View of Fort Snelling
Leaves are turning color and starting to fall. A flag hangs limp in the crisp air, high over the fort on the bluff. Smoke rises from tipis on the island mid-river. The drums of a group of Dakhóta dancers are the only sounds to break the quiet. It is a fine day for a soldier-artist from the fort to cross the river and paint the scene.
With its sharp detail, Sergeant Edward Thomas’ painting seems a true record of the landscape on that day around 1850. The artist captured more than just the look of the place where two great rivers join, however. His picture records the meeting of two ways of life on the eve of rapid change.
KEY IDEA ONE
The painting provides an accurate record of the look of the place.
Edward Thomas’ was not trained as a painter. He was a career soldier. But he painted pictures wherever he was stationed, including two years at Fort Snelling in Minnesota Territory from 1849 to 1851. Most of his pictures have been lost over time.
Today, many Minnesotans will easily recognize Fort Snelling. This National Historic Landmark resides on Dakhóta homeland, at the sacred confluence of rivers known as Bdote. It perches above the joining of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, now surrounded by busy freeways and airport runways. Historians can identify nearly all the other buildings pictured here. Among them are the U.S. Indian Agency building, the American Fur Company warehouse, and the home of trading agent Henry Sibley.
But of all the structures in the picture, the painter seems to have been most interested in the Dakhóta tipis in the foreground. He closely observed the patterns decorating the tipi covers. He carefully detailed the ends of the tent poles holding them up. The Dakhóta campsites, painted in the same browns and reds as the hills around them, become almost a part of the landscape itself. But unlike the stone fort in the distance, they would soon vanish from the scene. With the Treaty of Mendota, signed near this spot in 1851, the Dakhóta lost all but a thin strip of land further west along the Minnesota River.
Visitors to Fort Snelling today can see the same round watch tower, barracks, and stone walls painted by Sergeant Edward Thomas around 1850.
KEY IDEA TWO
The meeting point of two rivers had long been a meeting point for people.
Fort Snelling was completed only 25 years before Edward Thomas’ painted this picture. Dakhóta tipis, on the other hand, were not new to Bdote, “the place where rivers meet.” An old Dakhóta story tells that the first humans came into the world from a cave near this spot. Dakhóta regularly gathered on the plain below the bluff for council meetings, celebrations, and ceremonies.
The confluence of the rivers became a good place for trade as well. Anishinabe (also known as Chippewa or Ojibwe) traveled down the Mississippi from their hunting grounds to the north. In time white traders, mostly French and British, also appeared. They called the place Mendota.
By the early 1800s, this territory was part of the United States. The government wanted to protect the rich business of trade with the Native people for American trading companies. They also hoped to control conflicts between Native groups, who frequently fought over dwindling hunting grounds. The bluff above the joining of the rivers was an ideal location for such an outpost. Fort Snelling was built on the first Native land taken over by whites in the region of Minnesota.
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The U.S. Indian Agency was built here to oversee traders doing business with Indians in the region.
KEY IDEA THREE
The details included by the artist are more than the record of a place.
Edward Thomas’ picture of Fort Snelling echoes the history of the place. Dakhóta tipis and American trading posts exist near the river in the foreground. The fort, solid in the center of the picture, seems to hold the scene below in balance. But the buildings and green fields of permanent white settlement appear on its flanks and far into the distance.
The river marks a clear break between the fort on one side and Dakota life on the other. The picture describes not just the Mendota the painter saw before him, but the idea of frontier so vivid in the American imagination of the time. The crisp lines of the fort, wrote one local newspaper editor about the painting, showed the freshness of our annexing Democracy.
The scene would soon change. Within a year the Dakhóta were forced to leave this land for small reservations elsewhere. Farms and cities multiplied faster than ever before. When Thomas painted his picture, not even four thousand non-Native people lived in Minnesota. By 1860, just ten years later, their population was 172,072. Any sense of balance between two ways of life suggested by this quiet painting was shattered forever.
This real estate office in Minneapolis around 1856 marks the changes that overtook the landscape painted by Edward Thomas just a few years earlier.
Find Fort Snelling on a modern map of Minneapolis. Use clues like the fort, the rivers, and the island to decide where the artist might have been when he painted this picture. Where in the picture would the roads marked on the modern map appear?
Compare this picture with other versions of this scene around the same time from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society. What do the pictures have in common? How are they different? How do the choices an artist makes affect your understanding of the scene?
The early 21st century is another time of rapid changes in the landscape, in Minnesota and elsewhere in the world. Brainstorm a list of changes in your area. Choose one example and create a picture to capture this moment of change. What is being lost? What will remain? How do you feel about that change?
Coen, Rena Neumann. Edward K. Thomas, Fort Snelling Artist. Minnesota History (Fall 1969)
Gilman, Rhoda R. Northern Lights: The Story of Minnesota Past. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1989.
Historic Fort Snelling. Website of the Minnesota
Minnesota Territory 1849-1858. 1999. Website of the Minnesota Historical Society. 25 May 2004