Fort Snelling During the Winter of 1851-1852

Myth and Reality

One of the more dramatic stories of our ancestors is the story told of how Elizabeth Dwen Beaton O'Leary spent the winter of 1851-52 in a cabin a mile outside of the walls of Fort Snelling. The story of her enduring "the privations and perils of frontier life, when the wolves still ran in hungry packs and the redskins swarmed in enforced peace under the guns of Fort Snelling" is told in her obituary which appeared in a Galena newspaper shortly after her death in 1910, 50 years after the events described.

According to the newspaper, she, and her husband, Donald Beaton, moved from Galena to Fort Snelling (in modern Minneapolis, Minnesota) in 1850 and "lived in the one white man's habitation without the fort, an old stone house, built by an Indian Trader, a mile from the fort, and midway between it and the falls of Minnehaha." Unfortunately, Mr. Beaton's health failed the next year and he went south to New Orleans where he died.

"...that winter the young wife, with her three children and widowed mother lived the long months through in that lonely habitat, with no white neighbor except those in the garrison a mile away. At St. Anthony's Falls in that year the present site of Minneapolis was distinguished by a solitary log cabin. The Indians were daily visitors and the wolves terrorized the nights."

Thus is painted a picture of the area in the winter of 1851-52 as a howling wilderness with only Indians, wolves, the garrison at the fort, and this one woman with her three children and aged mother in a lonely cabin.

Myth

Reality

Not Fort Snelling! Not in the winter of 1851-52! Did you notice that the stone house changed to a log cabin partway through that romance? I have no reason to doubt that the family spent the winter in that home, whether stone or log, and it probably didn't have the comforts of Galena in 1910, but the rest of that description is fiction.

This began with my attempt to see if I could locate, on a modern map, the approximate location of the cabin. I doubted I could find the exact spot, but I thought it interesting to see if I could draw a circle of reasonable diameter around a "most probable" area. I started by finding Minnehaha Falls and Fort Snelling on modern maps. Minnehaha Falls was easy, but I quickly discovered that Fort Snelling, no longer a frontier post, had grown. I needed to know where Fort Snelling was in 1851. I found a site on the Internet devoted to the history of Fort Snelling and there discovered the following map:

Map of Fort Snelling area in the 1820s and 1830s

This map has several features of interest. First, notice that it shows the area in the 1820s and 1830s. By 1850 Fort Snelling was hardly a raw frontier fort. Also note several "white man's habitations" outside the fort walls. There are two fur company posts, an Army Mills, and an area labeled "Canadian Settlers." Four Dakota (Sioux) villages are also shown, one with a mission. The area labeled "Canadian Settlers" is particularly interesting. As near as I can determine, this is the site of the cabin occupied by the Beatons a decade or two later. The map certainly does not lend support to the notion that their cabin was the "one white man's habitation without the fort." And, if this was the situation in the 1820s and 30s, what was it like in 1851?

I started looking on the Internet for more information. An early history of St. Paul was enlightening. Apparently, when Fort Snelling was established in 1819, Canadian traders quickly took advantage of the opportunity to live "under the guns of Fort Snelling." However, some of them also began brewing moonshine and, in 1839, the military authorities forced them to leave the immediate vicinity of the fort and head downstream a few miles where they established settlements that became St. Paul. I haven't found a mention of this, but I wouldn't be surprised if the fort then used the abandoned houses for families and employees--the Beatons, for example. The communities founded by the early Canadian settlers didn't disappear. By 1849, St. Paul was incorporated and was the capital of the new territory of Minnesota. In 1850, Alexander Ramsey, the first Territorial Governor, owned $2,500 of real estate in town. He also had at least one child who had been born in St. Paul in 1846.

Nor was the site of Minneapolis without a "white man's habitation" in 1851. The villages of Minneapolis and St. Anthony, on opposite sides of the falls, were established during the 1840s. The first Hennepin Avenue suspension bridge was completed over the Mississippi in 1855.

The 1850 census counted 6,076 people in 972 households in Minnesota Territory. About 31,700 Indians weren't counted. 18.8% of those counted had been born in Minnesota. Some of the households employed black or Irish servants.

Finally, by 1850 Fort Snelling was no longer in the business of enforcing peace with its guns. In 1851 the frontier had been pushed farther west. Forts Ridgely, Ripley, and Abercrombie served as frontier forts while Fort Snelling was turned into a supply depot. In 1858, Fort Snelling was sold to a developer who platted it for a townsite. Only the start of the Civil War in 1861 prevented the old fort from disappearing.

Thus, the actual picture of the area around Fort Snelling during the winter on 1851-52 is one of a raw frontier, but hardly a wilderness. Perhaps some Indians still lived in the vicinity of the fort, but they were no military threat. Calling them "daily visitors" is probably an exaggeration. It may be that the howling of wolves could be heard during some nights, but only an overactive imagination would have been "terrorized" by them. The Beatons probably had neighbors--other families of civilian employees of the fort.

It should be noted that most of the Minnesota Territory, larger than the present state of Minnesota, was much wilder than the area around Fort Snelling. The Indians certainly did remain a military threat in the territory until the Dakota rose, in 1862, in one of the bloodier Indian wars on the Plains. In many historians' opinions, the long road to Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee began in Minnesota. But that was 10 years in the future and isn't really part of the question here.

Finally, yes it is possible to draw a circle around a reasonably limited area and say that the Beatons' cabin was probably in that circle.

Modern map of the Fort Snelling area with the location of the Beaton cabin marked

Convergences

There are a couple of cases of other branches of the family almost being in the same area at the same time as the Beatons. Close, but not quite there.

In 1852, the year Elizabeth Beaton and her family left Fort Snelling to return to Galena, Illinois, Michael Hansen Jr. brought his family from Obersgegen, Prussia, to Rockville, Illinois, not very far from Galena. In 1854 he went searching for good land in "Dakota territory" and found what he was looking for near what would soon be Rockville, Minnesota, southwest of St. Cloud. He returned to Illinois and brought his family to Minnesota the following year.

A Frank Robert Jr. was born in St. Paul in 1858. His father, Francis Robert, first arrived in St. Paul in 1853. A list of inhabitants of St. Paul prior to 1850 reveals several Roberts, most relatives of Captain Louis Robert a prominent early settler (one of the settlements that eventually became St Paul, Lambert's Landing now known as Lowertown, was also called Robert's Landing). He had a brother named Francis Robert. But Francis died in 1849, too early to have been the father of Frank Jr. Also, although the family was originally Canadian, they were most recently from Missouri.

This site created by Harry E. Connors III

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