Lt Zebulon Pike purchased the land in 1805, however, it wasn't until after the War of 1812, that the US Government built a series of forts between Lake Michigan and the Missouri River to protect its interests from Canadian and British encroachment. The forts were designed to keep non-citizens from the waterways and keep white settlement from areas that had not yet been released for settlement. In this case, the soldiers were also meant to keep peace between the Ojibwa and Dakota tribes.
The first outpost was built around 1819 at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. Initially built on the south side of the Minnesota River, it was named Cantonment New Hope or Cantonment Leavenworth. Due to flooding problems, it was moved to a new site across the river in 1820.
The new site was initially called Fort St Anthony or Fort St Peter's and was the location of the St Peter's Indian Agency. In 1825, it was renamed Fort Snelling after Colonel Josiah Snelling. The 5th Regiment of Infantry (under the command of Col Snelling) was the chosen unit to help build the fort. During construction, the soldiers lived at nearby Camp Coldwater. Camp Coldwater continued to provide drinking water to the fort throughout the 19th century. Col Snelling's soldiers and officers permanently changed the landscape. They built roads. They built a grist mill and sawmill at St Anthony's Falls. They planted hundreds of acres of vegetables, wheat and corn. They harvested hay for their livestock. They felled trees for fires. They also began the first weather recordings. This area has the best weather history data available in the United States.
The first Indian Agent was Major Lawrence Taliaferro. He mediated disputes between the various Ojibwa and Dakota tribes. He also attempted to ease tensions between the tribes and their new white neighbors as settlement increased.
Nearly thirty years passed with Fort Snelling being the hub of activity on the Upper Mississippi River. The American Fur Company and Columbia Fur Company each established a business around the fort and the employees and their families settled at nearby Mendota. When Dakotas and Ojibwas would venture to the Indian Agency, they would spend time at the fort and sometimes perform native dances. When Lord Selkirk's Colony farther up the Minnesota River was forced to abandon their homes in 1839 (they were too early and treaties hadn't been signed), the Scottish, Swiss and French immigrants were given temporary refuge at Fort Snelling. The remnants of Lord Selkirk's failed Colony eventually built the town of St Paul. Traders would stop at the fort while their goods were being inspected.
By 1851, much of Minnesota Territory was opened up by treaties and Forts Ridgely, Ripley and Abercrombie took on frontier duties, while Fort Snelling was used only as a supply depot. When Minnesota was granted Statehood in 1858, the fort was sold to a land developer and a town site was platted.
City plans for Fort Snelling were abandoned with the outbreak of the Civil War. Minnesota expanded the fort to a training facility for the Union Army volunteers. After the war, the regular Army returned to the fort. Fort Snelling became the supply base for the Department of Dakota, which went from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Regulars from Fort Snelling served on Indian Campaigns and the Spanish-American War of 1898.
The last two decades of the 19th century saw many of the decaying old stone fort buildings demolished to make room for new barracks, officers' quarters and storefronts. During World War II, 300,000 inductees were processed through Fort Snelling. At the end of World War II, the fort was finally closed and the property turned over to the Veterans Administration.
When the interstate system started to be built, it looked like the remnants of Fort Snelling would be demolished for a highway. This inspired public effort to save Minnesota's oldest buildings. Fort Snelling was identified as Minnesota's first National Historic Place in 1960 and since then, public and private funds have been used to rebuild the fort.
During initial construction of the fort, Benjamin Baker's Post was located at Camp Coldwater. It was a stone house that was used in 1837 as a schoolhouse for Fort Snelling children. Later it became the St Louis House Hotel(aka Mackenzie Hotel). It burned down in 1859 and was never rebuilt. Camp Coldwater initially had blacksmith shops, stables, trading posts, hotels and a steamboat landing. Most of those buildings were gone by the Civil War.
Initially, the Minnesota River was called St Peter's River.
John Emerson, owner of Dred and Harriett Scott, worked at Fort Snelling. However, because of the Missouri Compromise, it was illegal to own slaves in Minnesota. This resulted in the infamous US Supreme Court Case many know as the Dred Scott Decision.
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