Read CHAPTER V of Old Fort Snelling 1819-1858 , free online book, by Marcus L. Hansen, on


Instead of a world of city streets and country towns, of tilled fields and rivers busy with commerce, the raw recruit at Old Fort Snelling entered upon a world of stone barracks and Indian tepees, of tangled prairies and rushing rivers. The landing was directly under the cliff which towered above to a height which to many a wanderer in a frail canoe seemed twice the one hundred and six feet which the scientist’s instruments ascribed to it. In later years a stairway led to the quarters of the commanding officer, but the wagon road which crept upwards along the sandstone wall “nearly as white as loaf-sugar" where the swallows flew in and out from their holes, gained the summit at the rear of the fort.

Following the road through the gate, and passing between the buildings to the center of the parade ground, the recruit probably paused to look about him. Visible in the openings between the buildings was the stone wall about ten feet high which surrounded the barracks, quarters, and storehouses. This wall took the place of the picket-stockade which was so prominent a feature in earlier and ruder fortifications. Conforming to the arrangement of the buildings which it enclosed, the wall was diamond-shaped, one point being at the edge of the promontory where the valley of the Minnesota River met that of the Mississippi River. A second point was on the edge of the steep bluff which rose from the Mississippi. A third point, at a distance of about four hundred and fifty feet directly opposite the second, was on the summit of the Minnesota bluff. The fourth point was situated on the level ground of the plateau, at a distance of about seven hundred feet from the first point.

As he stood in the middle of the parade ground and gazed beyond the pump and the magazine at the western or fourth point, the recruit saw rising to a height twice that of the wall, the Old Round Tower. To-day this tower is a vine-clad relic a vestige remaining from the days of the past. But to the soldier of Old Fort Snelling it was a more practical structure a place of lookout from which he was often to scan the swells of the prairie for approaching Indians or returning comrades. At the second and third points were blockhouses buildings of stone, each giving a view of the river below it. At the first point there was also a tower a wooden lookout platform at the very edge of the precipice from which was visible the landscape surrounding the fort.

But the soldier was doubtless more interested in the buildings in which he was to live. The barracks for the men were under the north wall and consisted of two buildings one story in height. The larger of these, which was intended to accommodate two companies was divided into sets, each set having on the main floor an orderly-room and three squad-rooms, while below in the basement were a mess-room and a kitchen. The other barrack was intended to be occupied by one company only; and the orderly-room, squad-rooms, mess-rooms, and a kitchen were on the same floor. The cellars below were damp and were used only for storage purposes.

Occupying the same position under the south wall, and facing the barracks, were two other buildings, similar in appearance. In one of these the officers’ quarters were located. It was divided into twelve sets, each consisting of two rooms, the front one sixteen by fourteen feet, and the back one, eight by fifteen and a half feet. In the basement were located kitchens for each set. The other building contained the offices of the commanding officer, the paymaster, the quartermaster, and the commissary. Here was a room used by the post school, and another filled with harness. An ordnance sergeant and five laundresses found quarters in the same structure.

The quarters of the commanding officer with the flag staff directly in front, faced the parade ground and the Old Round Tower. There were four rooms on the main floor and in the basement were kitchens and pantries. Other buildings were also included within the fort. The storehouse of the commissary department was located near the southern blockhouse; and on either side of the gate were two buildings, shunned by all the guardhouse and the hospital.

Such was the plan of the fort, convenient in arrangement and beautiful in appearance; but the report of an official inspection in 1827 complained that “the main points of defence against an enemy appear to have been in some respects sacrificed in the effort to secure the comfort and convenience of the troops in peace. These are important considerations; but at an exposed frontier post the primary object must be security against the attack of an enemy. Health and comfort come next. The buildings are too large, too numerous, and extending over a space entirely too great; enclosing a uselessly large parade, five times greater than is at all desirable in that climate."

A traveller who at a later day was entertained within the fort wrote of it facetiously in these words: “The idea is further suggested, that the strong stone wall was rather erected to keep the garrison in, than the enemy out. Though adapted for mounting cannon if needful, the walls were unprovided with those weapons; and the only piece of ordnance that I detected out of the magazine, was an old churn thrust gallantly through one of the embrasures. We were however far from complaining of the extra expense and taste which the worthy officer whose name it bears had expended on the erection of Fort Snelling, as it is in every way an addition to the sublime landscape in which it is situated."

