When most people think about Fort Snelling they first picture a military installation. It is easy to understand why. The first troops arrived at what would later become the fort in 1819, and parts of it have remained an installation — sometimes active, and other times demobilized — ever since.
Generations of Minnesotans are familiar with the site’s military roots from before the Civil War through World War II. For more than 40 years, students from around Minnesota have visited Historic Fort Snelling each spring to learn about the site’s early military history. The 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry — which comprised the first thousand soldiers tendered to the Union war effort — trained and mustered at Fort Snelling, kicking off an era of men and women mustering at the fort for wars through World War II.
To this day, there is still a significant military presence on the broader Fort Snelling complex, with Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine reserve units operating at the Upper Post.
As the adjutant general for the Minnesota National Guard for seven years, and a member of the military for 45 years, I have a deep appreciation for our state’s military history. I have had the great fortune of participating in numerous mobilization ceremonies, Beyond the Yellow Ribbon ceremonies, and other military events and celebrations at the fort. I have appreciated how Fort Snelling’s educational footprint has provided an opportunity to talk about history to soldiers and airmen.
But Minnesotans need to know that there are other stories — some related to the military, and others not — that must be told so that visitors can truly understand the role of Historic Fort Snelling in the development of our state and nation.
The Minnesota Historical Society has requested $30 million from the Legislature to revitalize the historic site and repurpose a historic cavalry barracks into a new visitor and interpretive center. I support this request because we owe it to our history to ensure that the new visitor center encapsulates a diversity of stories, not just about the military and veterans, but about the many experiences of those who have called this place home — some by choice and others by force.
I know that some veterans are not pleased about history being told outside of that which occurred in a military uniform. I’ve been asked, “Why are we talking about the Dakota? Why are we talking about slavery?” And the answer is simple: These stories matter greatly, and they happened here, at Fort Snelling.
Many Minnesotans do not realize that, even while Minnesota was a free territory, African-Americans were enslaved at the fort. Or that many of the Japanese-Americans who participated in the language school at the fort during World War II were compelled to do so to avoid going to an internment camp. Many people don’t realize that the site where Fort Snelling sits is a sacred place for many Dakota, or that hundreds of Dakota died while forcibly held in a camp below the fort after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
There’s more to be told about Fort Snelling than we have been telling. As Minnesota becomes increasingly diverse, inclusion needs to be reflected in our approach to recognizing the events of the past at our historic sites. The history of all who have lived here needs to be documented, interpreted and displayed.
The efforts underway at Historic Fort Snelling do not minimize veteran history. To the contrary, under plans currently in development, military history will be enhanced at the fort by telling even more veteran stories from multiple time periods. But we must also recognize that this site is more than a military site — and it impacted more than just military and veteran families. We must endeavor to tell these stories. To do less than our best wouldn’t be Minnesotan.
Gen. Richard C. Nash was adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard from 2010-2017.