Camp Coldwater: The Birthplace of Minnesota

 

Early in the Spring [of 1820] Col. Leavenworth discovered the fountain of water where the troops now are, & to which they moved as soon as the ice would permit. It is a healthy situation, about 200 feet above the river, and the water gushing out of a lime stone rock is excellent. It is called "Camp Cold Water."

--James Duane Doty, Camp Cold Water, July 31, 1820

 

[It is] a situation which is extremely salubrious, and where they will remain until the permanent works [Fort St. Anthony, later Fort Snelling] are completed upon the bluff at the junction of the two rivers.

Henry R. Schoolcraft, July 29, 1820

 

I was a little surprised on arriving here, to find that there is no such place as St. Peters proper. Fort Snelling, New Hope, and Camp Coldwater, comprise all the settlements here; and St. Peters seems to have been used, by common consent, as a name for the whole settlement around the mouth of the St. Peters river, which empties into the Mississippi here, seven miles below the falls of St. Anthony.  Benjamin T. Kavanaugh, November 5, 1839  

 

Shown above is a watercolor done in 1856 Alfred Sully, a soldier and artist, traveled to Minnesota with a military expedition that camped at Coldwater Spring. From the hotel in the Baker House he viewed Fort Snelling with the Coldwater area in the foreground. Shown at bottom right appears to be a group of tents and wagons. Reproduced with permission of the Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book Library, Yale University.

For more information on the preservation issues relating to Camp Coldwater and the highway construction through the area, click here.


Camp Coldwater: The Birthplace of Minnesota

Text by Bruce White and Dean Lindberg

Nestled in the trees along the river, sandwiched between public buildings and highways, is a unique and singularly beautiful historic area, a place to be treasured and preserved, a place sacred to Native Americans and the site of first settlement in the Minnesota region. These views of Camp Coldwater, from the early watercolors of the soldier-artist Seth Eastman to modern-day photographs, record some of the characteristics that make Camp Coldwater so important.

The Camp Coldwater area is located along the Mississippi River northwest of Fort Snelling in an area defined by several springs. The area stretches from the Veterans Administration hospital on the upland known in the 19th century as Morgan's Mound, all the way down to the river, and from Historic Fort Snelling on the south to Minnehaha Park on the north.

An 1823 map shows Fort St. Anthony, as Fort Snelling was first called, and Camp Cold Water, where troops lived during the summer of 1820.

Historical records show that the Coldwater area was important to Native Americans, including the Dakota people who, according to early missionaries, believed that the mouth of the Minnesota River was the center of the earth, positioned directly under the center of the heavens. Nearby Morgan's Mound was believed to be the dwelling place of Unkethi, Dakota god of waters and of the underworld. According to the missionary Gideon Pond, bubbling springs were considered "breathing places of the wakan." Camp Coldwater area was also important to the Ojibwe. It was here that they camped when they came to visit the Indian agent Lawrence Taliaferro in the 1830s and at the time of the signing of the Treaty of 1837, when much of the land between the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers was ceded to the United States. Because of the presence of the fort, this area, like the rest of the Fort Snelling reservation was a neutral territory, into which the U.S. government invited opposing Indian groups to come to negotiate.

Military use of the spring began in 1820 when soldiers camped there during the construction of Fort Snelling. Soon after, settlers built houses on the descending terraces from the prairie to the riverbank. The families of former fur traders and some immigrants from the Red River Colony in Canada were drawn here to live. Benjamin F. Baker's stone house, built at the same time or before the house of Henry H. Sibley in Mendota, became a center for the settlement. Camp Coldwater (or Baker's as it was sometimes called) was the direct predecessor of the settlement downstream first known as Pig's Eye. Camp Coldwater was the first settlement of European-Americans in Minnesota that was not primarily a fur trading post, fort, or mission.

A portion of Lt. James Thompson's 1839 map of the Fort Snelling area, showing the Camp Coldwater settlement and adjacent Morgan's Mound.

Like much of the area around Fort Snelling in the 1830s, the Camp Coldwater settlement contained a rich mixture of whites and Indian people, intermarrying and living peacefully together. Writing in 1838, a missionary who was seeking to build a mission house and school on the Fort Snelling reservation said that some of the inhabitants of Camp Coldwater were former employees of Baker and Sibley who had married Dakota and Ojibwe women. He wrote: "These men wished for & obtained leave from the commanding officers at different times to build houses for their families, on the reservation, & near the trading houses while they were out in the employ of the traders. Subsequently some of these men left the service of the traders . . . & became farmers & mechanics." Living at Camp Coldwater, Mendota and other scattered areas, he noted, were now "some 4 or 500 souls, the children of whom, or at least most of them, speak Sioux, Chippewa, French & English." Among these were ancestors of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota community.

