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Fort Snelling in the Expansionist Era, 1819–1858

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Oil on canvas painting by David Geister, 2006.

Fort Snelling, c.1835. Oil on canvas painting by David Geister, 2006.

The U.S. Army built Fort Snelling between 1820 and 1825 to protect American interests in the fur trade. It tasked the fort’s troops with deterring advances by the British in Canada, enforcing boundaries between the region’s American Indian nations, and preventing Euro-American immigrants from intruding on American Indian land. In these early years and until its temporary closure in 1858, Fort Snelling was a place where diverse people interacted and shaped the future state of Minnesota.

The junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, called Bdote by the Dakota, has been a sacred gathering place for centuries. Some oral traditions refer to it as the origin place of the first Dakota people.

In 1805 the U.S. Army ordered Lieutenant Zebulon Pike to find the source of the Mississippi River and select sites for military posts in the Northwest Territory. When he arrived at Bdote, Pike made an unauthorized agreement with two Dakota leaders to acquire land for a U.S. fort. He promised that the government would construct a trading post in the area.

The trading post was never built, and Pike’s land cession deal was not binding. In 1819, however, soldiers of the Fifth U.S. Infantry Regiment arrived at the river junction. Construction of the fort began the following year when Colonel Josiah Snelling took command. Initially called Fort St. Anthony, the fort was completed in 1825 and named in honor of its leader. Buildings were constructed by the river landing and stables nearby. The fort had the first European-American school and hospital in what would become Minnesota. Its troops enjoyed a high standard of health relative to other posts.

In its first forty years, the fort’s garrison fluctuated between eighty and three hundred men. Until 1848, it quartered elements of the Fifth and First U.S. Infantry Regiments. Afterward, various infantry, cavalry, and artillery units occupied the post. Its commanders, including the illustrator Seth Eastman, were officers of varying rank.

Soldiers spent their time building new structures, maintaining old ones, and simply surviving at a post hundreds of miles from its nearest supply base. They tended four hundred acres of gardens, hauled supplies, cut firewood, milled flour at St. Anthony Falls, and stood on guard duty. Officers and some enlisted men had families at the fort. Women worked as laundresses, domestic servants, and hospital matrons.

The St. Peters Indian Agency, built on the Fort Snelling military reservation in 1820, was a key site for diplomacy between the U.S. government and American Indian nations. The Indian Agent acted on behalf of the U.S. government. Dakota and Ojibwe people often met with the Agent and the fort commandant for political reasons, including the signing of the Treaty of St. Peters in 1837. The American Fur Company post across the river at Mendota drew Dakota and Ojibwe to the area for trade.

Though it was illegal, slavery existed at Fort Snelling. Between fifteen and thirty enslaved people lived there at any one time throughout the 1820s and 1830s. They likely cooked, cleaned, and did laundry and other chores. Their owners were army officers, government officials, and fur traders.

Lawrence Taliaferro, the St. Peters Indian Agent between 1820 and 1839, owned the largest number of enslaved people in the area. One of them, a woman named Harriet Robinson, married Dred Scott in the mid-1830s. The Scotts’ residence at Fort Snelling formed part of the basis of their suit for freedom in the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court case Scott v. Sandford.

There was little armed conflict at the fort during the expansionist era. The site never came under attack, and U.S. soldiers never engaged American Indians in open combat. There are, however, some records of soldiers committing acts of violence against American Indians.

Fort Snelling remained in service for nearly forty years. By 1858, when Minnesota became the thirty-second state, the U.S. government had established forts further west, and Fort Snelling was no longer considered necessary. The post closed later that year.

The government sold the fort and its military reservation to Franklin Steele, a local businessman and former fort sutler. Steele intended to sell off lots of land for a city named "Fort Snelling." Though his sheep often grazed on the fort’s parade ground, Steele never built the city.

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  • Bibliography
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Beeson, Lewis ed. Snelling, Henry Hunt. Memoirs of a Boyhood at Fort Snelling. Minneapolis: Private Print, 1939.

Case, Martin W. “‘Pike’s Treaty’ – One Bdote Area Myth.” Bdote Memory Map, March 14, 2010.
https://bdote.wordpress.com/2010/03/14/pike-treaty-the-bdote-area-myth/

Hall, Stevens. Fort Snelling: Colossus of the Wilderness. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987.

Hanson, Marcus L. Old Fort Snelling, 1819–1858. Minneapolis: Ross & Haines Inc., 1958.

Historic Fort Snelling. History.
http://www.historicfortsnelling.org/history

M683
Josiah Snelling Papers, 1779–1828
Manuscript Collection on microfilm, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00824.xml
Description: Photocopied letters written by Josiah Snelling.

Kier, Samuel Martin. Two Centuries of Valor: The Story of the 5th Infantry Regiment. Pacific Grove, CA: Park Place Publications, 2010.

Kunz, Virginia Brainard. “Colonel Snelling’s Journal: Orders, Letters, Lists of Possessions.” Ramsey County History 6, no. 1 (Spring 1969): 9–11.

M35, M35-A, P1203
Lawrence Taliaferro Papers, 1813–1868
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www.mnhs.org/library/findaids/m0035.pdf
Description: Papers relating to Taliaferro’s tenure as Indian Agent at St. Peters near Fort Snelling from 1820 to 1839.

