Why Does This Blog Exist?

You never know what you'll find here - anything with genealogical or historical value is fair game. This blog will be updated as I clean out my office, go through boxes and piles, or find pertinent items at antique shops. In the meantime, I hope you find something of interest here.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

St. Paul – Chapter XI – Fort Snelling

(From “St. Paul Location-Development-Opportunities” by F. C. Miller, Ph. D., Webb Book Publishing Co., St. Paul, Minnesota, 1928)

To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.  - George Washington
Fort Snelling, at the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, lies opposite the southwest corner of St. Paul. Half of the bridge over the Mississippi River connecting the city with the fort is within the jurisdiction of St. Paul. Fort Snelling is easily reached by street car and private conveyances, as it is only about four miles from the loop district of St. Paul.

As stated before, the site of Fort Snelling was bought from the Sioux by Lieutenant Pike in 1805. Still, on account of the circumstances mentioned below, it was not till 1819 that the Federal Government took any active steps to erect a military post. Although the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812 had put an end to British claims south of the Canadian border, the London government complied reluctantly with the written agreements entered into with the American government. As late as 1815 and later, British influence was almost supreme from Prairie du Chien to the Lake of the Woods, and from Lake Superior for hundreds of miles westward. The profitable Indian trade of this vast region remained in the hands of the Northwest Company, a British concern. During the War of 1812, the company's higher officials were made British military officers. Up to1819 Minnesota, though nominally belonging to the United States, was practically a British dependency.

In the meantime the American Fur Company, founded by John Jacob Astor, had received a charter in 1808 from the state of New York, which charter had been confirmed by the Federal Government, and had accordingly extended its trade area to the upper Mississippi valley. Despite an agreement made by the Northwest Company and the American Fur Company, according to which the Northwest Company was to confine its activities to Canadian territory, well organized smuggling parties of British traders  succeeded in selling large stores of goods, including liquors, to the Indians in American territory.

What, however, aroused American feelings particularly was the fact that the British traders were quite successful in undermining the loyalty of the American Indians by gifts and the distribution of British flags and medals.

John Jacob Astor was not slow to take advantage of these conditions in inducing Congress to pass a law in 1816 for the purpose of regulating the American Fur Trade. The chief section of the law provided that "licenses to trade with the Indians, within the territorial limits of the United States, shall not be granted to any but citizens of the United States, unless by the express permission of the President." No doubt Astor was also instrumental in inducing John C. Calhoun, then Secretary of War, to order the establishment of a military post in the upper Mississippi valley.

Pike had bought two strategic tracts of land from the Indians for the purpose of erecting a military post, one at the mouth of the St. Croix, and the other at the mouth of the Minnesota. In 1817, Major Long, who had been sent by Calhoun to select the most suitable of the two sites, chose the one at the mouth of the Minnesota River. This decision' was of great importance both to the city of St. Paul and the state of Minnesota. There is little doubt that, had Long decided in favor of the mouth of the St. Croix, St. Paul would have been located in the same place. The present loop district of St, Paul would  then still be the swampy, marshy tract it once was, perhaps the pasture of some farmer whose house would now stand, perchance, where the beautiful State Capitol of  Minnesota is. Or, there might have been a village of water-side characters, living on fishing and clamming, where we now find the sky-scrapers of St. Paul. It is, also, highly questionable whether a city located at the mouth of the St. Croix might have been successful in obtaining and retaining the seat of the state government. It is even by no means impossible that St. Paul might have been located in the state of Wisconsin. The bulk of the land bought from the Indians was in the fork of the two rivers and extended a short distance beyond the St. Anthony Falls, including the best residential and business sections of Minneapolis. Westward, the tract usually called Fort Snelling Reservation extended over five miles up the Minnesota River. The reservation spread across the Mississippi to the St. Paul bank of the river, including practically all the district bounded by West Seventh Street on the north and terminating in the northeast about the present Seven Corners of St. Paul. This large tract of land, altogether too extensive for military purposes, was reduced several times. The last reduction in 1871 restricted it to its present area.

