“One of the great natural facts: is that the mouth of the Minnesota River lies immediately over the center of the earth and under the center of the heavens.” (The Dakota Friend, a newspaper printed by missionaries Samuel and Gideon Pond, 1851.)
The confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers is one of the most powerfully historic places in the Twin Cities. To the Mdewakanton Dakota it has deep historic and spiritual meaning. They called the joining of the two rivers Bdote Minisota. For some, it was their place of origin, their Garden of Eden. To early Americans it became a center of trade and military authority.
On July 4, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson announced the Louisiana Purchase. The United States had bought the western half of the Mississippi River watershed from France. Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark out west and Lt Zebulon Pike up the Mississippi River. Pike’s commander, General James Wilkinson, ordered Pike to discover the Mississippi’s source, make alliances with the Chippewa and Dakota, stop intertribal fighting, assess the fur trade, observe the weather, and secure the best sites for military posts.
On September 21, 1805, Lt. Zebulon Pike landed his boats on the big island at the confluence. That island is now Pike Island. About noon on September 23, Pike says he “had a bower or shade, made of my sails, on the beach, into which only my gentlemen (the traders) and the chiefs entered.” He gave a speech telling the Dakota that America now owned both sides of the Mississippi.
Pike wanted the Dakota to sign a treaty granting the U.S. land at the confluence, St. Anthony Falls, and the St. Croix River’s mouth for military forts. After the Dakota signed, Pike boasted to Wilkinson that he had acquired the land “for a song.”
The Americans made little effort to take control of the area from the Dakota until 1819, when Colonel Henry Leavenworth arrived to build a fort. One year later, Colonel Josiah Snelling replaced Leavenworth, and on September 10, Snelling set the fort’s cornerstone.
Finished in 1824, Fort Snelling became the regional center for intertribal gatherings and negotiations. Although in Dakota territory, the Chippewa, Menominee, and Winnebago also visited the fort. Fur traders soon located across the river at Mendota, nearby at Camp Coldwater and just up the Minnesota River.
On Pilot Knob, overlooking the confluence, the Dakota had long placed their dead on scaffolds. They called this hill Oheyawahi or “the hill much visited.” But, on this hill, the Mdewakanton and Wapekute bands of the Dakota signed the Treaty of Mendota in 1851. By this treaty, they gave up their lands west of the Mississippi for a reservation on the Minnesota River.
They returned 11 years later, following the Dakota Conflict of 1862. This time the American military put them in a prison camp below Fort Snelling. What must they have thought, to be at the center of the earth, looking up at Oheyawahi?
After the Treaty of Mendota, the Army realized that the frontier had moved west and sold the Fort in 1857. But six years later, after the Civil War started, the Army reclaimed the fort. From then until 1946, Fort Snelling served important roles during the Mexican Revolution, the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II. Today the walls of the frontier fort and the two cavalry barracks, completed in 1904, loom above the river on the Mississippi’s western bluff.