This week the bicentennial of a pivotal event in Minnesota history passes with no public recognition.
Two centuries ago a small fleet of bateaux and barges entered the mouth of the Minnesota River at a place called Mdote. Poled, sailed and pushed by a crew of 20 boatmen and 98 enlisted soldiers of the U.S. Army, the watercraft had laboriously moved up the Mississippi River from Prairie du Chien, beginning on Aug. 8, 1819. They also carried several officers, a number of women and children, and enough rough rations to see the expedition through a winter. They were reinforced by 120 new recruits and more supplies in September.
When they touched shore on what is now Picnic Island in Fort Snelling State Park they little dreamed of the massive transformation their arrival foretold.
This was then considered Indian Country, not yet open to American settlement. But it was clear to all, and especially to the Indians, that change was coming. The local Dakota and Ojibwa people had for decades been integrally connected to a world economy as both avid consumers of manufactured goods and as producers in the lucrative fur trade. But their alliances had been with the British, as Dakota war parties had demonstrated during the American Revolution and the War of 1812.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, following the Revolution, established nominal American control of the unorganized lands east of the Upper Mississippi. Soon President Thomas Jefferson’s visionary Louisiana Purchase of 1803 doubled the size of the country. This vast region west of the Mississippi was largely unexplored by Americans. That would change as Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and his small party of soldiers paddled north in 1805, wintered near today’s Little Falls, Minn., and along the way selected and purchased sites for government posts.
In the years just after Americans fought their “second war of independence,” the War of 1812, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun laid out his vision for taking control of the vast new region, including the future Minnesota. Tasking the Fifth U.S. Infantry he explained to its Lt. Col. Henry Leavenworth:
“The military movement up the Mississippi has been undertaken for two great objects: the enlargement and protection of our fur trade, and the permanent peace of our northwestern frontier, by securing a decided control over the various tribes of Indians in that quarter.”
The army’s job was to enforce a gradual and hopefully peaceful transition under the rule of law. A remarkable and fair-minded young Indian agent, Lawrence Taliaferro, ably administered that vision for 20 years from Fort Snelling. His journals at the Minnesota Historical Society are an invaluable record of day to day diplomacy in our region.
Change did come, as soldiers, officers and military families survived their first winter and began construction of the permanent fortification above the river junction. Fort Snelling would be home to the area’s first school, the first library, the first hospital and the first Protestant congregation while it also served as a daily and imposing reminder to all of the power and reach of the young United States.
As the so-called anchor post of a chain of forts on the Upper Mississippi, it managed nearly 10% of the troops in the army in those early years. The region’s Indian peoples knew the Americans were here to stay, whether wanted or not.
Within 20 years treaties began to carve pieces out of Indian Country. Government annuities added to cultural disruptions already taking place through the fur trade. Missionaries followed the troops, as did government farming supplies in often forlorn attempts to force change. Some accommodated, many did not, but all had to change as had countless other native peoples facing an impending tidal wave of outside immigration.
And so we should remember the enormous change started when Colonel Leavenworth’s intrepid party landed at Mdote 200 years ago. Some may rightly celebrate that millions were given undreamed of opportunity for their descendants thanks to Calhoun’s orders. Others saw only a lifestyle doomed to extinction on Aug. 24, 1819.
The tragedy of that change to some should not be ignored nor denied. But neither should be its inevitability.
Stephen E. Osman is retired senior historian, Minnesota Historical Society, and author of “Fort Snelling and the Civil War” published by the Ramsey County Historical Society.