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The European-American women who lived at Fort Snelling

Women and girls made up around 20 percent of the fort’s population from the time of the first census in 1849 until at least 1900.

image of watercolor painting of fort snelling
Painting of Fort Snelling viewed from the intersection of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers (Bdote). Watercolor on paper by Seth Eastman, 1848.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

When the Fifth Infantry Regiment came west in 1819 to build a fort on the bluff where the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers flow together, some of the soldiers brought their wives and daughters with them. Women and girls made up around 20 percent of the fort’s population from the time of the first census in 1849 until at least 1900. They included the wives and daughters of officers but also lower-class women (wives and daughters of enlisted men, as well as their servants).

The army was divided into two castes: officers and enlisted men. The two groups did not interact casually, and there were even separate hours in the sutler’s store to ensure the two groups wouldn’t come in contact. This division extended to their wives as well; officers’ wives did not socialize with the wives of enlisted men, although they could use them as servants, laundresses, or midwives.

Officers’ wives organized the social events that structured life in the officer class at army forts, including parties, balls, and Sunday school classes. Lower-class women at the fort — wives of enlisted men — were working women. They were usually married to non-commissioned officers (corporals and sergeants). These women worked as laundresses for enlisted men, as servants for officers, or as hospital matrons (essentially laundresses for the hospital).

The 1825 army regulations stated that women could be hired at a rate of three to a company, and one to a detachment or party of seventeen men. They also stated that laundresses would wash the soldiers’ clothes, and that the soldiers would pay the laundresses at a rate determined by the fort’s Council of Administration, which was made up of officers. Sometimes laundresses were paid by the piece, according to the number of items they washed for each soldier.

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We don’t know how much the laundresses at Fort Snelling were paid in the 1820s, but we know that at Fort Atkinson in Nebraska during the same time period they were paid fifty cents a month by each soldier whose clothes they washed. If they washed for seventeen soldiers, they could earn $8.50 a month. A sergeant earned eight dollars a month, so laundresses made a major economic contribution to their families. Laundresses also received one food ration per day, straw and firewood, and permission to use the doctor at the post. They were subject to military discipline and could be court martialed (e.g., for talking back to officers or selling liquor to soldiers).

Some women worked as servants for officers. Officers were allowed to draw the pay and rations of one private to compensate them for one private servant. As a result, women who were servants for officers received five dollars per month in the 1820s, just like privates in the army.

The labor pool at Fort Snelling in the 1820s and 1830s was small. Women servants were either the wives of enlisted men or the women who had fled the Selkirk settlement near modern Winnipeg and settled near the fort. Selkirkers Barbara Ann Shadecker and Olympia (no known last name) both worked for Colonel Josiah Snelling and his wife, Abigail. (The Snellings and other officers and officials, including Lawrence Taliaferro, also had unpaid enslaved people working in their households, especially in the 1820s and 1830s. Two of the most famous were Dred and Harriet Scott.)

The 1825 Army regulations allowed two hospital matrons per regiment or one to a post. A hospital matron earned six dollars a month and received one ration a day. We know the name of only one woman who served as a hospital matron in the early years of the fort: Mary Whaley, who gave birth to the youngest of her four children, Daniel, at the fort in 1826. It’s unclear from military records whether her husband, Lester Daniel Whaley, was ever at Fort Snelling, but we know he deserted his family.

Another example of desertion comes from around 1850. The September 1850 census for the fort shows a Jeremiah Mahoney, soldier, with wife Eliza and children William and “Maryon.” Military records show that Mahoney was an ordnance sergeant. The census doesn’t list an occupation for Eliza, but she could have been a laundress. She married, or at least had two children by, William Sloan, a surgeon in the army. Her children William and Marian were born in 1843 and 1845. There is no record of a divorce, but in 1848 she married Mahoney in St. Louis. By 1852 she had left him as well and ended up in Santa Fe with her children. She traveled the Santa Fe trail several times and died in Los Angeles in 1905.

While we know the basic outlines of the lives of European American women at Fort Snelling, we have yet to discover most of their stories. It remains clear that these women — the wives of officers and enlisted men — survived challenging circumstances far away from the cities of the East.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.