Historic Fort Snelling
St. Paul, Minnesota, USA
Minnesota Historical Society Site
During the pause in travel imposed upon us during the COVID-19 pandemic, my husband and I embarked on Travel Dates to sites in our home town and state. These sites were places that I would include on a Top Sites to Visit list if I were a visitor and were to travel to Minnesota and its world-class Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
This year (2022-23), our goal is to explore the sites of the Minnesota Historical Society. I took out a membership which will gain free admission to all the sites plus other member perks – and will pay for itself in only 3 visits!
My Fort Snelling Story
Travel Date was planned. I sadly realized that it has been literally decades since I last visited Fort Snelling – with our young school-age daughters!
My husband had never been on-site; he had only seen it from the freeway and river. I was excited to share it with him, curious to get his input on the site and its interpretation of history as a university professor of history and political science. Rumors of history being rewritten by the Minnesota Historical Society had surfaced recently. Were the accusations true?
Newly revamped, remodeled, revitalized and reopened after a 2 year closure, we were anxious to check it out! During this time, Fort Snelling, local Native American Nations and the Minnesota State Legislature had made the news on several controversial issues including the museum’s focus, accusations of revisionist history and even its name.
In the end, we felt that it was balanced, informative and inclusive of the many peoples and stories that make up its history.
Fort Snelling was the destination of one of our favorite home school field trips! Not only was it a great hands-on history lesson, its location high on the bluff at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers was a picturesque setting. We literally felt as if we were being transported back in time and space during our visits. We enjoyed the interpretive stations located throughout the historic site where we could explore themes and topics in-depth. History came alive in a way that books, lectures – and even films – could not do.
Historic Fort Snelling Today
Historic Fort Snelling today is a National Historic Landmark that resides on Dakota homeland, at the confluence of two rivers.
Its history spans 10,000 years, home to a wide history that includes Native nations and people, trade, soldiers and veterans, enslaved African Americans, immigrants, and changing landscape. Here, the stories and experiences of many people converge and collide, and continue to unfold today.
(Historic Fort Snelling Visitor Guide, June 2022)
Historic Fort Snelling in 1850
The Changing Landscape
One of the things I find fascinating in viewing art and photographs from the past is that they often shed light on what places I see in the present looked like in the past.
Such is the case of the changing landscape of Fort Snelling and surrounding area from nearly 200 years ago. This oil painting at the Mia (Minneapolis Institute of Art) is a great example. In a landscape barren of trees, one can see Fort Snelling in the center background, Fort Snelling state park is in the middle at the convergence of the rivers. The Sibley House and Native teepees are in the foreground. Today, the entire area is covered with trees.
“Although the upper reaches of the Mississippi River were sparsely settled in the 1850s, a surprising number of artists sought out the northern landscapes. Edward Thomas’s View of Fort Snelling exemplifies frontier images in which Dakota tipis, houses of the families associated with the American Fur Company, and the military fort exist side by side. Such depictions served as accurate topographical representations and also as visual records of a landscape already in transition.”
On arrival, the first thing one encounters is the vast open space lined with buildings around its edges. The distinctive brick building at the far end was the Commanding Officer’s House.
The Parade Ground is where the military practiced their exercises. Other uses included space during the long, cold Minnesota winters for stacked wood.
The perimeter of the Parade Ground was lined with housing units, a hospital, trades, a school, a commissary and guard house.
The Archaeology Exhibit in one of the buildings was fascinating and one of my favorite exhibits! It included artifacts discovered in digging on the site. Old photos chronicled its history. This one is of the Parade Grounds during the 2nd Minnesota State Fair, 1860.
The Round Tower is a highlight on the visit! It was designed as a site of “last-ditch” defense, as seen by the musket slits facing inside and outside the fort’s walls. A 12-pound field gun was once mounted atop the tower.
A massive pillar supports the center and circular stairs lead to the 2nd floor and rooftop of the Round Tower.
The Round Tower has had a fascinating life story! Over the years it has housed a private home, a museum – and even a commercial beauty shop.
The Round Tower is the ideal place to start a tour of the fort complex. It provides the best view of the grounds and the surrounding area of highways and rivers. Heavy wind gusts on the day we visited caused the need to hold on to one’s hat!
Examples of the living quarters of officers and enlisted people provide a wonderful visual picture of life during the early 1800s in Fort Snelling.
Living Quarters: Commanding Officer’s House
Commanding Officer’s House
The Commanding Officer’s impressive brick house is a focal point of the Parade Grounds. This is one of the original buildings to remain on site over time.
