For hundreds of years before Europeans arrived, generations of Dakota people lived in villages along the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers that meet in Fort Snelling State Park. The river confluence was believed to be the place of origin and center of the earth by the bands of Mde-wa-kan-ton-wan Dakota, the "Dwellers by Mystic Lake." By the late 1600s, Europeans had visited the area. In the 1820s, historic Fort Snelling was built on the bluff above the two historic rivers to control the exploration, trade, and settlement on these waterways.
In 1960, the landscape architect A. R. Nichols proposed a 2,400 acre park. He referred to the "population explosion" taking place in the Twin Cities region and pointed out that the whole area at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers was a strategic site for a large recreational park incorporating a rich historical background.
Nichols' map became the basis for the Fort Snelling State Park we have today.
The Minneapolis Star published a story headlined "Metropolitan Park Plan Advanced by Twin Cities Group; Area at Junction of Rivers is Sought." The story aroused the interest of a private citizen, Thomas C. Savage, who had already become dedicated to environmental causes. Savage called on State Park Director Hella to ask how to make this Fort Snelling Park dream a reality. Judge Hella encouraged Tom to organize a citizen association dedicated to such a park.
Tom went right to work organizing the Fort Snelling State Park Association as a nonprofit corporation qualified to accept tax-deductible gifts of land and money to assist the project. Tom led the effort for legislation to establish the park. Following an enormous effort there was victory! In 1961, the federal government, acting under the 1944 Surplus Property Act, deeded 320 acres to the state as a historic monument, including the chapel and the round tower, but not all of the rest of the old fort area. It also included substantial stretches of bluff land. The Fort Snelling State Park Association's first annual membership meeting was held in November and the next spring, on June 3, 1962, a grand dedication was held.
From this point on, there are essentially two stories: one is about a careful and painstaking re-creation of the early nineteenth century fortress that guarded the strategic confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. The other story is one of fundraising, land buying, and fending off one development threat after another to the State Park .
The acquisition of land for the recreational part of the park and its development was carried forward by the Department of Natural Resources, with major help by the Fort Snelling State Park Association. The Association raised $250,000 to convince the 1963 legislature to appropriate funds, $400,000 in all for the park.
The Association's funds were placed in a land acquisition fund for use in special situations where private help was crucial. Its first major transfer to the state occurred on March 25, 1965, when the Association delivered a $125,000 check to further augment the funds the state needed to continue with its land acquisition. On that occasion, Governor Karl Rolvaag described this gift as "the largest donation of funds ever received for state park purposes."
Other land purchases followed: Pike Island in 1965, then the 780-acre Gun Club property on the Minnesota bottomlands for $350,000, including with $31,000 from the Fort Snelling State Park Association.
The most recent acquisition occurred in 1991: the last tract needed to extend the park's land Cedar Avenue where a "hanging" pedestrian-bicycle bridge crosses over the Minnesota River. This made possible a direct connection from the trail through the Dakota County side of the park to the Minnesota River valley state trail along the north side of the river.
In the 1990s, the late Tom Savage's dream of a new park visitor center to be located below the historic fort and not far from the old steamboat landing was realized. The beautiful Thomas Savage Visitor Center was dedicated in 1997. The exhibits in the visitor center were created through funds contributed by the Friends of Fort Snelling.
Fort Snelling State Park recognized the tragic history of the Camp Coldwater incarceration in 2002 with a memorial constructed near the parking lot and in part of the exhibit in the Thomas C. Savage Visitor Center, where the names of the imprisoned families are exhibited.
In November of that year, a dedicated group of American Indians walked the 150 miles from the Lower Sioux Reservation near Morton to Fort Snelling State Park. They marched to honor the men, women, and children who were removed from the Lower Sioux Agency to Mankato and Fort Snelling in 1862.
At each mile point along the march, the Dakota people planted a stake bearing the names of some of the people who were forced from their homes. When they arrived at Fort Snelling State Park, the Dakota people carried out ceremonies recognizing their ancestors who had suffered at Mankato and Fort Snelling. A wreath was placed in the Camp Coldwater memorial with 300 tobacco ribbons commemorating the known families. The granite plaque that acknowledged the incarceration was brought down from the Thomas Savage Visitor Center and permanently placed in the center of the memorial.
Today, numerous picnic sites, a beach, and river and lake fishing invite visitors to enjoy the recreational opportunities offered by this historic and beautiful park nestled in the shadow of city freeways and airport flyways. Park Naturalist host a variety of classes, walks, and other programs for visitors. The Park is also home to an abundance of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, fox, woodchucks, turkeys, and coyotes. Visitors might also come across a fox snake which is almost identical in appearance to a rattle snake, but is not poisonous. Snapping, soft-shelled and painted turtles can be seen basking in the sun along the river or in one of the lakes.