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Fund a new future at Historic Fort Snelling

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Oil on canvas by Cyrenius Hall, 1873, depicting a view of Fort Snelling.

It’s time for politicians to use this year’s statewide bonding bill to fund a new future at Historic Fort Snelling.

Michael J. Lansing

This new future at Historic Fort Snelling is about much more than buildings. It’s about histories and the worlds they can create. As an educator, as a historian, and as a born-and-bred Minnesotan, I know that the histories we tell ourselves about each other matter more than we know. History isn’t just about the past. History is about the future.

State bonding money will empower the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) to take advantage of an incredible opportunity to shape a more thoughtful and inclusive future for our state. Working with a wide range of community partners, MNHS will put beloved narratives already associated with the fort alongside less familiar stories. The result will be a stunning redefinition of our state’s history, one that promises a brighter future for all Minnesotans.

Fort Snelling, after all, is unique. Nowhere else in Minnesota can students and elders alike encounter such a wide-ranging mix of painful and joyous histories that collectively define us. Through field trips and family visits, many already know Fort Snelling as the place where the United States military first laid claim to the strategic junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers in the late 1810s. But there are so many other histories.

Today, Dakota people work to reclaim the sacred center of their universe —B’dote —where, in 1863, state authorities confined hundreds of them to a prison camp just outside the fort’s walls. Two years before that, white Minnesota volunteers mustered at the fort to serve in — and in some cases, die in — a bloody civil war to preserve the Union. That war also resulted in the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans. Dred Scott, one of those enslaved people, ensured that emancipation became the defining issue of the coming conflict when, in 1857, he sued for his freedom (based on his time as an enslaved person at Fort Snelling). Though Scott eventually lost his case, it went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A generation later, African-American soldiers, popularly known as “Buffalo Soldiers,” garrisoned the fort (1882-1888).

And those are just the 19th-century histories. During World War I, Fort Snelling again served the nation as a mustering site for Minnesota draftees and training center for officers. It also functioned as a hospital where women nurses tended not only to soldiers and veterans, but also local victims of the 1918 global influenza pandemic. During World War II, Fort Snelling became an induction center for soldiers sent off to defend democracy. Meanwhile, wrongfully displaced and imprisoned Japanese-Americans nonetheless made a crucial contribution to the war effort when they staffed the fort’s Military Intelligence Service Language School. There, they taught thousands of soldiers how to translate and decipher enemy messages. Finally, Norwegian-Americans — many from Minnesota — manned a specialized winter warfare unit (the 99th Infantry Battalion) that briefly trained at the fort.

State bonding money for Fort Snelling, money that follows up on the preliminary bonding funds awarded in 2017, will ensure that all these stories — and a host of others — get told. Fort Snelling is the only place in Minnesota where nearly every Minnesotan can encounter histories about themselves and their communities. We owe it to all of Minnesota’s children to invest in making sure that opportunity is not lost.

Michael J. Lansing is an associate professor and chair of the Department of History at Augsburg University.

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Comments (4)

Fort Snelling History

In additional to the local and national history mentioned in the article, Fort Snelling also has an international connection that runs straight through France and Great Britain. Napoleon was busy with his little wars and didn't have the troops to spare to guard his American territory, so he sold off the pesky territory for some much-needed cash.

Fort Snelling was one of a string of forts, designed to exercise control over a vast territory that was part Spanish, part French, and part English influenced. America wanted to get her traders in and the foreign traders out so she could capture the lucrative fur market.

The bonding bill just covers the Historic Fort Snelling and the buildings the Minnesota Historical Society owns, but if anyone is interested in touring the area I'll be conducting Upper Post tours from May through October this year. The tours vary in subject matter, but we'll be covering 20,000 years of history, including the area's geology, WWI, interwar years, and WWII.

Check out the schedule on Facebook at Fort Snelling Foundation if you're interested.