This impressive brick house was home to commanding officer’s families for most of the 1820s to 1940s.
Commanding Officer’s dining room served important visiting dignitaries.
The bedrooms were good examples of commanding officer’s life during that era at the fort.
Living Quarters: Officer’s Apartments
Officers’ Quarters were next door the the Commanding Officer’s House. Each apartment housed a family or multiple bachelor officers as well as officers’ servants.
An Officer’s Quarters house (to the right of the Commanding Officer’s House) has been restored to how it looked in 1846. there would have been 12-14 apartments.
Married officers were allowed a parlor, bedroom, basement kitchen and personal garden. Officers and their families usually utilized domestic help who likely lived in basement kitchens. This apartment is furnished as it may have looked in the 1840s.
Unmarried officers were required to share an apartment. Social conditions of the time dictated that officers should have some form of domestic help who likely cooked, cleaned and cultivated the officers’ gardens.
Living Quarters: Soldiers’ Barracks
The barracks for housing everyone else in the fort ran along the Parade Grounds opposite from the Officers’ Quarters. The Commanding Officer’s House can be seen at the end on the far right. The barracks for enlisted soldiers of the post could house more than 250 soldiers.
Married Quarters. Married families in the 1820s shared living quarters such as represented here. During the 1800s women were allowed to live at military posts, provided they were married to a soldier and worked for the military (i.e. laundress, cooks).
Soldiers Squad Rooms. Single soldiers lived in barracks. During the 1800s each of these rooms was home to 12 soldiers and all their weapons, clothing, equipment and personal belongings.
Kitchens where soldiers prepared and ate their food were in basement areas. Eating was not allowed in the squad rooms to prevent infestations of pests.
Vital to the daily operation of the fort, trade shops made the isolated post mostly self-sufficient.
Also, it was to the huge advantage of a soldier to have a skill. Those skilled in specific trades could be assigned to work in shops and be excused from all other duties except drill and guard duty.
P.C. Skip B. 6/26/22
Several of these trade shops have been reconstructed with interpretive presentations for visitors to experience.
Blacksmith Shop was one we got to experience first-hand with a wonderful demonstration. It once shoed the Army’s work animals, made metal repairs as well as basic nails for construction.
Carpenter’s Shop was essential and had interesting artifacts. Critical to both build and maintain the actual buildings plus furniture, tools, and much of life at the fort.
Wheelwright’s Shop was essential for making and repairing wheels – key to day-to-day operations of the fort.
Other Buildings at the Fort
The fort housed other buildings important to the life of its residents. Here are just a couple we found interesting.
The hospital and the post surgeon tended to the medical needs of both the occupants of the fort and the local community. He also recorded daily weather readings!
Dispensary & Operating Room
The Dispensary served as a pharmacy and operating room for the post surgeon. The surgeon treated soldiers too ill to work as well as travelers, fur traders and Native American Indians.
The post surgeon lived next to the hospital. This is how Dr. John Emerson’s room would have looked in 1936.
The Schoolhouse originally was constructed for the children of Colonel Snelling and officers around 1820s. Later education was extended to the enlisted soldiers, their wives and children.
Essential to the safety of the occupants of the fort, the Cannon Shed housed field artillery and cannons of various sizes.
Slavery makes History at the Fort
The Minnesota Historical Society has, in recent years, added exhibits to provide more depth in the story of the state’s history. This highlights the Dakota who lived on the land for centuries before white settlers arrived. It includes the account of African American slaves before the Civil War and Japanese American soldiers who were trained here in the Twentieth-century.
The specific connection of a famous Supreme Court Decision to Minnesota was an interesting focal point and my “most surprising thing learned.”
Slavery in Minnesota
It was common for officers stationed at Fort Snelling at this time to bring their enslaved servants with them, even if slavery was illegal in this part of the U.S. at this time. Many, like Dr. John Emerson, Fort Snelling surgeon, believed that because enslaved people were legally considered “property,” they had the right to bring them along as they moved.
Dr. Emerson brings his slave
In June 1836, Dr. Emerson, brought a Black enslaved man with him. His name: Dred Scott.
At Fort Snelling, Dred Scott meets and marries his wife, Harriet. We visited their restored living quarters which can be seen below Emerson’s quarters.
Dred Scott Court Case
In the 1840s the Scotts sued for their freedom, arguing that having lived in “free territory” made them free.