In 1810, Col. Henry Leavenworth was ordered to leave Detroit with a troop of about 300 soldiers; cross Lake Michigan to Fort Howard, on Green Bay; take the river route up the Fox River; portage his troops and supplies to the Wisconsin River; proceed down that stream to its junction with the Mississippi; and then canoe up that river to the site selected. It is worth while to relate at least one of the many noteworthy incidents this troop of soldiers under valiant Col. Leavenworth experienced on this long and arduous trip from Detroit to the mouth of the Minnesota. Camping on the shore of Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin, the Colonel, in an interview with the chief of the Indians of this region, asked for permission to pass through his territory. The chief replied, "My brother, do you see the calm, blue sky above us? Do you see the lake that lies so peacefully at our feet? So calm, so peaceful are our hearts towards you. Pass on."

imageUpon the arrival of Col. Leavenworth at the site selected, he started preparations for the building of the military post.
He selected a place on the right bank of the Minnesota not far from where the village of Mendota now is, cleared the land of timber, built a number of log houses, and surrounded the whole cantonment with a stockade. Considering the available facilities, the quarters provided for the garrison were as comfortable and secure as could reasonably be expected. Because of the friendliness of the Indians of the vicinity, the dwellers of St. Peter's, as the military post was first called, the Minnesota River being then called St. Peter River, were fairly happy and contented.
The first winter, the one of 1819—20, was severe, and the people of St. Peter's suffered considerable hardships. Among the soldiers, scurvy broke out, and about one half of them died. As all medical aid was hundreds of miles away, the small white military establishment was almost in danger of being wiped out. When spring came, the Indians brought large quantities of spignot root (an aromatic, medicinal root, used when dried and ground, most likely the root of meum or baldmoney), which put an end to the dread disease. To prevent a recurrence of this malady, gardens were made, as soon as the weather became favorable, and the abundant supply of vegetables raised put new life and confidence into the survivors. Besides, better and more substantial quarters were erected on the right bank of the Mississippi, about 300 yards west of the present location. This  new cantonment was called Fort Coldwater.

The disease of 1819—20 was not only attributable to the lack of suitable food, but also to the villainy of a number of army contractors or their agents, who, in order to lighten the boat loads of supplies, upon leaving St. Louis, poured the brine from the barrels of pork and replaced it with river water.
Col. Leavenworth, to all intents and purposes, made the first permanent settlement of white people in the northwestern wilderness. The place (at St. Peter's), which he first selected as a site for his post, was, taking everything into consideration, perhaps the best possible under the circumstances.

He certainly examined the land carefully and, though observing the magnificent location of the present site in the fork of the two rivers, thought it best, for the time being, to locate his cantonment in the sheltered river bottoms. An examination of the records of the weather bureau vindicates Leavenworth's selection. The present location is perhaps the most exposed place to winds, storms and tornadoes, within 60 miles of the Twin Cities. The builder of this far-flung white outpost, having scarcely gained a foothold in the northwestern wilderness, was called away to other duties. He was succeeded by Colonel Josiah Snelling. He selected the present site, perhaps the most beautiful location of any settlement along the whole course of the great river. He went to work vigorously to establish a suitable and permanent military post, and in this he succeeded so well that, when Major General Winfield Scott inspected the fort in 1824, he was so pleased that he recommended that the name of the fort, which had been known as Fort St. Anthony, he changed to Fort Snelling.


No better place could have been selected for a bridgehead or military fort against invasion or attack. Even in modern warfare it would be eminently suitable for military purposes.

Lawrence Taliaferro was sent by President Monroe in 1819 to this wilderness post as Indian agent. He was an impetuous, ambitious, self-confident man, who, however, for more than twenty years was the highest and most influential civil federal official of the upper Mississippi valley. His policy was threefold:

1. Establishment of peace among the various Indian tribes.
2. Protection of the Indians against aggressive and unfair whites.
3. Promotion of agriculture among the Indians.