Perhaps the best source for information on who some of these people were and where they lived is found on a map drawn by Lt. Ephraim K Smith in October 1837. On this map can be seen the residences of Joseph Buisson, a former fur trade employee who made his living raising cattle, and making charcoal that he sold to Henry Sibley across the river. Also living here were Antoine Pepin, Joseph Resche (probably the Le Rage on the map), and Oliver Cratte, all of whom worked as blacksmiths at various times for the Indian agency at Fort Snelling. Pepin's first wife was Cree or Ojibwe. Until 1838 the Perry or Perret family, until early 1838, lived close to the river, raising a family of daughters who married many other early settlers. Jacob Fahlstrom-"Jacob" on the map-was the first Swede to live in the Minnesota region. He was married to Marguerite Bonga, a woman of African-Canadian and Ojibwe ancestry.

Lt. Ephraim K. Smith's map of the Camp Coldwater area, showing the homes of early settlers, was drawn in October 1837. It covers the present-day area bounded by Historic Fort Snelling and the Whipple federal building on the south, Highway 55 and the Veterans Administration Hospital at top left and Hidden Falls park on the east side of the river at right.

The site of Camp Coldwater was the location of many "firsts" in Minnesota history, a good reason to call it the birthplace of Minnesota. In 1837, Baker's trading post right next to the spring, was the site of what must be considered the first public school in Minnesota's history, since although there was an earlier military school at the fort, it was for the children of the soldiers. This first public school was started in 1837 by Peter Garrioch, a visitor from the Red River colony, at the suggestion of Martin McLeod, a fur trader who would later introduce the bill in the first territorial legislature of 1849 that started Minnesota's public school system.

The Camp Coldwater settlement continued to be inhabited by civilians well into the 1840s. In 1842 the commandant of Fort Snelling wrote that there were "some dozen houses . . . occupied by about the same number of families." After that, Baker's stone house was used as a hotel under the name of the St. Louis House or Mackenzie Hotel, until it was destroyed in a fire in 1859. Throughout the late 19th century Coldwater Spring continued to serve as source of water for Fort Snelling. In the 20th century the area was used for many other purposes, including the route of railroad and streetcar lines and most recently as the site of a VA laundry and a Bureau of Mines research facility. For Minneapolitans growing up in the 1950s, the spring and its surrounding area were a pleasant place to visit.

Despite these many re-uses, however, there continues to be high potential for historical and environmental preservation in this area. Currently, the properties shown on the Smith map are divided among a number of land owners. The northern part along the river where Antoine Massie lived in 1837 is managed by the Minneapolis Parks Board. The area to the south is managed by the Minnesota Historical Society. West, around the spring and possibly including Jacob Fahlstrom's place, is the current Bureau of Mines property, presently undergoing transfer from federal to state hands.

Supporters of the preservation of Camp Coldwater, gathered at the spring in December 1999. Photograph by Dick Bancroft.

Interest in preserving portions of the Fort Snelling area began in the 1950s, when plans were made by the Transportation Department to build a new bridge across the Mississippi. This plan would have involved building a highway through the center of the fort site. Russell Fridley director of the Minnesota Historical Society led a movement that succeeded in saving Old Fort Snelling. When this was accomplished Fridley wrote that the future of the area, including Camp Coldwater, never seemed brighter. He thought at the time that all of Camp Coldwater would be completely preserved as a park. This did not happen in the 1950s, but a strong movement to preserve Camp Coldwater-begun in the 1990s-may yet achieve this worthy purpose.

For more information on the preservation issues relating to Camp Coldwater and the highway construction through the area, click here.


The information presented here is from an exhibit that has appeared at Fort Snelling State Park, the Hennepin History Museum, and the Longfellow House in Minneapolis. We would like to thank Dave Fudally, Bob Mosedale, David Christofferson, Bob and Linda Brown, Sister Jan Dalsin, Alan Woolworth, and Helen White for their help in preparing the exhibit.

For more information about the Coldwater exhibit please contact Bruce M. White at 651-310-0601 or white067@tc.umn.edu



The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota.