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Fort Snelling          
Site Number(s):   21HE99  
County:   Hennepin, MN  
City Township:   Fort Snelling  
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The Minnesota River joins the Mississippi beneath a limestone bluff. Atop this point, U.S. troops under the command of Colonel Josiah Snelling built a frontier outpost in the early 1820s.

Fort Snelling by Henry Lewis
Fort Snelling as it looked in the 1840s is shown in this painting by Henry Lewis. The island seen in the foreground carries the name of Lieutenant Zebulon Pike, who met there with the Dakota Indians in 1805 and bought the land for the fort.
 
 


Fort Snelling had undergone great changes by 1946, when its long career as an army post finally came to an end. Some walls and buildings had crumbled and been torn down; others had been altered to suit changing needs and fashions; the growing Twin Cities Metropolitan Area had encroached on it; and planes roared overhead as they landed and took off from the nearby airport. The fort's final destruction seemed close when the federal interstate highway program threatened it in 1956.

map of Ft. Snelling
Map of the fort in relation to Mendota Bridge and the state park.

 
 



Fort Snelling in 1947
Picturesque battlements that had been added to the Round Tower in the 1890s can be seen in this photo of archaeologists at work near it in 1957.


A few voices were raised in protest, and in 1957, looking toward the hundredth anniversary of Minnesota statehood, the state's Centennial Commission granted money to the Minnesota Historical Society for an archaeological investigation. The study was to determine if enough foundations of the original fort remained to make restoration feasible. A busy season of digging demonstrated that indeed the ground still held clear evidence of where buildings had stood and how they had been constructed.

 
 



Outcry from preservationists persuaded the Minnesota Highway Department to revise its plans and resulted in the tunnel that carries Highway 5 beneath the fort instead of through it. Meanwhile pressure had mounted for the creation of a state park to include the old fort and the unspoiled river valley below it. That became a reality in 1961.

In 1964 Historical Society archaeologists investigated the site of Cantonment New Hope, below the present Mendota Bridge, where troops assigned to build the fort set up temporary quarters in 1819. At the same time, research in the National Archives turned up several sets of plans for the fort, along with hundreds of related documents.

 
 



Thirteen years of uninterrupted archaeological work began in 1965 with passage of the state Historic Sites Act and the appropriation of $200,000 for the Historical Society to start restoration of the old fort. The first step was taken that summer by excavating the floor of the Round Tower, one of the few original buildings that remained intact.


Archaeology in 1965
Historical Society archaeologists at work in the Round Tower, 1965. Layers of interior finish, including murals painted by WPA artists, had to be removed in restoring the building to its appearance in the 1820s.

 
 


By 1978 the foundations of the walls and all the buildings within them had been investigated, and restoration was nearly complete. In the two decades that followed, sporadic archaeological work was done at sites outside the walls, such as root cellars cut into the river bank, stables, and trash dumps, but not until the late 1990s did investigation extend beyond the 1850s and begin to ask questions about the fort's later years.
 
 



Excavation map
Map showing excavation areas.


Excavation feature
Feature during excavation.

 
 



The story of this long-running archaeological exploration and how it has added, not only to the accurate restoration and reconstruction of the old fort, but also to knowledge of what life was like there is told in "History Under the Floor Boards." This exhibit is located in one section of the former officers' quarters.


Metal nails from fort snelling

 
 



 
 


 

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Updated 29 Jun 1999