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View of Fort Snelling

Visitors to Fort Snelling today can see the same round watch tower, barracks, and stone walls painted by Sergeant Edward Thomas around 1850.

The artist carefully observed the patterns on the Dakota tipis in the foreground.


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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’s Minnesotans will easily recognize Fort Snelling. It still perches above the joining of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers to this day, 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 Dakota 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 Dakota 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 Dakota lost all but a thin strip of land further west along the Minnesota River.

May 2004