Historic Fort Snelling, St. Paul, MN

August 1, 2018

Fort Snelling has a long, and occasionally ignoble, history. The fort is located on a high bluff at Bdote, pronounced buh-doe-tay, a Dakota word meaning “where waters come together.” Specifically it refers to the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. Initially called Fort St. Anthony it was renamed Fort Snelling after its first commanding officer. It was originally built to keep the British out of the Northwest, allow the exploitation of the area’s resources, and to protect Native Americans. That last one was a surprise to me but the protection didn’t last long.

The old fort was beautifully restored. In the image below, the house in the middle distance was the commandant’s quarters.

Fort Snelling

Fort Snelling’s round tower

The fort has quite a history and it would take a book to tell you about it. So I’ll give you a few samples.

Fort Snelling and Slavery

Although slavery was outlawed in this region, Army officers routinely brought their slaves with them as they moved from post to post. At one point, 33 of 38 officers at the post had slaves. (Technically this was illegal but nobody bothered to put a stop to it.)

The most famous slave to live at Fort Snelling was Dred Scott. He was owned by Army surgeon Dr. John Emerson. While there Dred Scott married another slave, Harriet Robinson, in 1836 or 1837. Dr. Emerson eventually purchased Harriet too. When Dr. Emerson died the Scotts tried to buy their freedom, but Emerson’s widow refused. After a long, sordid legal battle through state and federal courts the infamous Scott v. Sanford decision, more commonly known as the Dred Scott decision, was issued by the US Supreme Court. Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that African Americans could not be US citizens and therefore had no right to sue. The ruling also overturned the Missouri Compromised of 1820, stating that slave owners could take their property, including slaves, anywhere in the US. This ruling pushed the United States one giant step closer to civil war.

Where Dred Scott and his wife lived

As the US expanded westward, the need to keep Fort Snelling dropped. The fort, along with 8,000 acres of land, was sold for $90,000 and decommissioned on June 1, 1858. The buyer intended to sell lots for the “City of Fort Snelling” but the plan collapsed during the Panic of 1857.

Fort Snelling and the United States-Dakota War

When the Civil War started, Minnesota reacquired the fort and enlarged it. Many of Minnesota’s recruits learned how to be soldiers here.

By this time, many Dakota believed they had suffered from broken promises and ill treatment. Crops on their reservation failed in 1861 which led to a winter of near starvation. Their treaty with the United States called for an annual annuity payment, but the payment was late in coming because of the Civil Wat. Because Indian agents preferred to disburse the annuity payment all at one time, they refused the Dakota demands to at least give them the food they were due. This conflict spiraled out of control and led to a brutal six week war that engulfed the Minnesota River Valley. Troops from Fort Snelling marched against the Dakota, defeating them at the Battle of Wood Lake on September 23, 1862.

A military commission tried 392 Dakota men for their roles in the war and sentenced 303 to death. Some of the trials were as short as five minutes. President Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38 of the condemned Dakotas. Those 38 were hung on December 26, 1862 in the largest mass execution in United States history. The executions did not take place at Fort Snelling.

In October, 1,658 Dakota, mostly women, children, and the elderly were forced to encamp on the river bottom below Fort Snelling. Soldiers built a 12-foot stockade fence around the encampment. The US Army and the Department of the Interior could not agree on who should be responsible for caring and feeding the internees. During the winter of 1862-63 an outbreak of measles killed between 130 and 300 Dakotas. In the spring of 1863, the surviving Dakotas were forced aboard steamers and taken to a reservation at Crow Creek in the Dakota Territory.

Wokiksuye K’a Woyuonihan honors the 1,600 Dakota people who were imprisoned here during the winter of 1862-63.

Wokiksuye K’a Woyuonihan monument

Fort Snelling in World War II

During World War II the fort expanded to over 300 buildings which housed and provisioned 300,000 men and women. At one point the base could process up to 800 recruits per day.

The Fourth Army Intelligence School was established in San Francisco in 1941. Its mission was to recruit and train second generation Japanese (called Nisei). After Pearl Harbor, the school was moved to Minnesota where it was rename the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS). The school eventually relocated to Fort Snelling in August 1944. Students learned how to read and write Japanese, interrogation and translation skills, document analysis, geography and map reading, the structure of the Japanese military, and about Japanese politics and society. After the war the school expanded yet again as more linguists were needed for the occupation of Japan.

MISLS training session

When World War II military intelligence documents were declassified in the 1970s the true contributions of these linguists became more widely known. Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, chief of intelligence in the Pacific, credited the Nisei linguists with shortening the war by two years, saving up to a million lives and billions of dollars.

Fort Snelling was decommissioned for the second and final time on October 14, 1946.

As far as military bases go, this one had quite a history and is well worth the time to pay it a visit.


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