What is the history of Coldwater Spring?

Prior to 1820, very little is “known” about Coldwater Spring specifically.  What is known, is that in the mid 1600’s the Dakota moved into the general area. They were previously in the Mille Lacs Lake area, but due to a war with the Ojibwa, and to better establish fur trade with the French and British, the Dakota moved south. The Iowa Tribe who was previously in this area, were pushed south to present day Iowa.

In 1803 the United Stated gained control of the area through the Louisiana Purchase. To help take control over the area and the fur trade, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike came into the land and established the 1805 treaty with the Dakota. This laid the foundation of establishing at least in this area, what would eventually become Fort Snelling.

In 1819 Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth came into the area, along with the final payment of $2,000 for the 1805 treaty land that they were about to inhabit. There were several reasons for securing a military presence, but among the most prominent reasons were for establishing the US control of the land and fur trade from the French and British, and ending the war between the Dakota and Ojibwa, as that would prevent any further development.

By the 23rd of August, 1819 Leavenworth made it to the confluence of the Mississippi and St Peters River (present day Minnesota River), after previously passing through the villages of Chief Red Wing, and Little Crow (Komposia). On August 26th, Indian Agent Thomas Forsyth delivered $2,000, along with knives, muskets, cookware, blankets, tobacco, and a lot of whiskey, and completed the treaty of 1805, and the now 14 year old agreement.

Construction of the first camp began.

September 19th, 1819 Chief Chanoir (Black Dog) along with several neighboring Indians, including some from the Komposia village approached Col. Leavenworth asking on what authority they had to be there. Leavenworth explained that they were not hostile, but had come here to remain. The 1805 treaty gave them the right to the land, and they had now paid for it, and were building a fort, and it was in everyone’s interest to remain friendly and peaceable. The Chief said they did not mean to offend, but only wanted to know why the military was there. They shared a small quantity of whiskey, and the Indians left.

Construction continued as the 5th Infantry settled in for the winter. On November 24th, however their supply boat was trapped by ice on the freezing Mississippi River.  Though trips were made by land for provisions, sickness and poor conditions in the camp at the river bottoms left nearly 250 men dead by February 16th, 1820. Their count by Washington DC records on November 30, 1819 was 33 officers, 381 NCOs and privates.

In April and May 1820, the 5th Infantry moved up the bluff to “Camp Coldwater”. The clean spring water helped to restore the men’s health, and they built a new cantonment that would serve as their base as they built Fort Snelling. The name “Camp Coldwater” may have been Leavenworth’s creation, but it should be noted that recruits that joined the 5th Infantry had arrived by way of the Ohio River and camped along Coldwater Creek north of Saint Louis for over a month before arriving at what is now called “Camp Coldwater”.   

The Coldwater spring remained the main water source to the fort for the next 100 years.

Camp Coldwater and subsequently Fort Snelling was not only at the confluence of two major rivers, but it also became a trade point with both the Dakota and Ojibwa (Chippewa).

“One of the reasons given for the building of Fort Snelling was that it would prevent the disastrous wars existing between the Sioux and Chippewa Indians. Beginning so far in the past that no cause could be ascribed for the hostility, each encounter was in itself both the result of preceding conflicts and the excuse for further warfare. Pierre Esprit de Radisson, who was the first writer to leave an account of the Chippewas [Ojibwa], said that even at the time of his visit in about 1660 they were carrying on “a cruell warre against the Nadoueseronoms [Dakota/Sioux].” (Old Fort Snelling pg 119)

In 1820 there began an effort to put an end to the war…not for love of peace, but to secure the area for future development.  However after 100+  years of war, the Indian desire for peace, at least by some was great. An important event in 1820 is this invitation by the Dakota to the Ojibwa;


Top left denotes the US flag with the eagle, colonel Leavenworth (with the sword and hat below) and the stockade already at Camp Coldwater spring. Next to him is the Chief Six, on the right side is Black Eagle, Black Dog, Shakopee, and their lodges. 300 Indians entered into the agreement, and it was understood that the tribes not represented in the council were not bound by the treaty. Wisconsin Historical Socity vol 13- papers of  James Duane Dotty.