But an examination of the contents of the magazine would have revealed weapons more formidable than churns. Among the equipment reported in 1834 one reads of two iron twelve-pounder cannon of the garrison type; three six-pounder iron cannon of the field type; and two five and eight-tenths inch iron howitzers. There was also equipment for these pieces of artillery carriages, sponges and rammers, lead aprons, dark lanterns, gunners’ belts, gunners’ haversacks, and tarpaulins. There were stored ready for service, 440 balls for the twelve-pounders, 1255 balls for the six-pounders, 546 pounds of mixed loose grapeshot, and many other sizes of strapped and canister shot. For the use of the infantry there were 7749 musket flints, 1825 pounds of musket powder, 1513 pounds of rifle powder, 31,390 cartridges, and 2047 blank cartridges.

Other structures closely connected with the work of the fort were located outside the wall. The buildings of the Indian agency were situated a quarter of a mile west, on the prairie. These consisted of a council house, the agent’s house, and an armorer’s shop. The original council house was built by the troops in 1823, but Agent Taliaferro claimed that most of the inside work was done at his own expense. The building was of logs and stone, eighty-two feet long, eighteen feet wide, and presenting in the front a piazza of seventy feet. Within, there were six rooms, lined with pine planking and separated from each other by panel doors.

At one o’clock on the morning of August 14, 1830, the sentinels at the fort discovered that the council house was on fire. But the flames had gained so much headway that it was impossible to save any of the contents. The interpreter and his family who lived in this building barely escaped with their lives. In reporting the loss to the superintendent, Major Taliaferro wrote that “the general impression here is that fire was put to the house by Some drunken Indians & circumstances are strong in justifying such a conclusion." This surmise was right, for on April 7, 1831, the Indians delivered at the fort one of their number who they claimed was guilty of the act.

That steps were taken to build a new council house is evident from the record in Taliaferro’s diary under date of March 8, 1831, that four men had been hired “at $12 per Month to cut & carry timber out of the pine Swamp for the Agency Council House." But in 1839 Taliaferro recommended that the agency be moved to a point seven miles up the river; and in 1841 there was a movement on foot to buy Baker’s stone trading house for the same purpose.

Near the location of the old council house were two other buildings. One of these was the agent’s house. This was made entirely of stone, and was one and a half stories high. It contained four rooms and a passage on the lower floor and two rooms above. Hastily built by troops at an early day, its comforts were few. “Since the Rainy Season Set in”, complained the agent in 1834, “both the hired Men and Myself have not had a Spot in our houses that Could be called dry, Not even our beds". An armorer’s shop, where blacksmith work was done for the Indians, was made of logs and measured sixteen by eighteen feet. Nearer the fort was the home of Franklin Steele, the sutler of the post.

At Camp Cold Water, B. F. Baker had erected a large stone trading house, which in 1841 was valued at six thousand dollars. While he had no legal title to the land on which this house was built, the officers at the post allowed him to remain. Later it was sold to Kenneth McKenzie, who in 1853 built an addition, renovated the entire building, and used it as a hotel. In the vicinity of this structure were several small huts which had been the homes of some squatters on the reservation. But after their expulsion these huts rapidly fell into decay.

In his duties and recreations the soldier was often brought into touch with other features of the world about him the points of scenic interest and the Indian villages. From the wooden lookout tower near the commanding officer’s quarters a glimpse of the surrounding land was revealed.

“The view from the angle of the wall at the extreme point, is highly romantic”, wrote one who saw the wild scene before civilization had left its traces on the landscape. “To your left lies the broad deep valley of the Mississippi, with the opposite heights, descending precipitously to the water’s edge; and to the right and in front, the St. Peter’s, a broad stream, worthy from its size, length of course, and the number of tributaries which it receives, to be called the Western Fork of the Great River itself. It is seen flowing through a comparatively open vale, with swelling hills and intermingling forest and prairie, for many miles above the point of junction. As it approaches the Mississippi, the volume of water divides into two branches; that on the right pursues the general course of the river above, and enters the Mississippi, at an angle of perhaps fifty degrees, directly under the walls of the fort; while the other, keeping to the base of the high prairie lands which rise above it to a notable summit called the Pilot Knob, enters the Mississippi lower down. The triangular island thus formed between the rivers lies immediately under the fort. Its level surface is partially cultivated, but towards the lower extremity thickly covered with wood. Beyond their junction, the united streams are seen gliding at the base of high cliffs into the narrowing valley below. Forests, and those of the most picturesque character, interspersed with strips of prairie, clothe a great portion of the distant view.

