Fort Snelling: Going Back in Time


Located in the heart of the Twin Cities where the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers converge, Fort Snelling State Park provides not only a quick nature escape, but also the opportunity to temporarily go back in time. When I walk through the park, I always find myself reflecting on the early days of Minnesota’s history and imagining what it must have been like for the first people living here – then I’m brought back to reality by the roar of an airplane and the soft hum of the freeway. Growing up a fan of Little House on the Prairie, I know that my notions of the early days of life in Minnesota are often romanticized, so I set to work looking into the history of the park. Unfortunately in addition to the more well-known Dred Scott connection, I found a large portion of disappointing history but also some that surprised me.

fort snelling landscape

The fort was originally built between 1820 and 1825; it was retired from service in 1946. I think that the Minnesota History Center’s website about Fort Snelling says it best when they describe the area as “a place of major social, cultural, and historical significance to all people inhabiting the region, a place whose history evokes both pride and pain.” It came as no surprise to learn that the area selected for the fort (and later preserved in the state park) was an important place to the Dakota people. It was also of significance to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 when two of the Dakota leaders were imprisoned and later hanged there (the remaining 38 were hanged in Mankato in the largest one-day execution in American history, an order signed by President Abraham Lincoln).
fort snelling mississippi river

It made my heart especially heavy to learn that the area around the fort was set up as a concentration camp following the U.S.-Dakota War for the internment of the Dakota where they suffered greatly, hundreds dying within is walls between 1862 and 1863. Survivors from the camp were expelled to Nebraska. This camp was in the area below the bluff which is now part of the state park, an area that I suspect we have hiked extensively over the years. I’m not going to tell you what the Hiking Club password is at this park, but it makes a lot more sense now after this research.

fort snelling bridge
Minnesota State Highway 55 (the Mendota Bridge) now crosses over the bottomlands of the park

There were lighter moments in the history. It made me giggle to read that Zachary Taylor (future president of the United States) was stationed at the fort in 1828 but found my beloved countryside to be “miserable and uninteresting.” He was southern-born and we can only assume that he was stationed at the fort during winter. And there was mention of those too. I felt so much sympathy when I read that temperatures were below freezing every day through February and March in 1843 with March being the coldest on record at that time. It made me wonder how they beat the elements without the modern-day luxuries we have today.
fort snelling landscape

The fort was also a mustering location for the Civil War and I’m proud that the First Minnesota Infantry Regiment were the first volunteers offered up in defense of the Union. Soldiers convened at the fort for World War I and II as well. At its height in 1942, approximately 800 recruits a day were processed at its Reception Center with more than 300,000 recruits coming through Fort Snelling during World War II.

There was also the Military Intelligence Service Language School at the fort in 1944. Originally in San Francisco, this school was moved to Minnesota in 1942 when Japanese-Americans were forcibly relocated outside of California. In the school, second-generation Japanese-Americans were trained for intelligence and translation work with the overseas forces. More than 6,000 students graduated from the school in the years it was operated with skills in translating intercepted documents on the front, monitoring Japanese radio broadcasts and interrogating captured enemy soldiers.

fort snelling at the convergence of the minnesota river and the mississippi river
Fort Snelling on the bluffs at the convergence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers

The fort was retired from service in 1946 and declared a national historic monument in 1960. It is located on top of a bluff where the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers converge. It was an active military base for more than 120 years and is home to a national cemetery where more than 180,000 service men and women are buried, including my dad, grandfather, and great-uncle.

Fort Snelling State Park was established in 1961, creating 2,500 acres of public recreation around the fort area to preserve the bottomland forest, rivers and areas below the river bluffs in addition to the fort. Over 400,000 people visit the park each year.
burrs at fort snelling

Visit the Minnesota History Center’s site on Fort Snelling History for more information including a fantastic interactive timelineon this history. It was a primary source used in researching this post.

Portions of this post originally appeared on 4/10/2014

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By Heidi Van Heel
Heidi Van Heel

Heidi Van Heel

Writer, freelancer, and believer in magic living in Minneapolis. In my free time, I love reading, exploring the great outdoors, and experimenting in the kitchen.

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