“It’s time for truth telling at Fort Snelling” was the intriguing headline on an opinion piece appearing in Monday’s MinnPost.
At the Minnesota Historical Society, we couldn’t agree more. It is time to tell the truth —the many truths — at Historic Fort Snelling. And that is exactly what we intend to do in time for the fort’s bicentennial in 2020.
History — like life — never offers us a singular, universal understanding, but rather a collection of truths shared from diverse perspectives. Together, these perspectives create a more complete understanding of the past, and how it impacts our lives today. History is how we understand the past, and that understanding evolves continually as new insights and perspectives become clear.
Recognizing the past’s complexity
Where we might once have understood and represented the past as straightforward — as lists of important dates, key battles, great men, and authoritative narratives — we now recognize the complexity of the past, its people and events.
For example, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, published works in the 1920s arguing for the social benefits of slavery and its benign nature as an institution. His view held sway for more than 50 years. Teachers taught it, and students studied it. Phillips’ work earned him awards and a teaching position at Yale University. Only when later scholars explored different primary sources (and asked new questions of the plantation diaries and records Phillips used) did conflicting stories come to light. If MNHS had told the story of slavery in 1940, it likely would have relied on this broadly embraced scholarship that presumed the superiority of white men. And it likely would have been seen as “objective.”
At MNHS, we are challenged to preserve our historic resources while re-examining traditional sources, exploring new sources, and inviting new voices into the conversation. Our work to preserve and interpret the paintings associated with the Minnesota State Capitol, and the history of Historic Fort Snelling does just that. The Capitol artwork project included months of study, discussion, and thoughtful input from the people of Minnesota and legislative leaders. As our interpretive plan for the paintings unfolds, we have invited a wide range of reviewers to vet drafts of the material, including the author of Monday’s opinion piece. All voices are welcome.
Guided by many sources
Our current revitalization project at Historic Fort Snelling — which includes expanding the site’s interpretation — calls for us to engage with community partners in new and more meaningful ways. The historic fort is located at Bdote, the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, and the story of the area goes far beyond the four walls of the fort. To that end, a Dakota Community Council has been formed, and collaborative initiatives are under way with independent historians, veterans, Ojibwe people, African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and others so that we can work as partners to tell the full, complicated story of Minnesota’s first National Historic Landmark. We’re guided by many sources, including the Minnesota Historical Society Press’ new book “Fort Snelling at Bdote,” which provides a synthesis of research and perspectives, a new lens through which to more fully understand this important place.
These collaborations are part of a new interpretive approach that expands the diverse stories of the people who crossed paths here on Dakota homeland for more than 10,000 years — beginning with Native Americans and continuing through the last 200-plus years, when the site’s history also included the stories of soldiers, enslaved people, immigrants, and fur traders.
Let me be clear. We are not replacing or eliminating factual history at Fort Snelling. MNHS does not seek to censor, replace, or eliminate history. We seek to uncover, interpret, and share more broadly the unique stories of American history that happened here in Minnesota.
Without question, the story of Fort Snelling cannot be told completely without sharing the history and perspectives of Native Americans. And, without question, we must share the history of the fort itself as the best-known military outpost in our state, a place with memories for generations of Minnesotans who have served our country.
Certainly, we will present the Civil War-era history of the fort, in part by discussing that Minnesota was a leader and a critical mustering ground for troops. But the story would be incomplete without discussing the site as a foothold of U.S. expansion into Dakota homeland and its role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
The story is also incomplete without sharing the histories of enslaved people who lived at the fort, among them Dred and Harriet Scott. Their experience, enslaved in a free territory that would become Minnesota, and their fight for freedom, which rose all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in the infamous Dred Scott Decision, would ultimately help pave the way to the Civil War.
A range of perspectives
Engaging the public in history today requires offering up primary sources, including oral histories, that reflect a range of perspectives. It means enabling the visitor or reader to examine the information, consider the interpretations, and reach his or her own conclusions. Done successfully, a public history experience leaves you asking more questions, wanting to learn more, and, perhaps most importantly, connecting history not only with worldwide movements, but also with your own life experiences.
As historians, we do not own or determine the truth and, fortunately, we’re less likely to pronounce final answers or “the” authoritative narrative. We are committed to rigorous history, continuously improving our work, and listening to and serving all Minnesotans. The proof will be in the pudding. We invite all Minnesotans to visit all 26 MNHS historic sites and museums, and draw your own conclusions about what history means to you.
Melanie A. Adams, Ph.D., is senior director of guest experiences and educational services at the Minnesota Historical Society.
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