Prucha, Paul F. Broadax & Bayonet: The Role of the United States Army in the Development of the Northwest, 1815–1860. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Wingerd, Mary Lethert. North Country: The Making of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Ziebarth, Marilyn, and Alan Ominsky. Fort Snelling: Anchor Post of the Northwest. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1970.

Related Images

Oil on canvas painting by David Geister, 2006.
Oil on canvas painting by David Geister, 2006.
Black and white portrait of Zebulon M. Pike wearing the uniform of an U.S. Army captain, c.1810.
Black and white portrait of Zebulon M. Pike wearing the uniform of an U.S. Army captain, c.1810.
Oil on canvas painting of Colonel Josiah Snelling, c.1818. Artist unknown.
Oil on canvas painting of Colonel Josiah Snelling, c.1818. Artist unknown.
Color image of epaulets worn by Lieutenant Nathan Clark, who served at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, from 1819 to 1827.
Color image of epaulets worn by Lieutenant Nathan Clark, who served at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, from 1819 to 1827.
Black and white portrait of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth, c.1820.
Black and white portrait of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth, c.1820.
Topographical map of Fort St. Anthony (Fort Snelling), 1823. Drawn by Sergeant Joseph E. Heckle with marginal notes by Major Josiah H. Vose, Fifth U.S. Infantry.
Topographical map of Fort St. Anthony (Fort Snelling), 1823. Drawn by Sergeant Joseph E. Heckle with marginal notes by Major Josiah H. Vose, Fifth U.S. Infantry.
Black and white lithograph of Fort Snelling, showing additional buildings on the landing, 1830. Artist unknown.
Black and white lithograph of Fort Snelling, showing additional buildings on the landing, 1830. Artist unknown.
Oil-on-canvas portrait of Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro painted c.1830. Artist unknown.
Oil-on-canvas portrait of Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro painted c.1830. Artist unknown.
Oil on canvas painting depicting Dred Scott at Fort Snelling by David Geister, 2013.
Oil on canvas painting depicting Dred Scott at Fort Snelling by David Geister, 2013.
Oil on canvas painting depicting Harriet Scott at Fort Snelling  by David Geister, 2013.
Oil on canvas painting depicting Harriet Scott at Fort Snelling  by David Geister, 2013.
Watercolor painting of Fort Snelling, c.1844. Painting by John Casper Wild.
Watercolor painting of Fort Snelling, c.1844. Painting by John Casper Wild.
Painting of the prairie just beyond the north side of Fort Snelling, ca.1847. Painting by Seth Eastman.
Painting of the prairie just beyond the north side of Fort Snelling, ca.1847. Painting by Seth Eastman.
Water color painting of Little Crow’s village on the Mississippi by Seth Eastman c.1846–1848.
Water color painting of Little Crow’s village on the Mississippi by Seth Eastman c.1846–1848.
Mendota from Fort Snelling
Mendota from Fort Snelling
Watercolor painting of the interior of Fort Snelling, c.1853. Painting by George F. Fuller.
Watercolor painting of the interior of Fort Snelling, c.1853. Painting by George F. Fuller.
Graphite drawing of Fort Snelling showing landing road with root cellars beneath it and Dakota Indians in the foreground, c.1856. Drawing by B. C. H.
Graphite drawing of Fort Snelling showing landing road with root cellars beneath it and Dakota Indians in the foreground, c.1856. Drawing by B. C. H.
Black and white photograph of Seth Eastman, ca.1860.
Black and white photograph of Seth Eastman, ca.1860.
Oil-on-canvas painting of Henry H. Sibley, 1860.
Oil-on-canvas painting of Henry H. Sibley, 1860.

Turning Point

On September 10, 1820, soldiers of the Fifth U.S. Infantry, under the command of Colonel Josiah Snelling, begin construction of Fort Snelling.

Chronology

1805

Zebulon Pike convinces two Dakota leaders to sign an agreement that cedes Dakota land at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers to the U.S. government. The document is not an authorized treaty and the cession is not binding.

1817

Major Stephen H. Long surveys the land chosen by Pike and declares the construction of a fortification to be essential.

1819

On August 24, the Fifth Infantry arrives at the mouth of the Minnesota River under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth.

1820

Construction of a post called Fort St. Anthony begins on September 10 under the command of Colonel Josiah Snelling.

1823

A schoolhouse is built at Fort St. Anthony. It is the first Euro-American school in what will become the state of Minnesota.

1825

Construction of the fort is completed. It is renamed Fort Snelling in honor of its commander.

1827

The first post office in what will become Minnesota is established at Fort Snelling on July 1.

1827

Two hundred soldiers from Fort Snelling take part in the “Winnebago War” but see no combat.

1828

Future U.S. president Zachary Taylor commands Fort Snelling. He declares it “miserable and uninteresting.”

1836

Cartographer Joseph Nicollet uses Fort Snelling as his base of operations while mapping the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

1837

The United States signs treaties with the Dakota and Ojibwe.

1840

Squatters living on government land around Fort Snelling are evicted by fort troops.

1841

Seth Eastman begins the first of four stints as fort commandant. He creates numerous paintings and sketches of the region.

1848

Troops from Fort Snelling assist in the forced migration of the Ho-Chunk Indians from Iowa and Wisconsin to a reservation in Minnesota.

1858

Franklin Steele purchases Fort Snelling from the U.S. government.