John and Juliette Kinzie; Fort Winnebago; Jefferson Davis
Late 18th Century
Upon their arrival at Fort Winnebago, John and Juliette Kinzie began making preparations for moving into temporary accommodations on the agency hill. The agency had been established across the river from the fort. Here it would be a more neutral position from which to convene with the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) visitors to the agency. An agency was ideally a place at which tribal members could communicate concerns and discuss issues without being intimidated by the immediate presence of troops. Thus, John made sure that the agency complex was located on tribal land rather than the military reserve which housed the fort—a point which he emphasized in his official report upon the building of the Agency House in 1832.
Before they could establish their residency at the house, however, they were stopped by the commanding officer of the fort, Major Twiggs. As events played out, the Kinzies would not officially live at the agency until the following year. Major Twiggs’ wife was one salient reason for the delay. Having dealt with the seclusion of the frontier since the fort’s construction two years prior, she had been the only Eastern-raised lady within the fort community. Juliette indicates in her memoirs that Mrs. Twiggs was so determined to have Juliette nearby for company that she had already prepared a portion of the officers’ quarters in the fort for them prior to their arrival.
Part of this preparation involved Jefferson Davis—of Civil War fame—who was stationed at Fort Winnebago at the time. He had overseen the construction of furniture for the Kinzies’ use. One piece, which Juliette dubbed “the Davis,” was a grotesquely fanciful cabinet intended for storing her china and other sundries. It was apparently built with little regard to the actual size of anything it was intended to hold.
Jefferson Davis had graduated West Point in June, 1828. He was subsequently sent to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, from which he was then assigned under Zachary Taylor’s command as a Second Lieutenant. Over the next months, he oversaw improvements to the fort, doubtlessly witnessing the drama of a settlement which had recently been under the threat of Native attack and was now the host of the Treaty of 1829. That fall, he was ordered to Fort Winnebago—barely a year old—where he also assisted in improvements, including those done at the Kinzie quarters. His main job, however, was as Assistant Commissary of Subsistence, officially supplying three companies of soldiers but also likely participating on the board which controlled the Fort sutlery—the largest such establishment in the Northwest at the time.
Davis would go on to serve throughout the Northwest over the following years before his marriage and his eventual turn toward politics. This week’s Artifact Ambassador is a fireplace fender from one of the officers’ quarters at Fort Winnebago. This type of fire screen would likely have graced each fireplace in the fort, including the Kinzie quarters. However, this one in particular was said to have originally occupied Jefferson Davis’ room. While the piece now cordons the hearth in the Agency House Kinzie bedroom, our Ambassador thus presents us with the story of a man who crossed paths with the Kinzies early in their stay at Fort Winnebago.