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Strong Box
Object Name:
Strong Box
18" by 26" by 14"
Wood, Iron


Annuity Payments; Native American Policy; John Harris Kinzie
Early 19th Century
Credit Line:
Mr. Gordon (A Grandson of the Kinzies)
Object ID:

In the fall of 1832, John Kinzie returned from Detroit and delivered what would be his last annuity payment at Fort Winnebago before the couple’s departure from the agency in 1833.  With concerns about the aftermath of the Blackhawk War looming in the background, it may be assumed that this payment was particularly taxing on all involved.  As such an important part of his commission as Indian Agent, the subject of annuities and how they worked on the frontier deserves investigation.  

Annuities in the old Northwest Territories were a complex affair in which the government’s future agenda for the tribe often superseded the payment’s purpose of reimbursing the tribe for its land.  In the minds of many officials, the disbursements were implements of social change, with the desire that the influx of funds would encourage the tribes to follow in the Cherokees’ footsteps in becoming more agricultural.  Since many Ho-Chunk had recently become impoverished and experienced difficulty hunting due to the local extirpation of game and fur bearers, the hope was that these payments would, in the words of William Clark, “save many of them from starving to death.”  The annuities also had the deeper purpose of fostering dependence on the government so that they could “[make] it their interest to preserve peace with us.”  Bureau of Indian affairs officials went so far as to prioritize which tribes received the most punctual delivery of the annuities based upon how much of a potential threat they constituted to peace in the region.

The payment was delivered at Fort Winnebago in the fall of each year.  Because early Indian Affairs officials had no Old-World equivalent system to emulate for distributing these anomalous payments, experimentation was necessary.  While payments were originally given to chiefs to distribute among the tribe, an order had come down from Andrew Jackson that mandated an equal distribution among all individuals—a system which, while more equitable, made the payment into the complex process described by Juliette Kinzie.  While some agents doubted the Natives’ knowledge of the coinage’s value, Juliette’s description of the vast numbers of traders who attended the disbursements demonstrates that the Winnebago were, indeed, using the money as a substitute for the beaver skins they normally would have traded for their yearly necessities.

To carry out this leveraging tool, the raw material—silver specie—required transportation to some of the most remote regions of the United States at the time.  This is where our Artifact Ambassador comes in.  This Ambassador is a crude, painted strong box which might otherwise be overlooked in the Agency House were it not for the name stenciled faintly on the lid: John H. Kinzie.  This chest was likely owned by Kinzie during his time at Fort Winnebago and, because of the annuity transportation system of the day, could have played a starring role.

In the 1830s, the closest locale with enough specie—usually silver half-dollars—was New York, from whence it would then be shipped in bulk to Detroit.  It was a point of grumbling among the agents that they needed to leave the agency at its busiest time to travel to Detroit to collect the money.  The cargo was simply too valuable for the agents to entrust this task to someone else, however.  John would personally travel hundreds of miles.  It is plausible that this week’s Ambassador was one of the boxes used in this process due to its sturdy construction and personal label.

With this final annuity paid in the autumn of 1832, a major component of John’s job was completed.  There would, however, be a task much more harrowing and frantic yet to come.  Stay tuned for our next artifact ambassador!

An Annual Tradition

October 15, 2019

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