Supreme Court Decision & Minnesota
These actions – which began at Fort Snelling, Minnesota – culminated in the controversial Dred Scott Decision of 1857. The US Supreme Court declared that Congress had no right to interfere with the property rights of slave owners. This suit moved the U.S. closer to civil war.
Native Americans & Fort Snelling
As noted, the Minnesota Historical Society has, in recent years, added programs to provide more breadth and depth in the story of the state’s history, especially that of the Dakota who consider the area a sacred place. “Bdote” is their reference to the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. Education and awareness of the thousands of years of Native American inhabitants of this land is highlighted in a variety of ways.
Three Sisters Garden
Like many Native communities, 3 seeds produced the most important crops: corn, beans, and squash. Together, these seeds make up the Three Sisters and are the cornerstone of Native American agriculture. In the Midwest, much of the farming was done by women, and sisters often farmed together. Like sisters, these 3 crops also work together by combining the diversity of their strengths to serve people. (taken from info on the “Three Sisters Garden” placard)
Placards around the site, such as this one, document the life and traditions of the local Native Americans, the Dakota.
Dark Side of History
Placards also document the dark side of the history of the Native Americans in the area. This account was one of the most disturbing. Rather than take up arms, many Dakota had protected white settlers and captives during the war. Despite this fact, following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, 1,600 Dakota, mostly women and children, were forced to march from Camp Release to Fort Snelling.
Arriving on Nov 13, 1862, they were confined under guard in a fenced enclosure below the fort, as seen in this photo. Many died of hunger and disease. Survivors were exiled to Crow Creek Reservations in South Dakota in 1863.
- Admission – there is a fee for entrance. See website for details and generous discounts for specific groups . MNHS members are free. Membership encourages visits to other MNHS sites. Visiting just a couple of sites will more than pay for your membership fee. mnhs.org/fortsnelling
- Getting there – I recommend using a GPS tracker to get there as it can be confusing. This is because it is near the Fort Snelling State Park, the Fort Snelling VA Center, and the MSP International Airport – not to mention the convergence of all the highways and bridges (confluence of two rivers, remember!) 200 Tower Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55111. The MNHS.org/fortsnelling website also has a good link for map and directions to help with one’s directional bearing.
- Parking – a large parking lot is next to the site. There is a parking fee, but a discount for MNHS members is available.
- Accessibility – See specifics on the website. I recommend checking on this prior to visiting as it does include a lot of walking, much of it over uneven terrain.
- Self-guided tours – available all day during open hours. Explore the many buildings of the historic fort, inside and out, at your own pace. Placards are abundantly available to explain and guide you.
- Guided general tour – offered several times during the day. Check website for details. This tour is meant as a starting place for history of the site so that you are better able to explore it on your own. During a guided walking tour, learn about the many layers of content that make of the history and re-creation of the stone fort and the 4 original buildings from the original construction. We found this tour a helpful tool to get us going in the best direction – physically and mentally.
- Activity Stations – all day. These change regularly, but are always an added bonus to the experience. Explore themes and topics in-depth at interpretive stations located throughout the site. Interpreters will engage you in activities and conversations about Dakota homeland, immigration, soldiers, race, healing – and more! All to help you draw connections between past and present. We found these stations to be fun, interactive, relevant and authentic!
- Demonstrations – Watch for scheduled and ongoing demonstrations. Some even invite you to try out the activities for yourself! These include things like hearth cooking, blacksmithing, children’s games and a school lesson.
- Shop – the Historic Fort Snelling museum store, located in the new Plank Museum & Visitor Center, offers a wide selection of gifts and merchandise for all ages. It includes a variety of books on early Minnesota history, history-and-Minnesota themed gifts, educational toys and games, and branded apparel. The site does not have a cafe or place to eat, but they sell a variety of grab-and-go foods including cold beverages, coffee and snack items. It is open during regular site hours. One can also shop online at mhsmn.org.
- Photos taken by Cher B and Skip B unless otherwise noted.
- Minneapolis Institute of Art. collections.artsmia.org/search/fortsnelling 7/2/22
- MNHS Fort Snelling General Tour – Guide on site 6/26/22
- MNHS placards on site 6/26/22
- MNHS website mnhs.org
- MNOpedia.org 7/2/22
- Smith, Kelly. To tribe’s dismay, Historic Fort Snelling to keep its name. Minneapolis StarTribune. Smith, 6/25/2022
- Visitor Guide, Historic Fort Snelling, June 2022