A visit to the historic Fort Snelling gives a lesson in basic Minnesota and United States history from the earliest days of European settlement of the area through the fort’s role in World War II.
Fort Snelling was built, starting in 1820, on the bluffs overlooking the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. The military site was initially named Fort Saint Anthony, but it was renamed Fort Snelling, after its architect and first commandant Colonel Josiah Snelling, when its construction was completed in 1825.
The fort itself is on the National Register of Historic Sites and is administered by the Minnesota State Historical Society. The land below the bluffs and along the rivers is now the Fort Snelling State Park. The park is administered by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The fort is also within the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, a National Park Service unit.
A tour of the fort buildings includes a lot of original and reconstructed evidence of what life at the fort was like during the earliest days of its establishment and up through the Civil War. Exhibits include reconstructions of quotidian early life such as squad barracks of spare bunk beds, married enlisted men’s quarters, an officer’s somewhat less sparse accommodations, all the way up to the commandant’s home, complete with a dining room set with fine china.
There is the carpenter’s shop, with its 19th Century workbenches and tools that built the fort’s furnishings. And the sutler’s store, with hints of what products were available to the post’s soldiers. There’s also a school room, where the soldiers’ children were taught, and the blacksmith’s shop.
There is the infirmary, with its stark examination and operating table, and an attendant display of surgical instruments, including the too-often used bone saw that had children gasping at the idea of its use. The medical exhibit includes information on when the Fort was used as a hospital during World War I.
Although it’s not fully built out yet, your visit to Fort Snelling starts with the newly opened (as of May 2022) Plank Museum and Visitor Center, which is in the old cavalry headquarters building between the parking lot and the fort itself.
So far, the Plank Museum is mostly standing placards that provide some detail the interesting history of the fort. For example, in its earliest days, Fort Snelling served as an outpost, if you will, of slavery in the northern supposedly free territories and states. In fact, Dred Scott, a slave whose name is on the most infamous decision of the United States Supreme Court was a slave to the post doctor, John Emerson. It was Emerson bringing Scott and his wife what was then the Wisconsin Territory that led Scott to petition the courts for his freedom.
Here, you can also take note of the Fort’s role in the Sioux uprising of 1862, during the American Civil War. Civil war troops were diverted to Fort Snelling to put down the Indian revolt, and the Fort was the scene of the execution of some of the Indian leaders.
The displays also include much information on the Fort’s role as a Japanese language school during World War II. In particular, Japanese-Americans who had been interned were allowed to join the United States army and train intelligence officers in the Japanese language during the war.
After you’ve visited the Fort, take the time to stroll back to the parking lot along the river walk and get a glimpse of the Mississippi, perhaps not too different than it looked almost 200 years ago, minus the power lines and Minneapolis skyline of course.
Hours and admission
Historic Fort Snelling is open Wednesdays through Sundays from May 31 to September 4, 2022. Opening hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Complete Fort Snelling opening hours schedule is here.
Admission is $12 for adults, and $10 for seniors and college students with ID. Children aged 5-17 are $8. Admission is free for Minnesota Historical Society members, military veterans and family, native Americans and families, and active military and families (walk up only.) Tickets may be purchased in advance online, through the box office at 651-259-3015, or at the visitor center.
More info from MNTrips
One of our favorite things to do in Minnesota is visit our extensive state park system and the historical sites managed by the state Historical Society. See the list of all Minnesota State Parks, including basic permit information. We also have a list of all Minnesota Historical Society sites. We’re adding our commentary for the park and historical sites as we visit them.
When you plan on hiking or biking the Minnesota State Parks, be sure to download the Avenza Maps app to your phone. The app allows you to download the trail maps for almost every state park, and they are invaluable for navigation, especially because many of the parks don’t have as many directional signs as they should.
Also, if you’re planning on camping at Minnesota State Parks, you’ll need a reservation. Here’s the online reservation form.
Check out our recommendations for what to carry in your hiking day pack when you check out the extensive Minnesota State Park and National Park system.
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