“Discover the deep cultural, social, military, and political history of this historic site near the confluence of the rivers. Take a guided tour, view an exhibit, watch a demonstration, and engage in thought-provoking conversations that will spark connections between the past and your life today.” So reads the opening lines of the Fort Snelling website.
The secret language school at Fort Snelling
We visited Fort Snelling specifically to see an exhibition about the secret language school. Having recently learned about the role Navajo coders played in WWII, I was intrigued.
The Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS) was America’s secret weapon against Japan during WWII. With the possibility of war with Japan becoming more like a probability, someone realised that there just might be a need for those who spoke the language. In 1941, in San Francisco, Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) were amongst those recruited to join the Fourth Army Intelligence School. Only a small subset of these, know as Kibei, had been educated in Japan.
All were taught how to read and write the language, how to translate and interrogate, how to read maps and analyse documents. Those who had never been in-country had to learn about its culture, its social demography, and its military hierarchy.
In February of the following year, Executive Order 9066 saw Japanese Americans plucked from their hearths and homes and transported to internment camps around the country. The school had to move as well. When Col. Kai E. Rasmussen, the school’s commandant, settled on Minnesota, then governor of Minnesota, Harold Stassen, agreed to take them in. According to Rasmussen, ‘the place selected not only needs to have room physically, but room in the people’s hearts.’ Such was the controversy surrounding the Nisei, others states had refused – they were not to be trusted. Minnesotans are a big-hearted people, though, something still in evidence today. The city has the largest Somali population outside of Somalia.
The school first moved to Camp Savage in Scott County and with its new home came its new name. With the internments, some feared that enrollment in the language school would drop off. Instead, many Nisei saw it as a way to prove their Americanness. How hard must it have been for them? American-born citizens suddenly dubbed pariahs through no fault of their own. As the student body grew, so did the faculty. With 1100 students and 100 instructors, a second move was on the cards, to a bigger premises at Fort Snelling.
When Japan surrendered, even more were needed to work in occupied Japan. A Women’s Army Corps detachment was added. The language base expanded to include Korean and Chinese. It was all systems go. By mid-1946, when the school moved back to California, more than 5000 MISLS alumni were practising overseas and the Minnesotan Japanese American population was of a similar number.
In its lifespan, over 6000 linguists passed through the MISLS, all but 900 or so were Nisei. Their work was, for the most part, secret, not coming to light until some 30 years after the fact when the military documents were declassified. The part they played in WWII was huge.
The Nisei linguists were credited with shortening the war in the East by two years, saving nearly a million lives and billions of dollars.
And this from a people rounded up for fear they were un-American. Memories of a novel I read some time back came to mind: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
And the rest of Fort Snelling
Fort Snelling never saw any action. It was built more as a deterrent for the British, a warning of the might they’d encounter were they ever to venture this far upriver. Built at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, its purpose was to protect the fur trade. Later it would serve as a training ground for Civil War operations and also as a departure point for newly enlisted soldiers as they were sent elsewhere for basic training in the first and second world wars.
Two of its most notable residents were Dred and Harriet Scott who met and married there. Dred had been brought to Fort Snelling by the resident surgeon, Dr John Emerson in 1836. Some years later, when Emerson died without mentioning them in his will, his widow Irene considered them her property.
On April 6, 1846, both Dred and Harriet Scott filed separate petitions in the Circuit Court of St. Louis to gain their freedom from Irene Emerson.
Nearly four years later, on 12 January 1850, their case was finally heard and they won – they were free. But it was shortlived. Irene wasn’t giving up that easily. She appealed. And back and forth it went until
On March 6, 1857, Dred Scott finally received a decision about his suit for freedom. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that Scott, because of his race, was not a citizen of the United States. He had no right to bring suit in a federal court. He had never been free while living in “free states,” and the Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery. The entire Scott family was to remain enslaved.
Mindblowing. But while the courts would never free him, Scott’s fight was what sparked the Civil War and eventually the abolition of slavery in the USA.
Walking through the exhibits at Fort Snelling, one of the most moving was the dinner table set in the Commandant’s house. The plates are engraved with the names of those enslaved. It was a stark reminder of times in the not so distant past.
Elsewhere we learned what life was like back then. Reenactments scheduled throughout the day ranged from infantry and artillery drills to laundry, from conversation tours that remembered the Dakota War of 1862 to physical training and baseball. It’s a great place to visit, especially with kids.
The Dakota at Fort Snelling
Way back in 1805, at the behest of the US Army, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike set out find potential sites for military posts along the Mississippi River. He met with seven Dakota leaders and wrote up a document that would see them selling the land to the US government. Only two of the seven signed, however. And as the US President hadn’t authorised the expedition, Pike really had no legal authority to negotiate with the Dakota. The US Senate didn’t get to the agreement, such as it was, until three years later. They determined the size of the land to be bought – some 151 000 acres – for which they paid $2000, even though Pike had set a value of a hundred times more. The Dakota didn’t agree but hey, it was ratified anyway. Ergo, Fort Snelling didn’t have a legal leg to stand on.
Fort Snelling was built to protect the fur trade. It was all about economics.
Rather than protecting immigrants, the soldiers at Fort Snelling were tasked with keeping unauthorized people off Dakota and Ojibwe land so the fur trade could continue—until the land could be acquired through treaties. Finally, the United States sought to mediate the complex relationship between the sometimes clashing Dakota and Ojibwe. Peace between the two peoples would mean an uninterrupted flow of furs and tax revenue for the US government.
But when the US government didn’t honour its promises, four hungry Dakota killed five white settlers over food. Others used this to go to war. Over six weeks in 1862, many lives were lost as two ways of life clashed. Only one would prevail.
One of the tragedies of this short war was the mass execution of 38 Dakota at Mankato – the largest mass execution in US history to this day. Their crime? Rebellion.
Interactive living-history museums like Fort Snelling are essential. They’re reminders of the mistakes we made and give a much needed perspective on life today.
Located at 200 Tower Drive in St Paul, MN, right by the airport, Fort Snelling is open from 10am to 4pm and worth a visit.