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European American Women at Fort Snelling, 1819–1858

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Washing tubs, boards, and dolly pins at Historic Fort Snelling

Washing tubs, boards, and dolly pins used by interpreters at Historic Fort Snelling to teach visitors about the fort’s laundresses. Photo by Bobbie Scott, 2012.

When the Fifth Infantry Regiment came west in 1819 to build a fort on the bluff where the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers flow together, some of the soldiers brought their wives and daughters with them. Women and girls made up around 20 percent of the fort’s population from the time of the first census in 1849 until at least 1900. These women included the wives and daughters of officers but also lower-class women (wives and daughters of enlisted men, as well as their servants).

The army was divided into two castes: officers and enlisted men. The two groups did not interact casually, and there were even separate hours in the sutler’s store to ensure the two groups wouldn’t come in contact. This division extended to their wives as well; officers’ wives did not socialize with the wives of enlisted men, although they could use them as servants, laundresses, or midwives.

Officers’ wives organized the social events that structured life in the officer class at army forts, including parties, balls, and Sunday school classes. Lower-class women at the fort—wives of enlisted men—were working women. They were usually married to non-commissioned officers (corporals and sergeants). These women worked as laundresses for enlisted men, as servants for officers, or as hospital matrons (essentially laundresses for the hospital).

The 1825 army regulations stated that women could be hired at a rate of three to a company, and one to a detachment or party of seventeen men. They also stated that laundresses would wash the soldiers’ clothes, and that the soldiers would pay the laundresses at a rate determined by the fort’s Council of Administration, which was made up of officers. Sometimes laundresses were paid by the piece, according to the number of items they washed for each soldier.

We don’t know how much the laundresses at Fort Snelling were paid in the 1820s, but we know that at Fort Atkinson in Nebraska during the same time period they were paid fifty cents a month by each soldier whose clothes they washed. If they washed for seventeen soldiers, they could earn $8.50 a month. A sergeant earned eight dollars a month, so laundresses made a major economic contribution to their families. Laundresses also received one food ration per day, straw and firewood, and permission to use the doctor at the post. They were subject to military discipline and could be court martialed (e.g., for talking back to officers or selling liquor to soldiers).

Some women worked as servants for officers. Officers were allowed to draw the pay and rations of one private to compensate them for one private servant. As a result, women who were servants for officers received five dollars per month in the 1820s, just like privates in the army.

The labor pool at Fort Snelling in the 1820s and 1830s was small. Women servants were either the wives of enlisted men or the women who had fled the Selkirk settlement near modern Winnipeg and settled near the fort. Selkirkers Barbara Ann Shadecker and Olympia (no known last name) both worked for Colonel Josiah Snelling and his wife, Abigail. (The Snellings and other officers and officials, including Lawrence Taliaferro, also had enslaved men and women in their households, especially in the 1820s and 1830s. Two of the most famous were Dred and Harriet Scott.)

The 1825 Army regulations allowed two hospital matrons per regiment or one to a post. A hospital matron earned six dollars a month and received one ration a day. We know the name of only one woman who served as a hospital matron in the early years of the fort: Mary Whaley, who gave birth to the youngest of her four children, Daniel, at the fort in 1826. It’s unclear from military records whether her husband, Lester Daniel Whaley, was ever at Fort Snelling, but we know he deserted his family.

Another example of desertion comes from around 1850. The September 1850 census for the fort shows a Jeremiah Mahoney, soldier, with wife Eliza and children William and “Maryon.” Military records show that Mahoney was an ordnance sergeant. The census doesn’t list an occupation for Eliza, but she could have been a laundress. She married, or at least had two children by, William Sloan, a surgeon in the army. Her children William and Marian were born in 1843 and 1845. There is no record of a divorce, but in 1848 she married Mahoney in St. Louis. By 1852 she had left him as well and ended up in Santa Fe with her children. She traveled the Santa Fe trail several times and died in Los Angeles in 1905.

While we know the basic outlines of the lives of European American women at Fort Snelling, we have yet to discover most of their stories. It remains clear that these women—the wives of officers and enlisted men—survived difficult conditions far away from the cities of the East.

