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Nicollet County History

Forts on the Minnesota Frontier

The United States Army in the nineteenth century did much more than fight in wars or conduct military campaigns. It also played a major role in the expansion and settlement of the American frontier.

Most early exploration was conducted under military authority, such as the 1804-06 expedition of Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lt. William Clark. Lt. Zebulon Pike selected the site for Fort Snelling while on his way to find the headwaters of the Mississippi in 1805-06 — and in so doing chose the place from which "Minnesota" would emerge.

Fort Snelling, and the wilderness military outposts which followed, represented the government on Minnesota's early frontier. The soldiers enforced laws, served as a check on Indians in the area, built roads and, by their very presence, spurred trade and settlement by offering protection for the early traders, missionaries and pioneer farmers.

US Army Forts in Minnesota

Fort Snelling, established in 1819, stood as a lone sentinel on the frontier for thirty years. Then a series of Indian treaties opened up vast new lands to settlement, creating a need for three more Army posts.

Fort Ripley, 1849 - 1877, located on the upper Mississippi below the mouth of the Crow Wing River. It was built in 1848-49 by dragoons and infantrymen from Fort Snelling. When it opened, it replaced Fort Snelling as the northernmost military installation and was originally intended to control the Winnebago Indians who had been removed from Iowa to a nearby reservation.

Fort Ridgely, 1853 - 1867, located on the Minnesota River in present-day Nicollet County, above New Ulm. It was founded to protect settlers and control the Dakota (Sioux) Indians, who were transferred to a Minnesota Valley reservation in the summer of 1853. The fort played a major role in the Dakota Indian War of 1862.

Fort Abercrombie, 1857 - 1877, located 225 miles northwest of Fort Snelling on the Red River, in the heart of Minnesota's third great valley. It protected settlers and became an important gateway to the northwest.

Each was garrisoned by a small company of Army regulars, except during the Civil War when Minnesota volunteers took over.

Each figured prominently during the Civil and Indian Wars of 1861 - 65. After 1865, Fort Snelling became an important supply and administrative center for the Army of the West while the others faded into irrelevance.

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