Fort Snelling became a central point of contact, of Indian agency dealings, annuity payments etc for several Indian tribes. As a much cited testimony to the Minnesota Department of Transportation in 1999, Eddie Benton Benai stated;

Through our oral traditions, our history, recent and older, we know that the falls which . . . came to be known as Minnehaha Falls, that there was a sacred place, . . . a neutral place for many nations to come, and that further geographically define the confluence of the three rivers, which is actually the two rivers, that that point likewise was a neutral place. And that somewhere between that point and the falls, there were sacred grounds that were mutually held to be a sacred place. And that the spring from which the sacred water should be drawn was not very far, and I’ve never heard any direction from which I could pinpoint, but there’s a spring near the [Midewiwin or medicine] lodge that all nations used to draw the sacred water for the ceremonies.

Now that’s in the words of our people of the [Midewiwin] lodge. And the people that are concerned or the people that are identified there are the Dakota, the Sac, the Fox, the Potawatomi, the Wahpeton Dakotas, the Mdewakanton Dakotas, the Meskwaki people as all having used and recognizing and mutually agreeing that that is forever a neutral place and forever a sacred place. That is confirmed in our oral history. And it is difficult even to estimate when the last sacred ceremony was held inter-tribally, but my grandfather who lived to be 108 died in 1942 [born in 1835], and I will tell you this, that many times he re-told how we traveled, he and his family, he as a small boy traveled by foot, by horse, by canoe to this great place to where there would be these great religious spiritual events, and that they always camped between the falls and the sacred water place. Those are his words. . . .

Chief Wanata however did challenge the initial encampment though in the summer of 1821.

As described by Colonel Snelling’s son, Henry;

This renowned Indian is, or was, as familiar to the ears of the people of the
northwest as that of King Philip in the east, and he was equally
great, and swayed the will of his people with equal intelligence
and courage. He was celebrated, not only for his warlike char-
acter, but for his natural abilities as a man and a gentleman.

… Wanata had declared himself opposed to the establishment of a military
station in the Territory, it being in his estimation an infringe-
ment of the rights of his people, and he remonstrated decidedly
against it. Remonstrance being in vain he assembled his warriors
and sent them out in small parties to destroy every white man
who should cross their paths.

… With this design he sent messengers to Col. Snelling requesting permission to enter the
fort with a few of his principal warriors, for the purpose of
having a "talk" to settle the differences between them. The
request was granted; but Col. Snelling had been too long among
the aborigines to be deceived by this artifice of aparent friend-
ship, and therefore he made every preparation for any emergency.

Wanata had planed to enter with 50 warriors, and hide an overwhelming number of additional warriors in the forest. The 50 would attack, the warriors outside would rush the cantonment in surprise.

Feeling secure in his secret he entered with his fifty warriors,
With a proud step and lofty mein; but if his surprise was great
When he found the gates shut, it was doubly so when, on enter-
ing he beheld two large bodies of men drawn up in martial
array on each side of the gate within. He cast a momentary
glance of inquiry upon the officer of the day, yet exhibited not
the slightest sensation of fear, nor sign that he understood the
nature of such a display. But when the gate was closed behind
them, some of the savages not so cautious, or stoical as the rest,
testified their surprise and mortification by giving way to the
exclamation "Ugh!" so common among the aborigines.

They were directed to the Council chamber, where the com-
mandant laid aside all mystery and at once attacked Wanata
with a revelation of his designs, and upbraided him in no
measured terms for his intended treachery. They were then led
out to the parade ground, where three large fires had been
kindled; despoiled of their fags, tomahawks, knives, and every
thing else that had been presented to them by the United States
government, which were committed to the flames and they
themselves ejected from the fort in disgrace.

This was the most severe punishment they could have re-
ceived; death to them would have been far more preferable;
it would have made them martyrs in the eyes of their fellow
warriors; their death would have been most amply revenged,
and their memory treasured up with undying fidelity; and an
opportunity for exhibiting their indomitable courage might have
awed their enemies. As it was, they could not return to their
tribes with this vile stain of disgrace upon them. It was neces-
sary to wash it out in blood. Blood alone could cleanse them.

Their courage or fortitude must not, for a moment be doubted
by friend or foe.

