Black Slavery and Indentured Labor: Fort Snelling
"There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory [Northwest Territory, which included Minnesota]"
-Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance, 1787
Federal rulings against slavery had little impact without support from state and territorial leaders. In Minnesota Territory federal power rested at Fort Snelling, but the officers, many from Virginia families, would often bring a slave or servant with them as they were dispatched into a variety of western territories. As a result, during the 1830s slaveholding in Minnesota was not unknown. In addition to the many commanding officers - including Captain William Day, Major John Bliss, Major John Garland, and Major Lawrence Taliaferro - who owned slaves and servants, well-off private citizens, French fur traders, and others also participated in the practice.
Stephen Bonga, an Ojibwe interpreter, was the son of George Bonga, also an Ojibwe interpreter and commonly belived to be the first man of African descent in Minnesota. Stephen Bonga's grandfather, Jean, was a slave in the service of the North West Fur Company, and his grandmother was an Ojibwe woman. Both George and Stephen also married Ojibwe women, making them and their offspring free people in the eyes of the Ojibwe. In 1837 Bonga attended a celebration at Fort Snelling marking a settlement treaty between the Ojibwe and the United States. His presence was recorded by the officers, but, perhaps since he was seen as a free man, none made reference to his appearance. While the officers may have deliberately chosen not to make mention of his skin color, it was undoubtedly not overlooked by the many Black slaves and servants who, although present, lived very different lives.
"...the last of our necessary purchases was made, to wit: a nice looking yellow girl and an uncommonly black man."-Colonel John H. Bliss
Perhaps the most well known slave owning individual at Fort Snelling is Major Lawrence Taliaferro, the Indian Agent for the Dakota (Sioux) and Ojibwe (Chippewa) from 1820-1839. During his tenure he owned twenty-one slaves but it is popularly believed that he owned no more than three at any given time. Only six or seven officers served at Fort Snelling at once throughout the 1830s and officers typically owned only one slave who spent all of their time working for the officer's family. This resulted in the creation of a small slave community at Fort Snelling.
The conditions at Fort Snelling were different than those experienced by Black slaves in the south. For example, there is little documented evidence of corporal punishment, and the punishment of infractions was often similar to that of the soliders. Colonel Bliss, whose father, Major Bliss, owned two slaves while at Fort Snelling, described how Hannibal, the "uncommonly black man" mentioned above, was punished for bootlegging spruce beer. Hannibal was placed in "the black hole" - a literal hole in the ground which cut its prisoner off from sunlight and personal interactions - for "forty-eight hours' confinement....effecting a thorough reformation." However, soldiers were also placed in "the black hole" including one unlucky Irish solider who was punished for public drunkenness by being confined for three or four days without food or water.
However, the potential still existed for harsher punishments. In one extreme case, which Taliaferro described as a "distressing occurence", the three year old daughter of a Mr. Langham was kidnapped, struck several times in the head, and buried outside her father's barn. She was later found, alive, and remained delirious for several days. Efforts to find the perpetrator of this crime focused on an "Indian girl" and Mariah, the Langham's servant. After being confined and denied food, Mariah finally confessed that "she did attempt to murder Mr L's little daughter in the stable...but denied setting fire to his house or of being the cause of the death of his first infant". Mariah was subsequently sold down-river.
The start of the Civil War changed the relationship Fort Snelling had with its Black population. The troops stationed at Fort Snelling were needed for military activities, not for help in planting, harvesting, and transporting crops. However, without the troops filling these much needed positions, Minnesota was facing a severe labor shortage. As a result, General Sibley ensured the arrival of contraband, or newly escaped slaves seeking refuge with the Union Army, to be brought to the Fort to work under federal supervision. Robert Hickman, a former slave from Missouri, was one member in a group of 'contraband' who arrived in St. Paul headed for Fort Snelling in May, 1863. Many women and children found work in domestic contexts, being viewed as "more tractable and docile". The men, as the letter written by Ole Nelson (above) indicates, were put to work in or around Fort Snelling in either agricultural or military pursuits.
"In the place of the Indians we have received Negros...Some of them are so black that charcoal would make a white impression on them"-Ole Nelson, 1863
Desiring to live and work as free individuals, most of these men, women, and children arrived in Minnesota under the guise of freedom. However, their value, like in the South, lay in their ability to labor throughout the Fort and across the private sector. Anti-black sentiments still ran strong, and some, like the St. Paul Daily Press, questioned the value and ability of contraband workers, writing "women and pickaninnies will not render material assistance in driving mule teams over the plain...we presume they will be left to garrison the Fort, while the head of the family goes roaming among the mules." Those who arrived in Minnesota as 'contraband' faced discrimination, violence, and low to non-existent wages, forcing many into St. Paul's poorest neighboorhoods where they formed the newest underclass.