Minnesota Historical Society Director Weighs in on Fort Snelling Name Debate

by | Jan 2020

Fort Snelling

Photo: Minnesota Historical Society

White Bear Lake resident Kent Whitworth shares his take on the Fort Snelling naming controversy.

Several years ago, the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) made the decision to change some of the signs surrounding Historic Fort Snelling to include “Bdote”—a Dakota word meaning “place where the rivers meet.” The new signs reading “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote” acknowledges the long history of Native peoples associated with that place. The decision created a controversy including outrage from members of the state legislature. As a result, an effort to get public input about renaming was undertaken last year.

White Bear Lake resident Kent Whitworth, executive director of the MNHS, is working to help form a consensus about what the state of Minnesota should call the historic site that contains Fort Snelling. The fort and the four acres on which it sits will not be renamed. The naming pertains to the larger 23-acre site currently called Historic Fort Snelling. Whitworth says the historical society isn’t proposing names but is asking questions.

“What factors should go into the names of historic sites? One thing we’ve learned is that Minnesotans want to have these conversations,” says Whitworth.

Whitworth and his wife moved to White Bear Lake in the summer of 2018. He was previously the executive director of the Kentucky Historical Society and, although he had never lived in Minnesota before, taking the job with MNHS was something of a homecoming for him. “My mother was a third generation Minnesotan,” he says. “One of the things I value about history is that sense of identity and connectedness that it gives you and we felt that sense of identity in White Bear Lake.”

Identity is at the heart of the effort to find a new name for Historic Fort Snelling, too. The site is in a place that has had navigational, defensive, spiritual and ceremonial significance for about 10,000 years. In 1820, the U.S. Army began construction of what would soon be named Fort Snelling. By 1858, the fort was decommissioned by the federal government as the frontier moved west. The history of the fort is multilayered, but the history of the place is more than the history of the fort.

Whitworth says the role of the public historian is to engage with people and understand that there will be tension and disagreement. “Our job is to create a space for the conversations to take place,” he says. “We help to navigate the issues, but we can’t manage the tensions that exist … that’s not our role. Within rigorous scholarship, it’s okay for there to differences of opinion.” He has been pleased with the response and says MNHS will be sending recommendations to the legislature once the board has created a written report.

Ultimately, the legislature has the final say in naming the historic site. MNHS has held public meetings from Duluth to Rochester and around the Twin Cities metro area to gather input and hear what people think. Whitworth is happy to be part of the process even though he acknowledges it is often a highly charged atmosphere.

“I’d rather people care about these things,” he says. “Even if we disagree. We have to look at history through multiple lenses to see the whole story.”

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