Fifty years ago this coming month, I skipped class to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of a cornerstone laying of monumental significance.
The Old Guard’s Fife and Drum Corps from Washington performed. Government and civic leaders spoke. Even a commemorative U.S. postage stamp featured the anniversary.
An equally impressive event had heralded the 1920 centennial.
Minnesotans had much to celebrate in remembering Sept. 10, 1820, when the first Fort Snelling cornerstone was dedicated.
This year, on the 200th anniversary of that foundational event, there will be no commemorations. Our elected leaders, many historians and our public voices instead silently ignore this anniversary. To even note such an important event is now sadly deemed political and divisive.
Yet all Minnesotans benefit immensely from the rich, shared history through which our state was born.
The soldiers and families of the Fifth United States Infantry had arrived with a clear mandate in the fall of 1819. They were welcomed by local Dakota Chief Little Crow (III) who asked why the government had taken so long to build the fort promised in Zebulon Pike’s treaty 14 years earlier. Later, Ojibwe Chief Hole in the Day (the elder) boasted that his own village would have been far south at the river junction had not Fort Snelling been built to attempt to keep peace between the tribes. That peace was indeed kept, with a few bloody exceptions.
And the fort actually kept white settlers out until treaties in 1837, 1851 and later opened much of the state to a flood of immigrants. Over 1,000 steamboats a year landed here in the 1850s to disgorge speculators, politicians and thousands of European peasant farmers desperate for a new life. All were captivated by the same magical vistas that we enjoy today along Hwy. 61.
The men and women who passed through Fort Snelling in those first days were builders. That symbolic cornerstone laying was only the beginning. They left all of us enduring institutions and physical improvements.
The first public school with its Harvard-educated teacher, a Protestant congregation, several military roads, a lending library and a hospital soon followed. The fort surgeon vaccinated both soldiers and Dakota against smallpox just a few years later.
And improvements went beyond the fort itself. The rule of law gradually extended over the region. Missionaries who followed the troops opened a unique multicultural school at Lake Harriet, wrote down the Dakota language for posterity, and helped operate a successful and large Indigenous farming operation at what was then Lake Calhoun.
As newcomers married into native families, the area around Fort Snelling diversified, adapted and blended cultures to put a unique face on the future territory and state.
Some of the early military leaders shared a prescient vision of a continental United States that would ultimately be achieved through their self-sacrifice. Their actions had a profound and transformational impact on the land and the peoples of the region and far beyond. Their legacy is a far different future than early Minnesotans could have imagined for themselves or for those who followed.
Fort Snelling’s cornerstone eventually paved the way for permanent immigrants who created the rich tapestry of farms and of factories, and of benevolent and educational institutions that still serve their descendants and with open arms welcome brand-new Minnesotans.
Today our social institutions are a model for the nation. Today our former pioneer farms feed the world. Yes, there was greed, but humans have always sought to improve themselves, their families and their tribes.
Today a complacency of plenty — enough food, a personal vehicle, a television, a cellphone, health care — encourages selective backward-looking introspection. But the past was a different reality and should not be judged by today’s standards. Honest examination of historic actions in the context of their own time, and not ours, finds much to celebrate.
What lasting institutions or improvements have we in the present generation built that can begin to compare? Minnesotans should be eternally grateful for the visionaries upon whose solid shoulders we all today stand.
It is easy in hindsight to characterize our predecessors by flaws readily apparent to modern sensibilities. All humans are flawed. Future generations will certainly judge us by the hypocritical absurdities that dominate today’s news.
It seems much harder these days to honestly recognize legacies of the past that make ill-informed armchair criticisms even possible. The story of Fort Snelling should be learning opportunity for all Minnesotans. A community recognition of yesterday’s hard-won achievements could well inspire us today to draw together and to dream of the next 200 years in this shared garden called Minnesota.
Stephen E. Osman is a retired senior historian for the Minnesota Historical Society. He is author of “Fort Snelling Then and Now: The World War II Years,” and “Fort Snelling and the Civil War,” recently published by the Ramsey County Historical Society.