough, unhurried visit, because there’s much to enjoy and absorb there. Instead of guided tours (though those are available at times), the approach at the fort is one of “living history,” where visitors go at their own pace, talk as long or as little as they want with the fort’s “residents,” and explore the nooks and crannies at their leisure.

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For example, you can learn that the area surrounding the fort was once prairie, primarily grass 6-8 feet high. You will learn that the fort was originally named St. Anthony and was renamed for Josiah Snelling, the commanding officer who oversaw its construction. You may hear of Zachary Taylor, who served as commandant 1828-29, later became president of the United States and was in fact the only U.S. president to live for any time in Minnesota. An equally renowned name is Dred Scott, part of a U.S. Supreme Court case and landmark decision in the history of slavery. You can find out why the fort is diamond-shaped and why it was put there in the first place. You can find out whether Fort Snelling was ever attacked. You can ask about virtually any fort-related topic and get an answer.

At Fort Snelling, visitors and local residents alike can re-live Minnesota’s history in the early nineteenth century. Look for extensive improvements as the fort’s 2020 centennial approaches, and for numerous centennial-related activities and events.

July 2005, revised August 2016 and June 2018

 

 

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