John Harris Kinzie; Trade Silver; Fort Dearborn
Late 18th-Early 19th Century
Archaeological Excavations, July 1989
Our Artifact Ambassador story now introduces us to the main historical character in Agency House history, John H. Kinzie. Kinzie was born in 1803 into a fur-trading family. His father, John Kinzie, Sr. the son of a British army surgeon, had been raised in Canada. In 1781 at the age of 18 John, Sr., determined to enter the fur trade. He was assisted by his step-father, William Forsyth, in establishing a trading network near Detroit, Michigan. The young man quickly expanded his endeavors west toward Lake Michigan, thriving in this British-dominated region. Eventually, John made his way to the southwest corner of Lake Michigan, to Fort Dearborn—later to become Chicago—where he established a base from which he operated a trading network reaching from Milwaukee to the Rock River.
It was here in this secluded military settlement that John raised his first son, John Harris Kinzie. Following in his father’s footsteps, John H. Kinzie was quickly apprenticed into the fur trade, not under his father, but within the newly dominant American Fur Company at Michilimackinac. John began his work in the fur trade at the age of 15, learning the ropes under company official Robert Stuart. Here he learned the intricacies of fur trade book-keeping and began to refine his knowledge of the Native languages to which he had been exposed his entire life. It was this apprenticeship experience that prepared John for the next stage in his life.
This week’s Artifact Ambassador—a fragment of ornamental trade silver—has a unique significance to both John Kinzie, Sr., and his son, John Harris Kinzie. Before the elder Kinzie entered the fur trade, he had been apprenticed as a silversmith in Quebec. Using his smithing skills to bolster his position among the Great Lakes tribes, John frequently fulfilled the Natives’ requests to turn their silver coins given them as annuity payments by the government into pieces of silver jewelry. Because of this work, the Natives gave him the name Shaw-nee-aw-kee: “The Silver Man.” This moniker transferred to his son, John H. Kinzie, when he came of age in the fur trade. While John, Jr., did not make silver ornaments, his line of work frequently obliged him to give these items as gifts to the Natives with whom he worked.
This silver brooch was discovered on the Agency House property during archaeological excavations in 1989. Silver of this design was often procured by local natives through the fur trade and worn as personal decoration. The design of this particular brooch is similar to many produced locally in the Midwest by silversmiths during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is possible that this silver ornament was provided to the Natives at the Agency House by the young Silver Man, himself.