There was but one way left to make atonement for their want
of success, and the indignities put upon them. Wanata set the
example by making skewers of wood and thrusting them
through the fleshy parts of his arms and legs. Some followed in
the same expiatory act, while others cut and hacked themselves
with their knives.

This check to Wanata's ambition so raised his respect for Col.
Snelling that he was ever after one of his firmest and most
unwavering friends, and in after years he often spoke of it with
a nobility of feeling worthy of a more enlightened mind. It
also gave Col. Snelling a character and standing among the
wild men of the forest that alone could restore peace and keep
their turbulent nature under control' The visits of Wanata to
Fort St. Peters and to Fort Snelling were frequent subsequent
to this event, and never after did he attempt hostile demonstra-
ions against either; but, on the contrary, his best efforts were
put forth to preserve peace. His dwelling place was, however,
too remote to enable him at all times to exert his influence with
the tribes in the immediate vicinity of the fort, and consequently
repeated outrages were committed, and although they could
not be prevented, Wanata was prompt in rendering justice
when they came within his jurisdiction.


Construction of the permanent fort itself began in 1821

By 1822 Soldiers lodgings at the permanent  fort was far enough along that most everyone had moved to that location. About that time Swiss settlers had planned on joining Lord Selkirk’s agricultural colony along the Red River, but before they arrived, Selkirk had died. The land, seed, tools, animals etc. the Swiss were promised was not in order.

At least five families were allowed to stay at the old barracks at Camp Coldwater by Colonel Snelling while they decided what to do next. Most moved onto Indiana. But as some stayed, and the civilian population at Camp Coldwater began.

There are multiple records as to who and what happened after the Fort was built.

Just West of Camp Coldwater (about half a mile) as documented by Paul Durand is TA-KU-WA-KAN TI-Pl (1) the gods (2) habitation-"Dwelling- Place-of-the-Gods." A small hill over-looking the Fort Snelling prairie located between the present day VA Hospital and Naval Air Station. It was called Morgan's Hill in pioneer times. This was one of the abodes of the powerful UN-KTE-HI, god of the waters and underworld. A tunnel led from this hill to the Minnesota River permitting easy passage. The caverns under St. Anthony Falls were another of his habitations which were constructed of iron.”

While multiple skirmishes occurred around the Fort area in the years following the 1820 peace, why a military stockade was allowed to be built around Coldwater Spring next to such a prominent place to begin with, resulting in what is known to be largely a peaceful existence appears to be a mystery. However, one should take into account that while Camp Coldwater Spring is a major source of water for Fort Snelling, it is only one of several springs in the immediate area.

The spring in what is now Keewaidin field in Minneapolis was once another geographic area like Coldwater, and one that housed an entire village. The Keewaidin spring currently is drained through storm sewers to allow the building of Minneapolis in that area. Similarly the larger spring on the southern side of the MSP airport is currently a retaining pond near the corners of Hwy 5 and Post road. Further West, as most of the Dakota villages were along the Minnesota River, the springs at Mound Springs park (which does have burial mounds) the spring behind the Mall of America, another at Portland Ave, and Lyndale Ave, may have had equal significance next to the largest village- Penasha’s (about 2000 people) near Nine Mile Creek in Bloomington. There is also the 7 chalybeate (iron) springs at St. Anthony falls, and the 9 additional springs between that and Coldwater…not to mention the 14 springs between Coldwater and Carver’s Cave in St. Paul plus the massive spring (about 400 gallons per minute) at the Fish Hatchery next to it.

However, during the protests over the construction of the Highway 55 reroute and 55/62 interchange, on March 19, 2001, The Iowa Tribe declared Coldwater Spring to be a Sacred Site and asked that it be protected as a Traditional Cultural Property.

Though no submissions were made by them during the Environmental Impact Statement as the land around Camp Coldwater Spring was moved into the National Park System, the Lower Sioux did declare the Coldwater  spring to be a Sacred Site during that process.

In 1820 there began an effort to put an end to the war…not for love of peace, but to secure the area for future development.  However after 100+  years of war, the Indian desire for peace, at least by some was great. An important event in 1820 is this invitation by the Dakota to the Ojibwa;