Not much has changed at Historic Fort Snelling in the past 40 years. The thousands of Minnesota schoolchildren who visit the fort on field trips each spring have many of the same experiences their parents’ generation did.
Operated since the 1970s by the Minnesota Historical Society as a living history museum, Fort Snelling is designed to transport visitors 200 years back in time, using costumed re-enactors to teach them about the outpost’s early days on the American frontier.
“It’s a really limiting window into the history of the site,” said Matt Cassady, a program development specialist for the Historical Society. “A big part of our programming for a long time has been trying to re-create the atmosphere of the early 1800s. That’s a blip in the history of this place.”
The fort has many more stories to tell, added Cassady, who began working there as a re-enactor in 2008.
The Historical Society hopes that by Fort Snelling’s bicentennial in 2020, visitors will get a more complete picture of its complex past. The fort and its environs have been the backdrop for many pivotal moments in Minnesota history — some proud, other
Cassady, who serves on the Historical Society’s 2020 initiative task force, said the group is working to develop new programming, which highlights episodes that are often overlooked.
One of the places they’ve turned to for help is the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a New York-based nonprofit organization that represents 225 historic sites in 55 countries, including Fort Snelling.
Sarah Pharaon, the coalition’s training coordinator, has held two seminars with Fort Snelling and Historical Society staff members to prepare them to navigate difficult, often uncomfortable conversations about the site’s darker chapters.
“Is it easy to do? Not necessarily. There’s a reason museums and historic sites have existed for so many years in the way they have,” Pharaon said. “There are always stories that are more comfortable to share, that are easier to tell.”
While the fort’s frontier days will remain part of its programming, that period will share the spotlight with several other histories.
One group that has long been conspicuously absent from Fort Snelling’s programming is the Native American community.
Archaeological evidence suggests Native Americans have occupied the area around Fort Snelling for more than 10,000 years, and many Dakota trace the origin of their people to the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers — a sacred site called “Bdote” in the Dakota language.
But it is also a site of tragedy for the Dakota people. Following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, innocent Dakota women, children and elderly men were imprisoned in a concentration camp in the river bottom. Many died there.
“From a Dakota perspective, I’ve heard many people say that it’s a place of genesis and genocide,” Cassady said.
Fort Snelling is also the site of Minnesota’s first significant African-American population — as many as 20 slaves lived at the fort between 1820 and 1858. Among them were Dred and Harriet Scott, whose unsuccessful bid for freedom ended with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that pushed the country toward civil war.
It was also occupied by the all-black 25th Infantry of the U.S. Army — the famed Buffalo Soldiers — for a handful of years in the 1880s.
During World War II, the Military Intelligence Service operated a secret language school at the fort to teach Japanese-American soldiers to interrogate enemy prisoners and translate captured documents.
The school’s graduates had a profound impact on the war effort and saved many lives — all of this while many of their families were locked away in internment camps in the western United States.
Over the past several years, the Historical Society has worked bits and pieces of these stories into its programming.
A short orientation film shown at the visitor center now gives guests a taste of the fort’s larger history.
Fort employees still wear period garb to keep up the look and feel of the frontier era, but they no longer portray characters from the early 1800s, which prevented them from answering visitor questions that fell outside the time period they “lived in.” They are now able to speak to a wider range of the fort’s history.
“That was when I saw the first shift in visitor expectations,” Cassady said. “It allowed the staff to talk about the bigger picture.”
The Historical Society’s plans for its 2020 bicentennial would move the site further in that direction.
In addition to expanded programming, these plans call for a new three-story visitor center in one of two 135-year-old barracks buildings adjacent to the historic fort. This facility would include permanent or rotating exhibits addressing the full spectrum of the fort’s history.
The new visitor center would also include venues for community groups to hold lectures, film screenings and other events related to the site. It would also house the fort’s museum store, meeting rooms and staff offices. The current visitor center would be razed.
While the fort is now open seasonally for about seven months of the year, this new facility would allow it to remain open year-round.
A former ordnance warehouse next door would serve as an orientation center and would likely include a cafe.
“The new site will more actively explore that wider range of history,” Cassady said. “Over the next few years, we’re going to be phasing in different elements, so that by 2020, the experience you have here will be different than anything you’ve ever seen.”