The history of Fort Snelling is representative of the westward expansion of the United States in the 1800s. In the summer of 1805, Lt. Zebulon Pike was given the difficult assignment of conducting a reconnaissance of the upper Mississippi River. He had orders to find the source of the Mississippi, purchase sites from American Indians for future military posts, and to bring a few important chiefs back to St. Louis for talks. He took a force of 20 men on a 70-foot keelboat up the Mississippi, but he had little time to prepare for his trip. There was no interpreter of Indian languages along, no physician or anyone with medical training, and very limited scientific equipment.
Pike and his men explored the river and met with American Indians, switching from their keelboat to two barges at Prairie du Chien. On September 23, 1805, they met with the Mdewakanton Indians at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Pike purchased over 155,000 acres from the Indians for a military reservation, although the government was slow to act on Pike's bargain with the Dakota. To the annoyance of the Indians, they were not paid until 1808 by Congress, and then only a paltry $2,000. The treaty site is now known as Pike Island.
After the War of 1812, the United States 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. Fort Snelling was constructed as one of these forts in 1819.
The completion of the fort in 1825 on the bluff above the confluence of the two rivers brought profound changes to the landscape and to the lives of the people in the area. 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.
As later treaties opened much of the new Territory of Minnesota to settlement and pushed the frontier farther west, Forts Ridgely, Ripley, and Abercrombie took over frontier duties, and Fort Snelling became a mere supply depot. However, the outbreak of the Civil War brought renewed activity to the Fort. Between 1861 and 1865 Minnesota expanded the fort as a training center for thousands of volunteers who joined the Union Army.
Fort SnellingDuring the Civil War, one of the most tragic events for the Indians occurred: the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. This conflict led to the largest mass execution in U.S. history when 38 Dakota men were hanged at Mankato. Many more Dakota were interned in miserable conditions on Pike Island below Fort Snelling during the harsh winter of 1862-63. Of the approximately 1,600 elders, women and children who were held, hundreds died before the survivors were forcibly removed to Dakota Territory.
After the Civil War, the regular Army returned to Fort Snelling. It became the 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.
Steps to preserve and restore Historic Fort Snelling began in 1956. It was a dire threat that initiated action. Although the council of the Minnesota Historical Society throughout the decade after the fort's 1946 de-commissioning discussed ways to preserve the old fort, it was the proposal of the Minnesota Highway Department to build a new bridge with a freeway and cloverleaf interchange right through the site of the old fort that finally brought action.
Russell W. Fridley, the Minnesota Historical Society's executive director, called a meeting of concerned groups to look at the highway staff's plans. There was an outpouring of citizen support for saving the old fort site. Finally, Governor Orville L. Freeman convinced the Highway Department to build a tunnel under the area between the round tower and the chapel so as to leave the old fort site intact and accessible.
The first steps toward restoring the Historic Fort began in 1957 when Helen M. White discovered engineering drawings of the old fort in the National Archives in Washington while on assignment there from the Minnesota Historical Society. The society's archaeologists continued to "read designs of the long-gone buildings from the remnants of their foundations."
The U.S. Department of the Interior designated Fort Snelling as the state's first National Historic Landmark in 1960. Restoration progressed steadily over a period of some fifteen years, from 1963 to 1979.
Limestone to match that originally used was found on properties owned by the City of Saint Paul and Webb Publishing Company, both of which let the stone be quarried free of royalty. The restoration began on the round tower and proceeded with rebuilding the walls on the portion of the old fort area encompassed in the initial 320-acre federal gift. Restoration of the old fort went on under the supervision of the Historical Society, which by agreement with the Department of Natural Resources took complete operational responsibility for it.*
In the last decades of the 19th Century, both public and private funds were used to rebuild the fort, and maintain its structures. Within its impressive walls costumed guides present a vivid picture of early military, civilian and American Indian life in the region.