Nearing the end of her sixth pregnancy, 28-year-old Abigail Snelling, her husband, Josiah, and their children were making their halting way up the Mississippi River on a keel boat after a trip to Detroit. It was late autumn of 1825 and they were not far from Fort Snelling, the five-year-old frontier outpost just completed and renamed to honor the military man Abigail had married at the age of 15.
The Snellings’ boat, pushed upstream by long poles, became stuck in some trees. Everyone struggled to free the boat but it sank, forcing the Snellings to trudge through icy water, make camp and wait for scouts to fetch a sleigh to take them home over snow-covered ground. Abigail, who called herself Abby, gave birth to Marion four days later.
“More than simply the helpmate of a career military officer,” wrote longtime Minnesota Historical Society curator Janis Obst in an illuminating 1994 article in Minnesota History, Abigail Snelling “was a spirited woman, the daughter, sister, and mother of military men” — a woman of “fortitude and resourcefulness,” whose “whole life had been one of movement and change.” (tinyurl.com/AbigailSnelling)
COVID-19 put the kibosh on a cornerstone ceremony marking Fort Snelling’s 200th anniversary this month. The milestone comes amid construction and a $34.5 million renovation, even as larger questions loom about the fort’s role in usurping Dakota land to enable fur traders to profit off the federal government’s expansionist land grabs of the early 1800s.
Abigail Snelling swatted mosquitoes as she arrived for the first time in September 1820 at the fort, where she had a front-row seat for the next seven years. She gave birth to her fourth child, Elizabeth, two months later amid buffalo-hide rugs in the fort’s log cabin. Elizabeth died as a 1-year-old, as did Abby’s third child, Thomas.
Death and grieving were constants in Abby’s life. Born in 1797 in Watertown, Mass., the sixth of 12 children, she was only 11 when she lost both her father, Revolutionary War veteran Thomas Hunt, and her mother Eunice to illness. Four years later, Abby was living with her brother’s family in Detroit when she met Capt. Josiah Snelling, a 30-year-old widower with a 6-year-old son. Snelling, whose wife had died at 22, married Abby during a pause in the fighting between the United States and Great Britain during the War of 1812.
Moving up the ranks to colonel in 1819, Josiah Snelling had earned fame fighting Shawnee warriors in the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 in Indiana Territory, as well as his exploits against the British in 1812. But he was no great catch; he drank heavily and was often unwell.
Among other things, Josiah Snelling suffered chronic diarrhea so severe he couldn’t join his young wife on horseback rides, instead appointing a lieutenant to escort Abby on jaunts outside the fort’s walls — including fox hunting forays when her long black hair streamed “wildly behind her in the wind,” according to Obst.
In 1827, after seven years at the fort named for him, Snelling was summoned to Washington to face accounting questions that prompted officials to suspend his pay. He died in his mid-40s in 1828, just after their oldest child, Mary, died at age 15. Four of their children and stepson William survived.
Abby moved to Detroit, where she ran an upscale boardinghouse in the 1830s. After more than a dozen years as a widow, she married a onetime boarder, Methodist Episcopal minister Jonathan Chaplin, in 1841. He died five years later.
For decades, Abigail Snelling Chaplin fought for a military widow’s pension, arguing that the chronic illnesses leading to Josiah Snelling’s death could be traced to his service in the War of 1812. Despite pleas from pastors and relatives, the U.S. Senate in 1848 refused to join the House in approving her request.
But she kept at it, pleading with the pension commissioner in 1859 that she was “wholly without means of support.” Her pension bill passed the House again in 1863, when she was in her mid-60s. Abby went to the Senate to make her case in person, but the last speaker of the session refused to give her 10 minutes to speak.
“How frustrating it must have been when the 1863 session adjourned without considering her request!” Obst wrote.
Not until Abby Snelling turned 76 in 1873 did Congress approve a $30 monthly pension for her, retroactive to 1870. It would be worth about $650 a month today.
Blind and frail from numerous falls, Abby lived her last years with daughter Marion, the one born just after their keel boat sank in 1825. She died in 1888 in Newport, Ky., at 91 — an age seldom reached in the 1880s — and was buried in Cincinnati, having outlived both her husbands and six of her seven children.
Sad to think that this pioneer woman, who arrived at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers 200 years ago, had to beg in her later years for money from Congress.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.