At Historic Fort Snelling, in the meticulously restored commander’s quarters, the dining room table is set for 15.
Each plate has a name. Each name was a person enslaved on free soil.
At the head of the table is Jane Glasgow, enslaved here by Lt. Col. Zachary Taylor from May 1828 to June 1829. Twenty years later, she was still in bondage when President Zachary Taylor brought her to the White House.
Their names are written across the good china. The pretty, blue-patterned Spode plates you’d bring out for company. Jack. Margaret. Mary and her daughter Louisa. Harriet and Dred Scott. A few names out of many lost to history.
The Minnesota Historical Society gave them something they never had in life.
A seat at the table.
A chapter in the story.
MNHS is getting ready to write a new chapter, and it starts with a name.
A new name for Historic Fort Snelling — the 23 acres that surround this 200-year-old fort. Humans have occupied this spur of land at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers for the past 10,000 years.
Bdote, the Dakota called it. The place where two waters meet.
For millennia, the rivers drew people here. The tribes first, then the fur traders, the voyageurs, the American Fur Company, and Zebulon Pike in 1805, looking for a good spot for a military outpost.
For a long time, the story of that outpost was told from a single point in time and a single point of view.
“It was 1827 every single year,” said Chris Belland, a veteran and active-duty reservist, who started volunteering at Fort Snelling as a teenager, marching in the white woolen uniforms and leather shako headdresses of the era.
Generations of school tours and visitors came here to wander the barracks, watch artillery and infantry drills, and join in old-timey baseball games where you run the bases clockwise and bean your opponent with the ball to tag them out.
Belland now serves as Fort Snelling’s program and outreach manager for veterans relations, ensuring that the stories people treasured aren’t lost as new stories are added. Stories of the wounded soldiers who convalesced here after World War I. Or the thousands of troops who funneled through Fort Snelling during World War II. Or the Japanese-Americans who trained here to become military interpreters, serving the country that had just imprisoned their families.
Fort Snelling didn’t close the chapter on 1827. It just added more to the story.
The cannon still roars. There are cooking and blacksmithing and laundry demonstrations, landscape walking tours, and games.
The tour includes the slave quarters now. There are exhibits about indigenous cultures and tribal history. You can learn about the women who labored as laundresses at the fort. There are memorials to Sakpedan and Wakan Ozanzan and the concentration camp where 1,600 Dakota women, children and elders suffered after the 1862 Dakota War.
There’s more to the story of Historic Fort Snelling. The Historical Society is hoping to hear more about it from you.
Late in August, MNHS put out an online survey, inviting Minnesotans to talk about the site and about the stories they’d like to see reflected in a new name. Within days, they had 1,700 responses, to the delight of historians like Kevin Maijala, director of experience development at the Minnesota Historical Society.
“That’s the stuff that enriches a site like Historic Fort Snelling,” Maijala said, walking along the sunlit walls of the fort, toward a 1905 cavalry barracks that will be converted into a new visitor center in the coming years. “Understanding that it’s a site sacred to Dakota people, it’s a site sacred to veterans who trained here, it’s a site sacred to people who are interested in Civil War history and World War II history.”
This has always been the place where rivers, stories and people come together. Bdote.
But people don’t always welcome new stories, especially the painful, uncomfortable ones.
Any name change would have to go to the Minnesota Legislature for approval.
The Minnesota Senate tried to slash $4 million from the Historical Society’s budget earlier this year, after some senators took offense to a temporary sign at the site identifying “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote.” Revisionist history, they called it.
As if there had been any room at all for Jane Glasgow in the old histories.
On a sunny day at Fort Snelling, Acoma Gaither stood in the dim, cramped slave quarters under the medical barracks.
Gaither, who is black, is dressed as an enslaved woman, interpreting the story of Harriet and Dred Scott, whose family lived in this space, or in quarters like it, in the 1830s.
She does it, she says, because up above in the sunshine, other interpreters are marching in their bright uniforms, telling one story. These are the stories she wants you to know.
“I want to give these women — all these unnamed women who were here, who were in bondage — I want to give them visibility,” she said. “I want to acknowledge that they were here.”
To join the conversation or fill out the MNHS survey, visit mnhs.org/fortsnelling/naming.