Pilot Knob. Mouth of the St. Peters River,
Seth Eastman, 1846-48, MHS collections.
Depicts the Mississippi/Minnesota River junction.
In 1805 the U.S. Army ordered Lt. Zebulon Pike to explore the Mississippi River and select sites for potential military posts. When he arrived at the junction of the Mississippi and St. Peters (present-day Minnesota) rivers, Pike made a treaty with several Dakota representatives to acquire land on which he promised a U.S. fort and government "factory" (trading post) would be built. The trading post was never constructed, but following the War of 1812 the U.S. government sought to stamp out British influence in the Northwest Territory by building a fort at the river junction. The first troops arrived in 1819 under the command of Lt. Col. Henry Leavenworth and began construction on the stone fort the following year. Col. Josiah Snelling arrived in 1820 to supervise construction, and by 1825 the fort was completed. Initially called Fort St. Anthony, the post was renamed "Fort Snelling" by the U.S. War Department in honor of Snelling’s efforts.
Fort Snelling, Seth Eastman, 1833, MHS collections.
During its early years, Fort Snelling's primary duties were to protect U.S. interests in the region’s booming fur trade, to maintain peace in the region by both deterring advances by the British in Canada and enforcing boundaries between the region’s American Indian nations, and to prevent encroachment by European-American immigrants until the U.S. government could make official treaties to gain land from American Indian nations. The early 1800s were a relatively peaceful time in the Northwest Territory, and the fort's garrison spent the majority of its time farming nearly 400 acres of field crops and gardens and cutting enough firewood to last through the long winters.
Fort Snelling remained in service for nearly 40 years, until 1858 when Minnesota became the 32nd state. By then the U.S. government had established forts further west and Fort Snelling was no longer considered necessary, so the post was officially closed later that same year. The fort and its military reservation was purchased from the government by Franklin Steele, a local entrepreneur and former Fort Snelling sutler, who intended to plot and sell off lots for a new city named "Fort Snelling." During this time, the post was turned into pasture and Steele's sheep were frequently seen grazing on the fort's old parade ground.
Bibliography / Resources
Hall, Steve. Colossus of the Wilderness. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987.
Jones, Evan. Citadel in the Wilderness: The Story of Fort Snelling and the Northwest Frontier. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1966.
Prucha, Frances Paul. Broadax and Bayonet: The Role of the United States Army in the Development of the Northwest, 1815-1860. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1953.
Wingerd, Mary Lethert. North Country: The Making of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.