“A little cluster of trading houses is situated on the right branch of the St. Peter’s, and here and there on the shores, and on the island, you saw the dark conical tents of the wandering Sioux. A more striking scene we had not met with in the United States, and hardly any that could vie with it for picturesque beauty, even at this unfavourable season. What must it be in spring, when the forests put forth their young leaves, and the prairies are clothed in verdure!"

This “little cluster of trading houses” was the town of Mendota. Here was the stone house of Henry H. Sibley, and that of J. B. Faribault. Near the river was the ferry house and the home of Mr. Finley the ferryman. Upon the hillside lay the little Catholic chapel, surrounded by the graves in the cemetery. But the center of interest was in the warehouse and store of the American Fur Company, where the skins of buffalo, elk, deer, fox, beaver, otter, muskrat, mink, martin, raccoon, and other animals were sorted and divided into packs weighing about a hundred pounds. Indians, Frenchmen, half-breeds, and restless wanderers from the East were always loitering about the establishment.

From the fort a road led along the Mississippi to the Falls of St. Anthony, on the way crossing Minnehaha Creek on the bridge built in early days by the soldiers. Here a stop was made to view the beauty of the cascade then known as Little Falls or Brown’s Falls. It was the common practice for travellers to descend to the foot of the falls, clinging to the shrubs along the slippery pathway, and then go behind the sheet of falling water. Continuing, at a distance of eight miles up the Mississippi from the fort, the Falls of St. Anthony was reached. Although only sixteen feet high, the breadth of almost six hundred yards, broken in the middle by a rocky island gave to it an impressive majesty, and the thick vegetation on the island and banks returned a gloomy reflection from the whirling waters.

It is no wonder that in that wild and picturesque locality the Indians saw things ghostly and supernatural. “They tell you that here a young Dacota mother, goaded by jealousy, the husband [sic] of her children having taken another wife, unmoored her canoe above the Great Fall, and seating herself and her children in it, sang her death song, and went over the foaming acclivity in the face and amid the shrieks of her tribe. And often, the Indian believes, when the nights are calm, and the sky serene, and the dew-drops are hanging motionless on the sprays of the weeping birch on the island, and the country far and wide is vibrating to the murmur of the cataract, that then the misty form of the young mother may be seen moving down the deceitful current above, while her song is heard mingling its sad notes with the lulling sound of ‘the Laughing Water!’"

Here at the Falls, on the west bank of the river, were three buildings: a saw mill, a grist mill, and a one-story frame dwelling, where a detachment of soldiers always remained to guard the property. The saw mill had provided much of the lumber used in the construction of the fort, and in the grist mill the corn was cracked that was fed during the winter to the cattle a drove being delivered every fall for the use of the garrison. These buildings were still standing in 1858, although they were then in a bad state of decay.

Among the lakes on the prairie the most important were the Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun, and Lake Harriet. These were favorite picnic and hunting grounds for the men and women of the garrison. An old map made in 1823 shows “Green’s Villa” on Lake Calhoun probably a hunting lodge or shelter built by Lieutenant Platt Rogers Green. Here on Lake Calhoun was located the missionary establishment which was so closely connected with the life of the fort.

There were other Indian villages near the fort. Nine miles below, on the bank of the Mississippi was the Sioux village of Kaposia. Here Wakinyantanka, or Big Thunder, reigned over his band which numbered one hundred and eighty-three in 1834. Two or three miles upstream from its mouth on the banks of the Minnesota was the group of wigwams called Black Dog’s village, although the chief was Wamditanka or Big Eagle. About nine miles from Fort Snelling was Pinisha, reported as having one hundred and forty-eight inhabitants ruled over by Good Road. The largest group, three hundred and sixty-eight souls, was that of the Tintatonwan band, located twenty-four miles from Fort Snelling and near the present town of Shakopee. Shapaydan or Shakpay was the chief, the father of the warrior of the same name who was executed at Fort Snelling for participating in the Sioux massacre of 1862.

These villages were very much the same in appearance, large bark lodges being occupied by the Indians in the summer. The villages swarmed with children, squaws, painted warriors, and yelping dogs. About the lodges were the corn fields, the scaffolds where the corn was dried, and the more mournful scaffolds where, wrapped in buffalo skins, reposed the bones of the hunters who had followed the milky way to the “Land of the Ghosts".