Bureau of Indian Affairs
Ho-Chunk History; Historic Famine; John and Juliette Kinzie
While not a traditional artifact like the rest of our Artifact Ambassadors, this special emissary’s story is no less powerful. This window is positioned in the rear of the Agency House, facing southeast from the kitchen. Period drapes obscure the bottom half, while the window’s multi-pane workmanship extends above. This window’s original glass has been lost over the years, but the replacement period wavy glass recreates the type of visual distortion its panes conveyed during the hard days of the winter of 1832.
For many in the Michigan Territory (which included what is now Wisconsin), 1832 was a difficult year. That summer, Black Hawk and his compatriots had coursed through the area during a war which was tough on both settlers and Black Hawk’s followers, alike. What is less recognized is the suffering of those who remained neutral that year. For the Ho-Chunk, overall neutrality meant a change of life. The war had disrupted the tribe’s planting cycle, so the harvest had not been good. Weather also conspired against them. The annuity had been late, and Governor Porter, who was present for the distribution, noted that the Ho-Chunk seemed very ill-prepared for the onset of cold weather. The snow was not yet even deep enough to give the hunters an edge in the yearly hunt.
John Kinzie had already that summer expressed his concern over the situation to his supervisors. By the time the “winter of starvation” set in, the privation was likely more dire than Kinzie had originally expected. Many families traveled to the Fort Winnebago Indian Agency where relief food was expected. Contemporary descriptions indicated that scores died along the way. Kinzie’s agency had yet another stroke of bad luck. The barges of corn which John had requested from suppliers in Ohio had been blocked from reaching the Fort by the Fox River’s frozen surface. The devastated Ho-Chunk gathered there were reduced to scavenging and begging spare food from the Fort’s diminishing stockpiles.
For Juliette, the winter did not entail this same type of physical hardship. The Kinzies received rations from the Fort and were sheltered from the winter’s cold by their newly-built agency house. The emotional anguish, however, was a more imposing foe. That winter was the occasion for many harrowing and heartbreaking experiences for the unseasoned Easterner. Sometimes they took the form of a Ho-Chunk mother who would “rush in, grasp the hand of my infant, and, placing that of her famishing child within it, tell us, pleadingly, that he was imploring ‘his little brother’ for food.” Other times it was a respected chief choosing hunger over limited assistance for his family when it meant that there would not be enough for the rest of the village. The house’s windows—particularly the kitchen window—were not a sufficient barrier to block out the suffering. Juliette bemoaned, “It was in vain that we screened the lower portion of our windows with curtains. They would climb up on the outside, and tier upon tier of gaunt, wretched faces would peer in above, to watch us, and see if indeed we were as ill provided as we represented ourselves.”
The arrival of relief food in the spring must have seemed a distant hope to the Ho-Chunk and the Kinzies when starvation set in during November of 1832. Most of us living in Wisconsin today cannot understand how that winter affected the people who experienced it firsthand. We can only imagine the horror of that winter as we gaze through the panes of this week’s Artifact Ambassador. They could not have known it at the time, but hope did lie ahead. Watch for our next Artifact Ambassador in mid-November.