On the whole, it must be admitted that he tried very seriously to carry out his policy, but his efforts were doomed to almost complete failure.   No doubt he lacked the tact of an administrative officer, and yet it can not be denied that he stood for what was fair and  right.

His journals and letters throw a flood of light upon himself and the life and events at Fort  Snelling. It was Taliaferro who performed the marriage ceremony of his house servant Harriet Robinson and the famous negro Dred Scott. Reference has been repeatedly made to the reluctance with which Great Britain relinquished her former possessions in the Northwest and her intrigues with American Indians. It is a well-known fact that as late as 1819 the Minnesota Indians were far better acquainted with the British Union Jack than with the Star Spangled Banner, as is evident from the fact that Taliaferro was successful in obtaining the relinquishment by the Indian chiefs of 30 medals of George III, 28 British flags, and 18 gorgets (badges for commissioned officers).

Though Taliaferro tried most earnestly to promote neutrality between the Sioux and Chippewas, he was not very successful in this attempt, as shown by the bloody, treacherous, and entirely unprovoked attack on a number of Chippewas by the Sioux in 1827, scarcely a mile from his own habitation.
In the case referred to, Col. Snelling had to resort to harsh measures to induce the Sioux to surrender the murderers. Upon their being brought in, the captives were surrendered to the Chippewas for punishment.   Five of the guilty ones were condemned to run the  gauntlet, and thus met their death before a large number of cruel spectators.

In his relations to the white traders, camp followers, and hangers-on, Taliaferro was equally unfortunate. To judge from his words, they must have been highly unscrupulous and offensively dishonest in their dealings with Indians, who were certainly their superiors in all those things that go to make a man. The agricultural experiment Taliaferro tried with Chief Cloudman went scarcely beyond the first stage. Making all kinds of allowances both for Taliaferro's limitations and the meanness of opportunity offered to him, in hissavage environment, we can hardly help saying: ''He tried and failed, but he tried."

Dred Scott, a negro, the plaintiff in the famous Dred Scott Case, the most important slavery case in the history of the United States, was in Fort Snelling from 1836 to'38. Dr. Emerson, an army surgeon, had taken Dred Scott, his slave from Missouri, a slave state, to Illinois, a free state, and afterwards to Fort Snelling then in Wisconsin Territory, a part of the former Northwest Territory which was also free territory. In the fort, as referred to before, Scott was married to Harriet Robinson, also a slave.  In 1838, Dred Scott was taken to St. Louis. Suit was brought by Scott to determine whether he could be kept in slavery after having resided in free territory. The case was taken finally to the United States Supreme Court, where it was decided that, being a negro, he was not a citizen. This decision left him in slavery and without recourse.

The decision was almost startling. It tended to strengthen both North and South in their convictions in regard to slavery and made it evident to the North that war would be inevitable.
There were several other important national events with which Fort Snelling was more or less intimately connected. Also, it should not be forgotten that some commandants of the fort, later on, gained a national reputation. Certainly, Lieutenant Colonel Zachary Taylor did not dream of ever occupying the White House, when, in the winter of 1829-30, he looked over the ice-bound Minnesota River and saw the dreary white wilderness at his feet. Nor did the trim Captain Tecumseh Sherman ever think of becoming the second in command of the military forces of the United States, when he was sentencing a half-breed soldier at Fort Snelling to two weeks in the guardhouse for violation of military regulations.

The old round tower and the blockhouse are still standing and are preserved for their historic interest.
Here are still maintained Infantry, Artillery, Cavalry, and modern auxiliary equipment. The site is being constantly improved. The new bridge leading from the fort to the Mendota side of the Minnesota is a marvel of constructive art, enhancing the convenience and appearance of a situation already beautiful.

What was the first name of this fort?
Who nave it its present name?
How large was it formerly?   How large now?
What bearing did the fur company have on Fort Snelling?
Who chose the present site for this fort?
What hardships were sundered by early settlers?
Why is this a good situation for a fort?
What trouble arose between the Indian tribes?
With what national events and men has the fort been connected?

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