Minnesota: Fort Snelling Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Fort Snelling has never been in harm’s way. Its military importance has competed against its scenic location and its historical value. The fort symbolizes both the independence of the state’s citizens and their respect and regard for the past.

Site Office

Fort Snelling History Center

St. Paul, MN 55111

ph.: (612) 726-1171

Web site: www.mhs.org/places/sites/hfs

The site that would become Fort Snelling at the joining of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers was a piece of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 acquired from France. Less than two years later, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike recommended the construction of a fort at the same location. He purchased 100,000 acres of land valued at $200,000 from the Sioux for sixty gallons of whiskey and a few presents worth approximately $200. However, it was not until 1818 that Secretary of War John C. Calhoun decreed that an army fort would be built on the site to contain British threats, pacify the Indians, provide an assembly point for the fur trade, and assure security for a large number of anticipated settlers.

Following recommendations made earlier by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth, along with ninety-eight men, their families, and twenty boatmen, arrived in August, 1819, on the south shore of the St. Peters River in Minnesota. Temporary quarters, including a makeshift fort, were built, but severe weather and lack of provisions caused thirty deaths by the following spring. Attempting to improve the location of his campsite, Leavenworth moved to a spring on high ground along the west bank of the Mississippi River. After obtaining a transfer to a more temperate climate in Florida, Leavenworth was replaced by Colonel Josiah Snelling in August, 1820.

Building the Fort

The construction of a new fort under Snelling’s guidance went beyond its original purpose. Few if any frontier forts were as grand as Snelling’s creation. It implied permanence. Yet, the duties performed by soldiers stationed there were more similar to those of a police force than a military unit, even though the sheer presence of the fort alone was undoubtedly a strong and obvious symbol of national authority. At first named Fort St. Anthony, it became Fort Snelling in 1827, two years after its completion, as a tribute to Snelling’s efforts.

To help overcome the isolation of the fort during the winter, there were dances, theater performances, band concerts, and dinners for some, as well as card-playing for many. A library of four hundred books was established. Marksmanship contests, hunting, and fishing, and skating and sleigh rides in the winter were also popular.

Poor health resulted in a number of personal problems for Snelling. To supposedly cure his ailment, he consumed a combination of opium and brandy. Having allowed dueling at the fort, he announced to his now numerous enemies during his last year that he was willing to duel anyone who challenged him. Duels did take place, as well as allegations of embezzlement against him. Snelling left Fort Snelling in October, 1827, and died the following summer.

During the next three decades ending in 1860, Fort Snelling’s military importance diminished. Yet its reputation as a breathtakingly beautiful site grew. It was a popular choice of tourists visiting Minnesota by steamboat up the Mississippi River.

The fort also played an important role in one of the events leading up to the Civil War. In 1836, Dred Scott, a black slave, arrived at the fort with his owner, Dr. John Emerson, recently appointed post surgeon. Ten years later, Scott sued for his freedom, claiming that his residence at Fort Snelling and earlier in Illinois, both of which prohibited slavery, made him a free man. The case was finally decided against Scott in 1857 by the United States Supreme Court. It aroused strong resentment in the North and became an important step toward the Civil War.

When the Minnesota Territory was formed in 1849, many administrative functions carried on at the fort were moved elsewhere by the territorial government. Fort Snelling’s decline also included the sale of forty thousand acres to the fort’s sutler, Franklin Steele, and Eastern investors in 1858 for ninety thousand dollars, although only one payment of thirty thousand dollars was ever made. Fort Snelling was now in the hands of the Franklin Steele clique. However, a nationwide financial panic ended his plan for selling lots in his proposed city of Fort Snelling.

The Civil War to the End of the Twentieth Century

The onset of the Civil War, however, had restored the fort’s military heritage. It became the mustering and training center for Minnesota troops during the Civil War and the Sioux Uprising. Facilities were expanded so that as many as two thousand men could be accommodated at one time.

Although Steele’s investment in the fort had not been paid in full, he claimed that the federal government owed him $162,000 in rent for its use during the Civil War. The contentious issue over ownership of Fort Snelling was finally resolved in 1871, when it was agreed that the government owned fifteen hundred acres contiguous to the fort, and Steele would have title to the remaining sixty-four hundred acres. No money was included in the transaction.

For a time during the post-World War I era, the fort gained the reputation of being the army’s country club. Although a summer program, the Citizens’ Military Training Camp, required arduous physical and mental participation, there were also horse shows, concerts, athletic contests, and polo matches, as well as facilities including a golf course, tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a hunting club.

The good times ended, however, when World War II broke out in both Europe and Asia. Draftees were processed and examined at Fort Snelling and then sent elsewhere to training camps at a rate of up to 450 men daily. Also, more than six thousand Japanese Americans attended a language and intelligence school at the fort and at nearby Camp Savage.

Although reserve units would remain, Fort Snelling was closed as a regular army post on October 14, 1946. During the late 1950’s, the Minnesota Historical Society determined that it was possible to rebuild the fort, thereby promoting a successful effort three years later declaring Fort Snelling Minnesota’s first National Historic Landmark. One year later, the state legislature established a 2,500-acre Fort Snelling State Park, and in addition, acquired another vital 320 acres. A major restoration effort took place during the 1970’s and early 1980’s at a cost in excess of five million dollars.

During the late 1990’s and the beginning of the twenty-first century, proposals for a variety of uses of Fort Snelling were under review. They included a Native American charter school for the arts, a liberal arts preparatory academy, and a boarding school for troubled grade school and high school students. A hostel for visitors coming from out-of-state communities was under consideration, as well.

Fort Snelling has survived, and often thrived, on the many changes that it has experienced. It has been most successful in connecting the military with the aesthetic and the historical.

For Further Information
  • Hall, Steve. Fort Snelling: Colossus of the Wilderness. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987. An excellent, well-presented, brief (forty-four pages) account of Fort Snelling.
  • Luecke, Barbara, and John Luecke. Snelling: Minnesota’s First First Family. Eagan, Minn.: Grenadier, 1993. A detailed account of Josiah Snelling and his wife, Abigail (Hunt) Snelling.
  • Ziebarth, Marilyn, and Alan Ominsky. Fort Snelling: Anchor Post of the Northwest. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1970. A thirty-five-page work in the Minnesota Historical Sites pamphlet series.
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