Fort Structure Found Extant (2021):
Could be Fort Winnebago Officers' Quarters
Check back frequently as this is a developing story.
October 2021 article, Wau-Bun Express
Documentation, Preservation, interpretation
Update on Potential Fort Structure
In our July newsletter, we announced an unexpected rediscovery which may possibly have been a part of Fort Winnebago. The structural remains have been deemed by historic preservation specialists to be no longer structurally viable. The current owner is sympathetic to the history and hopes that portions may be preserved and shared in some way but does not have the capacity to do so himself.
Therefore, we have organized a volunteer group consisting of an archaeologist, a licensed architect, a local historian, the present owner of the structural remnants, and the director/curator of the Agency House. We are producing detailed documentation of what remains; interpreting it in light of historical records; and preserving examples of key architectural features to curate as an exhibit at the Agency House. More to come.
July 2021 article, Wau-Bun Express
Detective work leads to significant find
Fort Winnebago discovery unexpected and intriguing
The officers' quarters which was the Kinzies' first home at Fort Winnebago has now possibly been found extant.
[Excerpt from Wau-Bun, by Juliette Kinzie, wife of Indian Agent John Kinzie at Fort Winnebago in the 1830s]: "Major and Mrs. Twiggs and a few of the younger officers gave us a cordial welcome—how cordial those alone can know who have come, like us, to a remote, isolated home in the wilderness. The Major insisted on our taking possession at once of vacant quarters in the fort, instead of at ‘the Agency,’ as had been proposed.”
“After dinner, Mrs. Twiggs showed me the quarters assigned to us, on the opposite side of the spacious hall. They consisted of two large rooms on each of the three floors or stories of the building. On the ground-floor the front room was vacant. The one in the rear was to be the sleeping-apartment, as was evident from a huge, unwieldy bedstead, of proportions amply sufficient to have accommodated Og, the King of Bashan, with Mrs. Og and the children into the bargain. We could not repress our laughter, but the bedstead was nothing to another structure which occupied a second corner of the apartment. This edifice had been built under the immediate superintendence of one of our young lieutenants [Jefferson Davis], and it was plain to be seen that upon it both he and the soldiers who fabricated it had exhausted all their architectural skill.”
An Agency House volunteer recently brought vague news about the existence of a possible fort structure and coordinated a visit to the farm of an Amish gentleman who had several years prior taken down this barn for a nearby farmer. He had hauled the components to his own property with the intent of building a barn for himself. Although the barn was never constructed from the pieces, he saved them and protected them as he recognized their historical significance.
Although in 1856 newspapers across the region made the erroneous announcement that Fort Winnebago had burned to the ground, the Portage Independent soon set the record straight, reporting that the fire’s impact had been limited, and most of the fort buildings remained intact. By 1898, Andrew Jackson Turner, in his treatise on the fort, noted that no fort structures were then visible upon the landscape except the surgeon’s quarters, the commissary, and part of the hospital. Some of the fort had fallen victim to time and the elements, but some of it had been salvaged in those intervening decades by local residents. It was during that time of salvaging that a fort structure was reportedly hauled by horse and sledge to the property where it was used as a barn up until just several years ago. Generations passed down the story that mortised sockets in the cross-beams once held floor joists for a second floor on which soldiers would sleep, although it was unknown precisely which fort building it was. This family tradition was preserved in an interview for the 2008 PBS Special, "Wisconsin Hometown Stories: Portage Memories."
The Amish gentleman was able to sketch many intriguing details he had discovered when he had dismantled the barn with his brother some years previous. He easily recalled specific measurements and pointed out special features still present among the elements of the building. We then commenced a period of research in which fascinating information emerged, pointing to the likely identity of this old fort building.
Construction techniques and materials were compared to those of the Agency House to authenticate the time period, and these were found to be consistent down to the particulars. Using specific data from the Amish man and comparing it to various historical documents, including a blueprint created by Jefferson Davis, the identity of the building was narrowed down to three possibilities, and then further reduced to the two most likely candidates: a pair of identical officers’ quarters, one of which had functioned as the Indian agency and home of the Kinzies prior to the construction of their existing 1832 home.
Questions and conundrums have arisen along the way, some of which are still in the process of being amply addressed. In one instance, a feature which seemed at first to be problematic in identifying the structure as the officers' quarters unexpectedly ended up being strong evidence of support when studied further and understood within context. The process of discovery and interpretation is ongoing.
The question at hand is, "Should this building be saved?" Few buildings in the state of Wisconsin today could boast the age and powerful historic richness of this unassuming structure. There is no doubt that if it can be saved, it should be saved.
But can it be saved? That is an inquiry we are still attempting to answer. Upward of 50% of its major structural components survive. Some timbers are beyond repair, but the old-growth heartwood within most of the remaining timbers may be sound enough for some level of reconstruction, assuming the joints are addressed and reinforced. If able to be faithfully reconstructed, the cost would be steep, but there are alternatives to full-scale reconstruction, as well.
While it is unknown what may ultimately be done to protect and display what remains, this building is too important not to receive every chance for preservation if viable options exist.
This piece of history is at a crossroads.
Once it is gone, it can never be replaced.