As an old Minnesota historian, I am exasperated by the local media’s slanted and superficial coverage of the renaming and reinterpreting of Fort Snelling and Lake Calhoun.

The controversy cries out for a fair and factual review of why Fort Snelling was built and how it fulfilled its mission — and why the garrison at the meeting of the Mississippi and “St. Peters” (Minnesota) Rivers 200 years ago was so critically important for the future of Minnesota.

To begin with, Fort Snelling was not built on land “stolen from the Dakota,” or seized after a war of conquest with the tribe. Nor was it built like some other American forts, as a place to protect settlers from Indian attacks, or promote white settlement in the area. Rather, and most significantly, it was established for three distinctive reasons:

First: to establish a strong permanent presence in the remote Upper Mississippi frontier (following the nation’s second war with the British, the War of 1812) that would prevent British intrusion on American land from Canada via the Red and Mississippi Rivers; and to stop all British trade with the American Indians of the region.

Second: to cultivate “perpetual peace and friendship” between the United States and the Native American tribes and secure their lasting loyalty to the nation by establishing an Indian agency that would not only regulate the fur trade, police against foreign and unscrupulous traders and keep white encroachers off Indian land, but teach the Indians “the blessings of civilization.” (President James Monroe stressed the mission of “preservation, improvement and civilization of the native inhabitants.”)

Third: to “encourage a peaceful and friendly disposition between the tribes.” Between 1820 and 1831 the Fort’s Indian agent “held more than 200 [peace] councils” between the feuding Dakota and Ojibwe and several others between the Dakota and their old enemies the Sac and Fox.

That the land was peacefully purchased from the Mdewakanton is evidenced by three facts:

1. In the Pike Treaty of 1805 the main chiefs of the tribe (all but Wabasha) agreed to cede 100,000 acres from the mouth of the St. Peter’s (called “Mdote” according to the oldest Dakota-English dictionary) to St. Anthony Falls, and the chiefs of the two closest villages to the site, Little Crow (Cetanakwon) and Penichon, signed the treaty. (Zebulon Pike foolishly forgot to have all the witnesses sign it.)

2. In August 1819 Little Crow (Cetanakwon) “acknowledged the sale of the land” and “said he had been looking every year since the sale for the troops to build a fort, and was now hoping to see [them].”

3. On Aug. 1, 1829, Little Crow told longtime Indian agent Lawrence Taliaferro: “If I had not been friendly disposed and wished the white people to settle near me — you would not have gotten one inch of ground from me.”

Though Fort Snelling was a symbol of American power, it was also a symbol of American benevolence, manifested in the generous gifts Taliaferro regularly gave to the Indians, including guns, knives, spears, axes, traps, etc. and great quantities of food and tobacco. Indeed, during many long, harsh winters many Dakota would have starved without the food Taliaferro provided.

Significantly, it was Taliaferro who came up with the idea of starting a model Indian farm village at Lake Calhoun, in order to teach the Dakota advanced agriculture and thus increase their food supply. Under the leadership of Chief Cloud Man, from Black Dog’s band on the Minnesota River, the first Dakota farm village was launched in 1829 on the east shore of the lake. (The village was abandoned in 1839 due to the threat of an Ojibwe attack and Taliaferro’s retirement.)

Incidentally, a credible 1881 source claims the Dakota called Lake Calhoun “Mde Medoza,” or Lake of the Loons.

The lake was fittingly named in honor of John C. Calhoun, President Monroe’s Secretary of War and the official who conceived and ordered the building of the garrison that became Fort Snelling. Though Calhoun is best remembered as the old, outspoken defender of slavery and states’ rights, in 1819 he was a young nationalist dedicated to securing America’s northern frontier against the British.

You don’t have to like him, but if it hadn’t been for Calhoun there wouldn’t have been a Fort Snelling, and if there hadn’t been a Fort Snelling the development of Minnesota would have been radically altered. The fort Calhoun established was the genesis of the Twin Cities, triggering the rise of Mendota, St. Paul and Minneapolis.

 

Gary Brueggemann, of St. Paul, is author of “Minnesota’s Oldest Murder Mystery” and of a forthcoming history of the founding of St. Paul.