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The historic post of Fort Snelling, Minnesota, for more than a generation after its establishment, in 1819, the most remote western outpost of the United States, is situated at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, eight miles southeast of Minneapolis by river and six miles from St. Paul. It lies in a region of rare natural beauty, in the vicinity of the Falls of Minnehaha, Bridal Veil Falls, and other points locally notable and is, itself, no mean attraction to the many visitors who are attracted to the locality every year. The old fort standing on its high bluff at the headwaters of America’s greatest river is a most picturesque object.
The reservation of Fort Snelling contains 1,531 acres, though originally this tract was much larger than now. The fort structure which one sees from the river is an irregularly shaped bastioned wall conforming in outline to the high plateau of land upon which it is situated. It occupies the extreme end of the point of land formed by the juncture of the two rivers, and on the Mississippi side the bluff upon which the fort is situated descends abruptly to the water, the river there running almost in a canyon. On the Minnesota side the slope is more gradual and ends in a low marshy flat which extends from one third to one half a mile and is frequently submerged during high water. The altitude of the post plateau above the river is 300 feet.
The establishment of Fort Snelling was one of the fruits of the work of Lieutenant Z. M. Pike, the first American to explore and chart the peak, which bears his name. In 1805 this officer was in command of an exploring expedition and held a conference with the Sioux Indians on an island at the mouth of the Minnesota River, which now bears his name. He secured from the Indians for military purposes a strip of land nine miles on each side of the Mississippi River and extending from the conference island to the Falls of St. Anthony, near which Fort Snelling is.
It is to be remembered that in 1805 the settlement of the American nation did not extend beyond the Mississippi River. The country west of Lake Michigan and on the headwaters of the Mississippi River, though a part of the United States, thanks largely to George Rogers Clark, was in a state of nature with only the trails of Indians and traders and the remains of little French settlements as the foundation for the civilization which was to grow up within it.
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The privileges which Lieutenant Pike secured from the red men were not immediately taken advantage of by the United States authorities. Time passed and the War of 1812 with England gave the War Department of this country quite as much as it could take care of. Finally, in 1819, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth, of the Fifth United States Infantry, was sent with his regiment to locate a fort upon the reserve selected by Lieutenant Pike. Colonel Leavenworth reached the headwaters of the Mississippi without incident and rendered his first monthly report in September 1819.
Scurvy broke out now among the troops and this, added to the natural inclemencies of the climate here in winter, prevented any work being done until the spring of 1820. In May 1820, Colonel Leavenworth moved his troops to a point on the west bank of the Mississippi River, about a mile and a half above the present location of Fort Snelling. The site chosen by him for the fort was the present military cemetery. He made preparations to commence the work, but Colonel Josiah Snelling assumed command in August and selected the location where the fort now stands.
Work actually commenced September 10, 1820, and went steadily ahead until October 1822, when the post was first occupied. During this time Colonel Snelling was in command and his regiment was engaged in the work.
For two years after it had been finished the post was known as Fort St. Anthony at Colonel Snelling’s suggestion – after the falls which are near the place, but, in 1824, it was visited by General Scott, who suggested to the War Department that the name should be changed to that which it bears today as a compliment to its builder.
The defenses and some of the storehouses and shops were built of stone, but the quarters for the soldiers were log huts until after the Mexican War. The huts have now given way to comfortable barracks of modern construction, but the stone construction and the shops remain today, as they were when the fort was far distant from civilization.
During the Civil War the fort was a concentration point for volunteers. In 1878 a plan of enlargement to accommodate a full regiment was entered upon in accordance with the policy then inaugurated by the War Department of having the soldiers of the country concentrated at a few points rather than scattered through a number of small posts.
While Fort Snelling has never seen active service itself it has had an active existence as a distribution point for those posts, which were in conflict with the enemy during the United States’ occasional Indian Wars. During the serious Sioux outbreak of 1862 in Minnesota it was the headquarters of the campaign against the Indians, though the fighting took place from subsidiary posts in contact with the red men.
For twenty years after its completion Fort Snelling was in the midst of the Sioux with no white neighbors except traders, agents of fur companies, refugees from civilization and disreputable hangers on. In 1837 an enlargement of the military reserve and the coming of the first tide of white settlers who were to develop this country caused the eviction of this last class of dependents. One of the nearby squatters took his grogshop to a point not far away. Around this point a settlement grew up. This settlement is now the proud city of St. Paul.