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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 and cries of a group of Dakota 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’s 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.

Edward K. Thomas, View of Fort Snelling, around 1850
Oil on canvas
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The painting provides an accurate record of the look of the place.
The meeting point of two rivers had long been a meeting point for people.
The details included by the artist are more than the record of a place.

Map It: 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?  

Letter Home: Friends and family back East would have been curious about Edward Thomas’s impressions of life on the frontier. Compose a letter he might have written to people at home, based on what can be seen in this picture.  

Other Views: 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?  

Changing Places: 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’s Past. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1989.

Historic Fort Snelling. Website of the Minnesota Historical Society. 25 May 2004

Minnesota Territory 1849-1858. 1999. Website of the Minnesota Historical Society. 25 May 2004  

May 2004