Historic Fort Snelling

National Historic Landmark

Mailing Address:
200 Tower Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55111
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Memorial Day Weekend-Labor Day:
Tue-Sat 10 am-5 pm
Sun Noon-5 pm
 
Open Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day, 10 am-5 pm
 
Sept-Oct:
Sat Only 10 am-5 pm
 

 

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  • $10 seniors and college students w/ID
  • $10 veterans and active military
  • $6 children ages 5-17
  • Free for children age 4 and under and MNHS members
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The U.S. Indian Agency (1820 - 1853)

Along with building Fort Snelling at the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, the U.S. government established the St. Peters Indian Agency on the military property. The agency was supervised by an Indian Agent, a civilian appointed by the President of the United States to serve as an ambassador to American Indian nations living in the region. Agents were responsible for being the eyes, ears and mouth of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to American Indian communities. 

Lawrence Taliaferro, Painter: Anonymous; MHS Art Collection, Oil ca. 1830

Lawrence Taliaferro, ca. 1830.
MNHS collections.

Indian agencies were created as part of the U.S. government's efforts to control trade between the U.S. and American Indian nations. In 1806 the Federal office of the Superintendent of Indian Trade was created, specifically to monitor and control economic activity between American Indian nations and the U.S. government. In March 1824 Secretary of War John C. Calhoun created the Bureau of Indian Affairs to replace the Indian Trade Office, officially placing responsibility for working with American Indian communities under the control of the U.S. War Department. In addition to controlling trade, the Bureau was responsible for settling disputes between American Indians and European Americans, as well as for appropriating funds from Congress to fund efforts by the Indian agents to acculturate American Indians into European American society.

 

Nathaniel McLean, Indian Agent 1850-30, painting by Elizabeth Peale, ca. 1850, Minnesota Historical Society

Indian Agency Council House, 1835-37.
Painting by David Geister, 2012.
Historic Fort Snelling collections.

Agents were ordered to report any violations of U.S. trade and laws by European or U.S. fur traders to the Bureau's superintendents, local U.S. military personnel, and to the U.S. War Department. Agents were also responsible for resolving disputes between American Indians and European American emigrants within their jurisdictions, or any conflicts between different American Indian nations, in order to prevent disruptions in the fur trade and ensure that U.S. interests in their jurisdictions were not jeopardized. At the St. Peters Agency agent Lawrence Taliaferro worked frequently with both Dakota and Ojibwe communities to prevent conflicts and maintain peace in the region. Throughout its more than 30 year history, the St. Peters Agency was administered by several individuals: Lawrence Taliaferro (1820-39); Amos Bruce (1840-48);
Richard G. Murphy (1848-49); and Nathaniel McLean (1850-53).

During the early 1800s the U.S. government adopted policies aimed at acculturating and assimilating American Indians into European American society. Agents at the St. Peters Agency encouraged Dakota people to give up hunting as a primary method of subsistence, educate their children according to European-American standards, give up their traditional religion to become practicing Christians and adopt European-American agricultural methods. The agents also encouraged a change in traditional Dakota gender roles; traditionally, Dakota women and children had worked the fields and gardens, and the agents wanted men to give up hunting and take over this work. Agents as well as missionaries encouraged the Dakota to adopt farming on a larger scale so it could serve as the main form of subsistence for their communities, and to utilize European-American cultivation methods (such as the use of plows drawn by draft animals). The U.S. government's policy of assimilation would effectively destroy the traditional cultural identities of American Indian nations. Many historians have argued that the U.S. government believed that if American Indians did not adopt European-American culture they would become extinct as a people. This paternalistic attitude influenced interactions between American Indian nations and the U.S. government throughout the first half of the 1800s, and its effects continue to be felt today.

Signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux

Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, Francis Davis Millet ca. 1905.
MNHS collections.

  After the 1851 Treaties of Traverse de Sioux and Mendota many of Minnesota's Dakota communities moved to a reservation along the Minnesota River Valley. The U.S. government determined that the St. Peters Agency was no longer needed and it was soon replaced by two agencies on the new Dakota reservations, the Upper (Yellow Medicine) and Lower (Redwood) Sioux Agencies. By 1853 most of the Dakota living near the St. Peters Agency had moved to the new reservation, and the agency was closed down. Afterwards, many of the agency's buildings were used by private citizens.

Bibliography / Resources

Anderson, Gary Clayton. Kinsmen of Another Kind: Dakota-White Relations in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1650-1862. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1984.

Prucha, Frances Paul. American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1994.

Prucha, Frances Paul. Documents of United States Indian Policy. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Abridged Ed. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

Sheehan, Bernard W. Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonain Philanthropy and the American Indian. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1973.

 Lawrence Taliaferro journals. Minnesota Historical Society Collections, St. Paul.