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Jerry Fritsch was a better Colonel Snelling than Colonel Snelling

Jerry Fritsch (left) was the man Historic Fort Snelling was looking for. Finally, they found someone to be Colonel Snelling.

Jerry Fritsch (left) was the man Historic Fort Snelling was looking for. Finally, they found someone to be Colonel Snelling. Josie Fritsch

Other men have been loving fathers and devoted husbands. Other men have been teachers, history buffs, even avid collectors of antique cars, guns, and swords. But Jerry Fritsch, who died after a long fight with Parkinson’s on Monday, became so much more than that.

Jerry became Colonel Josiah Snelling.

He began his historical reenactment career at the Historic Fort Snelling as most male costumed interpreters did -- playing a uniformed soldier. But like Snelling himself, he quickly rose through the ranks. By his second year, Jerry became the fort’s one and only Colonel Snelling. 

The term “one and only” really applies, here, because until then, Fort Snelling had been a post without a commander. No one had ever been the famous colonel. No one was allowed. The role was too big to entrust to just anyone.

But Stephen Osman, the site manager that hired Jerry, saw something in him. It wasn’t just his encyclopedic knowledge of history, or the gravitas added by his actual military experience. It wasn’t even the fact that he kind of looked like Snelling, if you squinted. Osman says there was something “magnetic” about Jerry. When he talked, people listened – in rapturous delight. And he could talk about anything.

“He just knew everything,” Jerry's daughter Josie says. She worked at the fort alongside her father for some years, even served as his supervisor. When it was time to evaluate him, she wrote only this: “He’s a historical God. What can I say?”

From then on, Jerry presided over the commandant’s house on the far end of the site with a sense of calm and poise becoming of a man in charge. He’d invite visitors in and quickly find a crumb of trivia that held their interest. When tourists from Sweden stopped by, he dazzled them with a depth of knowledge about their own history.

He also became a leader among the staff. When the costumed soldiers would run drills and present their arms to him, Osman would feel a real glimmer of pride saluting a man he genuinely admired.

The real Josiah Snelling didn’t have as much love or loyalty among his officers. Most of their duties involved farming or cutting lumber rather than military training, and he got his share of guff from them for it. Dueling was forbidden by the articles of war, but it was common knowledge that Snelling wasn’t above accepting personal challenges from his subordinates. Once he agreed to a duel with Lieutenant Joseph Baxley. It’s said they never got around to shooting at one another because Snelling was too drunk.

Snelling also owned slaves. Federal rulings against slavery meant little in the then-territory of Minnesota. Any rule of law came from the fort itself. He rented a man named William from Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro, and he bought two women -- Mary and Louisa -- in 1827.

The War of 1812 rolled around, and Snelling contracted chronic dysentery. By 1826, it and its most common treatment at the time -- opium and brandy -- were killing him. In 1827, he was ordered to Washington, D.C., facing a possible court martial for embezzlement and accepting a duel with Baxley. In 1828, before the accusations could be properly investigated, he died an embattled, sick man.

By the winter of 1862, the fort he’d built would go on to be a concentration camp for more than 1,600 Dakota people, vigilantly guarded by soldiers. Between 130 and 300 of them would die in a year, felled by measles and bitter cold.

History is prone to romance. It’s hard to look at old leaders in three dimensions when they look so commanding and competent in photographs. The reality of Snelling was dirty, ugly, and unromantic. That’s the challenge that fell to his spiritual successor: quiet, gentlemanly Jerry Fritsch.

Jerry was not a man prone to acknowledging ugliness. Josie remembers him as someone who smoothed over life’s unappealing truths with gentleness. During his 20-year fight with Parkinson’s, she used to demand the straightforward, non-sugar-coated version of whatever the doctors just told them. Jerry would wince and ask her if there was any other way to say it.

But when visitors would ask him about the rougher side of Colonel Snelling -- the slaves, the drunken duel, the fort’s legacy as a prison for the Dakota people -- he never tried to smooth it away.

“Dad did not try to hide the truth,” she says. He would discuss any topic visitors asked about, even break his character to give a more detailed, nuanced discussion of Snelling’s failings.

“Did he push that in the face of every visitor who walked in the door? No,” Osman says. “But none of us did.”

There would be another man to play Colonel Snelling after Jerry did. Josie says the covert agreement among the staff was that he was never quite as good. Jerry was Colonel Snelling -- all of Colonel Snelling.

He was also more than that. He had the perspective to see that history is not complete without its hard edges, that the official story is not the whole story, and that strife, prejudice, and failure are part of Minnesota’s legacy. For that, he and his predecessor will be remembered exactly as they were.