Bravery at the Battle of Tippecanoe and during the War of 1812 distinguished the military career of Colonel Josiah Snelling, but he is best known for commanding Fort Snelling in the 1820s. It was the first permanent U.S. government outpost in what would become the state of Minnesota.
Josiah Snelling was born in Boston in 1782. His family ran a successful banking business, but he built his career by enlisting in the military and working his way up. He first enlisted in the Massachusetts militia as a sergeant in 1803, and then joined the Fourth Infantry Regiment as a first lieutenant in 1809.
Snelling married Elizabeth Bell on August 29, 1804. She gave birth to William Joseph in December of the same year. Elizabeth died in 1810, at the age of twenty-two.
Snelling continued to rise through the ranks. As a captain, he led a decisive charge that was vital to General William Henry Harrison’s victory at Tippecanoe in 1811. He distinguished himself again during the War of 1812, when he was brevetted major for bravery at the battle of Brownstown. Also during the war, Snelling, then thirty, married fifteen-year-old Abigail Hunt on August 13, 1812, in Detroit.
The Snellings spent the years after the war stationed in Plattsburg, New York. There, Abigail gave birth to Henry Hunt on November 8, 1816. He was the second child of Josiah and Abigail; their first, Mary, had been born in 1813. They had three more children who survived past infancy: James, born in 1822; Marion, born in 1825; and Josiah, born in 1827.
A lieutenant colonel by 1818, Josiah Snelling was promoted to full colonel of the Fifth Infantry Regiment on June 1, 1819. He was ordered to the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Peters (now Minnesota) Rivers to replace Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth and establish a headquarters for the Fifth Infantry. After a year at the confluence, Leavenworth’s men had established only temporary quarters.
After his arrival in the fall of 1820, Snelling quickly broke ground on the first permanent barracks. With the help of engineer Lieutenant Robert McCabe, Snelling designed a diamond-shaped, limestone fort on the bluff above the rivers. This construction took five years for the enlisted men to complete.
By 1821, the post was given the official name of Fort St. Anthony. General Winfield Scott made an inspection in 1824 and recommended that it be renamed for its commander. In 1825, the name Fort Snelling became official.
Snelling’s command of the fort focused on survival. He could not always count on the long supply lines that supported it. His men spent most of their time farming and cutting timber, and Snelling was criticized by his subordinate officers for the lack of military drilling that took place.
As commandant, Snelling also collaborated with Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro to represent the U.S. government in meetings with the Dakota and Ojibwe, largely to settle disputes that could disrupt trade.
Snelling illegally utilized the labor of enslaved people in his household at the fort. He rented the labor of a man named William from Taliaferro, and purchased two women, Mary and Louisa, in 1827.
The colonel was not immune to the tensions that often ran high between officers stationed at the post. Although the articles of war forbade dueling, Snelling made it known that he would accept personal challenges from his subordinates. When Lieutenant David Hunter, who had a history of conflict with William Joseph, challenged him, Snelling had Hunter arrested for conduct unbecoming of an officer. Later, Snelling accepted the quarrelsome Lieutenant Joseph Baxley’s challenge, but Snelling’s heavy drinking prevented them from ever exchanging shots.
Snelling contracted chronic dysentery during the War of 1812, and by 1826, his health was failing. Both his illness and its treatment—typically opium and brandy—may have affected his judgment and command of his subordinates.
Snelling and his family left Fort Snelling in October of 1827, when he was ordered to Jefferson Barracks to testify in Hunter’s court martial. He then went to Washington, D.C., to answer for undocumented expenditures made on the army’s behalf. Snelling faced a possible court martial for embezzlement and for accepting Baxley’s duel challenge. He died in Washington on August 20, 1828, before the accusations against him could be investigated.
Hall, Steve. Fort Snelling, Colossus of the Wilderness. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987.
Luecke, Barbara K. Snelling: Minnesota’s First Family. Eagan, MN: Grenadier Publications, 1993.
M35, M35-A, P1203
Lawrence Taliaferro Papers, 1813–1868
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Papers of Taliaferro, friend of Josiah Snelling and a U.S. Indian Agent to the Ojibwe and Dakota at the St. Peter's Agency near Fort Snelling.
Josiah Snelling Papers, 1779–1828
Manuscript Collection on microfilm, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Photocopied letters and Journal written by Josiah Snelling.
Kunz, Virginia Brainard. “Colonel Snelling’s Journal: Orders, Letters, Lists of Possessions.” Ramsey County History 6, no. 1 (Spring 1969): 9–11.
McKasy-Donlin, Maureen. Commandant's House Interpretation Plan. [St. Paul]: Minnesota Historical Society, 1982.
Neill, Edward D. "Fort Snelling, Minnesota, While in Command of Col. Josiah Snelling, Fifth Infantry." Magazine of Western History 8, no. 2 (June 1888): 171–180.
Obst, Janis. “Abigail Snelling: military wife, military widow.” Minnesota History 54, no. 3 (Fall 1994): 98–111.
On June 1, 1819, Josiah Snelling is promoted to Colonel of the Fifth Infantry Regiment and ordered to the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Peters Rivers to establish a fort that will serve as a permanent headquarters for the regiment.
Josiah Snelling is born in Boston, Massachusetts.
Snelling marries Elizabeth Bell on August 29. The marriage lasts for six years until her death in 1810.
Snelling receives a commission from the regular army and joins the Fourth Infantry Regiment as a first lieutenant.
Snelling fights in the Battle of Tippecanoe as part of General William Henry Harrison’s campaign to break up Tecumseh’s Indian Confederation. Snelling leads a charge that dislodges the enemy from a vital position and secures a victory for Harrison.
Snelling marries Abigail Hunt on August 13, while both are living in Detroit during the War of 1812. He is thirty years old and she is fifteen.
Fort Shelby (sometimes referred to as Fort Detroit) is attacked by the British and surrendered by the Americans on August 16. Josiah and Abigail Snelling become prisoners of war three days after their wedding.
Snelling is promoted to full colonel of the Fifth Infantry Regiment and ordered to the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Peters rivers to replace Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth and establish a headquarters for the Fifth infantry.
Initial construction of the fort is completed, and it is renamed Fort Snelling in honor of its commander.
Colonel Snelling moves his office from the cellar to the main level of his house, indicating his failing health.
In May, Snelling purchases two enslaved women, Mary and her daughter Louisa, from a Mr. Bostwick of St. Louis for four hundred dollars.
Snelling rejects Lieutenant David Hunter’s challenge to a duel and has him arrested, yet he accepts Lieutenant Joseph Baxley’s challenge the same year.
The Snelling family leaves Fort Snelling for the last time in October when the colonel is ordered to Jefferson Barracks outside of St. Louis to testify at Lieutenant David Hunter’s court martial.
In November, Snelling is called to Washington, D.C., to go over the alleged mishandling of the military accounts he oversaw while in command of Fort Snelling. His personal debt, mostly borrowed from military accounts, totals four thousand dollars.
Mary Snelling dies in Washington, D.C., on January 17, due to a fever.
Josiah Snelling dies in Washington, D.C., on August 20, most likely due to a flare up of his chronic dysentery.