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Uncovering what's left of an old, buried military prison at Fort Snelling

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About 150 years ago, a military prison at Fort Snelling would hold the enlisted soldiers who got a little (or a lot) unruly.

Scan the bluffs along the river now though, and you won't see a trace of the old-fashioned brig.

"It was standing up until the early 1970s," Kat Hayes, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, told BringMeTheNews.

That's when it was demolished as part of the Fort Snelling reconstruction, according to Director of Archaeology with the Minnesota Historical Society Pat Emerson.

The prison – or what's left of it – has been underground since.

Hayes, though, has been leading a team of students for the past week to start digging it back up.

“It’s my hope that people can see more of what’s happening outside the walls of the fort, because it was a really busy landscape,” Hayes said.

Building 14

The old military prison (called Building 14) was built in 1864, Emerson told BringMeTheNews, shortly after the end of the U.S.-Dakota War. Here's a map the Minnesota Historical Society has, dated 1885-1893 – it would have been between the fort and the south bank of the river. (Note the current layout of Fort Snelling isn't exactly the same.)

If the prison were still around, it would stand just outside the current northwest wall, tucked along up above the Mississippi River, Hayes said.

"Of course this building then went on to have a long life," she said. "It was used for other things – it was actually used as a commissary at one point. It didn’t spend its entire life as a prison building, but that’s where it started."

That's where Hayes, a couple graduate students, and eight undergrads started their work last week – a hands-on archaeological lesson after Hayes took a ground-penetrating radar out there last fall and found what she called "very intriguing signals."

On Thursday, some of their findings were shared on Facebook: the remains of walls, and a possible cellar, for the old prison.

"One of the areas actually has sort of cellar hole to it, which when they knocked down the building they kind of dumped all the rubble into the cellar hole," Hayes said. "But it’s also one we’re not entirely sure is well-documented, so it could be very interesting to investigate."

Emerson said there is a possibility more excavation could happen, "if there are good research questions that could be addressed by the work and all the legal requirements for archaeology on state land are met."

Hayes says she's pleased with what they've found so far, and hopes more work can continue in the future.

But for now things are paused. Her crew wrapped up work Friday.

"My aim for this season was to establish that there were in fact intact remains," she said. "There’s a lot more left that we could dig."

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