The details included by the artist are more than the record of a place.
Edward Thomas’s picture of Fort Snelling echoes the history of the place. Dakota tipis and American trading posts mingle 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 Dakotas had 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-Indians 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.