New Exhibition Examines the Many Converging Histories of Minnesota’s Fort Snelling

The site was the backdrop for critical moments in Native American, African American and Japanese American history

Visitors enter Historic Fort Snelling. A new exhibition at the site examines the fort's long, complex history. Charlie Vaughn / Minnesota Historical Society

At the site where the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers meet, so too do many different histories. That’s the message of a new exhibition—“Many Voices, Many Stories, One Place”—at Minnesota’s Historic Fort Snelling, which tells the story of the place from multiple perspectives.

“This new exhibit will create a powerful engagement with the past by digging deeper into the history that is well known and also uncovering new stories many Minnesotans may have never heard,” says Kent Whitworth, director and CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS), in a statement from the organization.

The site’s history begins long before a fort was ever built: The Dakota people call the confluence of the two rivers Bdote, and many consider the location a sacred place of creation. The waterways and their junction also proved vital for the exchange of goods, especially the lucrative fur trade.

Fort Snelling sits at the spot where the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers meet. Minnesota Historical Society

In the 1820s, the United States military built Fort Snelling at the site, eventually naming it after Colonel Josiah Snelling, who supervised the construction. After the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, more than 1,600 Dakota people were held in a concentration camp at the fort. In the winter of 1862, an estimated 130 to 300 died from measles, other diseases and harsh conditions.

“This historic site brings a range of emotions for Native people, in particular, Dakota people,” says Amber Annis, director of Native American initiatives at MNHS, in the statement.

1862 concentration camp
The military concentration camp for Dakota people below Fort Snelling, 1862 Minnesota Historical Society

Due to the fort’s complex history, examining multiple narratives simultaneously is vital, as Bill Convery, director of research at the MNHS, tells the Star Tribune’s Gannon Hanevold.

“It’s really important for Minnesotans to understand what a pivotal site Fort Snelling was, not only to the cultural history of the Dakota but also to the history of the creation of the state of Minnesota,” says Convery. “Minnesota arguably began at Fort Snelling.”

Exhibit opening
“Many Voices, Many Stories, One Place” tells the story of the fort from multiple perspectives. Minnesota Historical Society

Additionally, the fort played a role in the national debate over slavery. In the 1830s, an enslaved couple, Dred and Harriet Scott, resided for several years at the fort, which was located in a free territory, before returning to Missouri, where slavery was legal. Scott argued that his time in free territories granted his freedom in a case that went before the Supreme Court: Dred Scott v. Sandford. In 1857, the court ruled against Scott, angering abolitionists and helping to set the stage for the Civil War.

Then, about a century later, the fort became the site of a military Japanese language school. “Though far from the battlefields of World War II, Fort Snelling produced trained, educated and battle-ready translators and code breakers for the war effort in the Pacific Theater,” per the National Park Service.

Inside exhibit
A view inside “Many Voices, Many Stories, One Place” Minnesota Historical Society

The exhibition is an effort to combine these perspectives, presenting visitors with a history that is as comprehensive as possible, as Annis tells Minnesota Public Radio’s Cathy Wurzer. “We don’t have just one narrative, one view. We’re understanding the complications,” she says. This way, the site can feature “histories and voices that were often omitted.”

For example, the new show will present a number of “descendancy videos,” she adds. “So you’re hearing from the descendants of people such as Wabasha and Little Crow and Dred and Harriet Scott. You’re hearing folks from that served during World War II. You’re hearing the descendants [reflecting on] what the fort means to them, but also what their family’s history means to them.”

Exhibit view
MNHS worked with community members, veterans, archaeologists, tribal leaders and historians to create a record of the site’s many narratives for the exhibition Minnesota Historical Society

To prepare the exhibition, the culmination of a two-year revitalization project, MNHS worked with community members, veterans, archaeologists, tribal leaders and historians to create a record of the site’s many narratives.

“I really think it’s a place where visitors have to go to more than once in order to fully appreciate all of the different ways that this place was significant to Minnesota,” Convery tells the Star Tribune.

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