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Thu, 05.11.1820

Fort Snelling (Minnesota), a story

Fort Snelling

*Fort Snelling is remembered on this date in 1820. This is a former military garrison built with slave labor to advance white American land acquisition from indigenous communities.

It is in Minnesota on the bluffs overlooking where the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers meet. The military site was initially named Fort Saint Anthony, but it was renamed Fort Snelling once its construction was completed in 1825. The historic fort is in the unorganized territory within Hennepin County, bordering Ramsey and Dakota counties.

Slavery at the fort

Although slavery violated the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820, enslaved Africans worked at the fort. Fort Snelling housed fur traders and officers who brought their slaves to the post. Colonel Zachary Taylor assumed command in 1828. He observed that the "buffalo are entirely gone, and bear and deer are scarcely seen." He also wrote that the "Indians subsist principally on fish, waterfowl, and wild rice." While stationed at Fort Snelling, Col. Taylor had eight enslaved adults die and several minors. Along with the fort's construction, an Indian Agency was built on the military reservation opposite the fort at Mendota.

Major Lawrence Taliaferro administered it. In 1834 Taliaferro assisted missionaries in developing the Dakota alphabet and compiling a Dakota dictionary.  He also served as the Territorial Justice of Peace until 1838, when the Governor of Iowa named Henry Sibley his replacement. The agency held court, and those incarcerated were sent to Fort Snelling's round tower. St. Paul also sent its criminals to the building until 1851.

Both Fort Snelling and Fort Ripley provided this civil service for the internment of criminals until the territory developed the civil infrastructure needed. Major Taliaferro owned 21 enslaved people, one of whom was Harriet Robinson. She married Dred Scott with Major Taliaferro officiating. They had two enslaved children at Fort Snelling from 1836 to 1840. U.S. Army officers submitted pay vouchers to cover the expenses of retaining enslaved people. The last slave-holding unit was the 10th Infantry. Colonel Snelling employed his slaves even after slavery was unconstitutional with Minnesota's statehood in 1858. 

Two enslaved women at Fort Snelling sued for their freedom and were set free in 1836. Rachel was a slave to Lieutenant Thomas Stockton at Fort Snelling from 1830 to 1831, then at Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien until 1834. When Rachel and her son were sold in St. Louis, she sued, claiming that she had been illegally enslaved in the Minnesota Territory. In 1836 the Missouri Supreme Court ruled to make her a free person. The second woman, Courtney, also sued for freedom in St. Louis.

When the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in Rachel's favor, Courtney's enslaver conceded her case and freed Courtney and her son William. Courtney had another son named Joseph Godfrey, that remained in Minnesota when she was sent to a slave market in St. Louis. He is the only known "Minnesota runaway slave" that ran away from the fort and was taken in by the Dakota. He was involved in the Dakota War and was the first defendant on the docket of the military tribunal for hanging.

The emancipation episode of Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet Robinson Scott, ocurred at the fort. In 1843, he sued for his family's freedom for illegally being indentured in free territory.  Dred Scott v. Sandford was a landmark case that held that neither enslaved nor free Africans were United States citizens. The decision increased sectional tensions between the North and South. The fort also served as the primary center for Government forces during the Dakota War of 1862. It also was the encampment site where the eastern Dakota and Ho-chunk non-combatants awaited riverboat transport in their forced removal from Minnesota when the hostilities ceased.

The fort served as a recruiting station for the American Civil WarSpanish American War, and both World Wars before being decommissioned a second time in 1946. All that remained of the original lower post were the round and hexagon towers. It fell into disrepair until the lower center was restored to its original appearance in 1965.

Many of the important buildings of the upper post remain today, with some still in disrepair. Multiple government agencies now own portions of the former fort, with the Minnesota Historical Society administering the Historic Fort Snelling site. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources administers Fort Snelling State Park at the bottom of the bluff.

Fort Snelling once encompassed the park's land. It has been cited as a "National Treasure" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The historic fort is in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, a National Park Service unit. We chose May 11 for this article because it corresponded with the month and date Minnesota became a state.

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