Please, no "stunning redefinitions"

Wow! I’d been in favor of bonding to reuse the barracks buildings on the Lower Post until I read Prof. Lansing’s view: He said “The result will be a stunning redefinition of our state’s history…” That caused me concern as he then went on to provide some ‘fake news’ in support of his statement.

Bottom line, the Minnesota Historical Society was one of the first institutions chartered when Minnesota became a territory in 1849, and has long been a venerable, trusted institution to provide authentic Minnesota history. But a "stunning redefinition of our state's history" is not what we need, especially if he’s providing the first examples.

For example, the Pike Treaty of 1805, otherwise known as the Treaty of St. Peters or the Treaty with the Sioux, was made to provide for a military presence there. Granted, the Congress didn’t get around to funding it until the late 18-teens, but the “first laid claim” for the military purpose came long before that.

He also states that “in 1863, state authorities confined hundreds of them to a prison camp just outside the fort’s walls.” Nope – that was Federal authority (General John Pope) using Minnesota troops to protect hundreds of peaceful Dakota from vengeful whites who threatened to kill them in response to the murders of more than 650 mostly unarmed settlers in raids in August and September of 1862.

The Dakota actually arrived at the Fort in November 1862, where they received the same rations and the same medical care as the soldiers, instead of being left on the prairie without any protection or available food, and most likely death. They could leave the Fort to hunt, fish, visit St. Paul to sell their crafts and then return to the fort's protection. Whites wanting access to the camp needed a pass to get in, even the missionaries.

I had to stop reading. There are certainly more stories that should be told. But let’s get new stories, and not revisionist history or ‘stunning redefinitions’ of those already told. We need those new stories based on documented facts, told from the multiple perspectives of each era over its history, told objectively and with respect.

Enough with the ‘fake news’! That "thoughtful and inclusive" future demands telling the truth about our history.

Fort Snelling stories

There are certainly many stories which should be told at Fort Snelling, but there are also some fundamentals which should be adhered to. The first one is that since the fort is a military installation, that is the prime story to be told. All other stories, while they may be very important, are peripheral to it. The second fundamental is that these stories all need to be fact-based. They should not be based on how one wishes or imagines things were. There are a vast amount of facts available on a wide variety of subjects, so lets use them.

I want to see the Minnesota Historical Societies plans match the rhetoric they have put forth recently in various publications. There are a number of independent historians who have extensive knowledge about the fort, and they should be given a real seat at the table. Some of those historians meet regularly, with one notable group being the 19th Century Research Collaborative. It will be much easier for everyone -- the Minnesota Historical Society, interested researchers and the general public, if the history is done right the first time. There is a lot of inaccurate or misleading information out there these days. Let's keep it all respectful and accurate.

Since 1825 Veterans have been Ft Snelling's backbone

Veterans need to remain the top focus at Fort Snelling. Exploring the rich and varied men and women who passed through Fort Snelling from original muster rolls, training, and discharge will carry visitors through moving, emotional and thought provoking reflection of eras and generations in America’s (and Minnesota’s) history. This will show Minnesota’s changing cultures without changing the goal of Fort Snelling as a proud military landmark.

The Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) has not been so bold to change the name of Minnesota's first historic landmark prior to being awarded the requested $30 million for Fort Snelling. This year, MHS erased the name Historic Fort Snelling with its red, white and blue emblem and inserted Fort Snelling at Bdote with a triangular two tone blue geometric design. In doing so, MHS outright changed the focus from military installation to their idea of a cultural gathering place. No veteran groups were consulted. Historic Fort Snelling remains the name on State Historic Preservation Office documents.

Fort Snelling served as the gateway to the Northwest in America's early development. The fort sits atop a strategic bluff overlooking the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Today, some Dakota tribes refer to the rivers’ meeting place as Bdote. Bdote is marked with a symbolic monument and interpretive panels located inside Fort Snelling State Park at Thomas C. Savage visitor center.

MHS is attempting to wipe out any sign of Minnesota’s treasured military landmark.