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Adams, Barbara Ann Shadecker. “Early Days at Red River Settlement, and Fort Snelling.” Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society 6 (1894): 75–115.
https://archive.org/details/earlydaysatredri00adamrich/page/n4/mode/2up

“An Act to Repeal Certain Acts Respecting the Organization of the Courts of the United States; and for Other Purposes.” Seventh Congress, Sess. I, Ch. 8, 9, 1802.
https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/7th-congress/session-1/c7s1ch9.pdf

Lawrence, Jennifer J. Soap Suds Row: The Bold Lives of Army Laundresses, 1802–1876. Glendo, WY: High Plains Press, 2016.

Scott, Bobbie. “Charlotte Ouisconsin Clark Van Cleve.” MinneCulture In Depth, KFAI radio, 2012.
https://beta.prx.org/stories/78155

Snelling, Henry Hunt. Memoirs of a Boyhood at Fort Snelling. Edited by Lewis Beeson. Minneapolis: N.p., 1939.

Stallard, Patricia Y. Glittering Misery: Dependents of the Indian-Fighting Army. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Stewart, Miller J. “Army Laundresses: Ladies of the ‘Soap Suds Row.'” Nebraska History 61 (1980): 421–436.
https://history.nebraska.gov/sites/history.nebraska.gov/files/doc/publications/NH1980ArmyLaundresses.pdf

United States War Department. “Dress—Personal Cleanliness and Neatness.” Section II, Article 28 of General Regulations for the Army, or, Military Institutes, 47–48. Philadelphia: M. Carey and Sons, 1821.
https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/bookviewer?PID=nlm:nlmuid-0255000-bk#page/64

United States War Department. “Issues to Women.” Section 1147, Article 72 of General Regulations for the Army, or, Military Institutes, 308. Washington, DC: Davis and Force, 1825.
https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/bookviewer?PID=nlm:nlmuid-0255001-bk#page/328

Van Cleve, Charlotte Ouisconsin Clark. Three Score Years and Ten: Life-Long Memories of Fort Snelling, Minnesota, and Other Parts of the West. Minneapolis: Harrison & Smith, 1888.
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/20232

Related Images

Washing tubs, boards, and dolly pins at Historic Fort Snelling
Washing tubs, boards, and dolly pins at Historic Fort Snelling
Fort Snelling
Fort Snelling
Thimble
Thimble
Lead toy soldier
Lead toy soldier
Baby's or toddler's spoon
Baby's or toddler's spoon
Straight pins
Straight pins
Lace-making bobbin
Lace-making bobbin
Glass nipple
Glass nipple
Stoneware bottle
Stoneware bottle
Ceramic plate
Ceramic plate
Reconstructed quarters for enlisted men with families at Historic Fort Snelling
Reconstructed quarters for enlisted men with families at Historic Fort Snelling

Turning Point

In 1819, the Fifth Infantry Regiment arrives at the intersection of the St. Peters (Minnesota) and Mississippi Rivers, called Bdote by the Dakota. Some enlisted men bring their wives, daughters, and female servants with them.

Chronology

1802

Congress passes a law requiring the Army to assign no more than four laundresses to a company and to provide them with one ration per person.

1819

The Fifth Infantry arrives at the confluence of the St. Peters (Minnesota) and Mississippi Rivers and establishes Fort St. Anthony.

1820

Colonel Josiah Snelling arrives at the fort to take over command from Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth. Snelling’s wife, Abigail, and their children accompany him.

1821

Army regulations state that “Laundresses employed to wash soldiers’ clothes will be paid by the piece, according to a rate previously fixed by the council of administration.”

1825

The construction of Fort St. Anthony is completed. Buildings for laundresses are located below the fort, by the river.

1825

General Winfield Scott suggests renaming the fort for the officer in charge of its construction: Colonel Josiah Snelling.

1825

General regulations state that “Issues to women will be at a rate of three to a company, and one to a detachment or party of seventeen men.”

1826

Flooding washes away the laundresses’ quarters at Fort Snelling. The laundresses and their families move inside the fort, leading to overcrowding while new laundresses’ quarters were built.

1849

A census counts the inhabitants of Minnesota Territory for the first time. Some of the wives and children of non-commissioned officers are listed at Fort Snelling.

1858

The fort is decommissioned and sold to Franklin Steele.

1861

Fort Snelling is recommissioned during the Civil War.

1888

Charlotte Clark Van Cleve publishes a memoir of her childhood that includes accounts of life at Fort Snelling in the early 1820s.

1946

Fort Snelling is permanently decommissioned.