Fort Winnebago Officers' Quarters Found Extant (2021):
Kinzies resided in one of the two identical structures in 1830
A local family story going back to at least the 1880s claimed that an unusual barn on a Town of Marcellon farm was actually a barracks which had been moved from the site of Fort Winnebago. For all its historical importance, little remains of Fort Winnebago today beyond an archaeological footprint. None of the timber frame garrison buildings were thought to be in existence. Could a fort structure have eluded the public eye for nearly 200 years, surviving into modern times? By 2021, time was of the essence to investigate the story surrounding what had now become an unassuming pile of old timbers residing in a cow pasture. Does the remarkable tale stand the tests of buildings archaeology and historical research? Visit our Rediscovering Fort Winnebago exhibit to examine the evidence.
July 2022 article, Wau-Bun Express
Remnants of the 1832 landscape
Ft. Winnebago exhibit makes its debut
Rediscovering Fort Winnebago is a brand new exhibit displaying some of the recently rediscovered remnants of an early 19th century Fort Winnebago officers' quarters. Funding for this initiative was provided by the Community Foundation of South Central Wisconsin and Michael and Sally Connelly.
Vestiges of a building with an intriguing oral history identifying it as a structure from Fort Winnebago prompted a salvage and documentation effort at a Columbia County farm. Employing the methodologies of buildings archaeology, a physical and historical analysis of the remains was conducted to assess the veracity of the claim.
The oral tradition identifies the structure, which had been used as a barn since the latter half of the 19th century, as having been part of the fort complex. The building was said to have been hauled intact on 12" square by 70' long timbers fitted on either wheels or sledge runners for a monumental ten-mile transport to the farm which was situated adjacent to the route of the Portage-to-Green Bay stretch of the Military Road in Marcellon township. The story further alleges that it had been used as "living and sleeping quarters" for soldiers stationed at the fort.
When conducting research for a 1975 newspaper article about the barn, local historian Ina Curtis found that a vague oral tradition existed among older Portage residents regarding a fort building that had, indeed, been relocated intact. A 2008 PBS documentary on Portage history more widely relayed the local tale.
A few years later, the aging building was dismantled by a man who hauled the structural elements piece by piece with a horse-drawn trailer to his nearby farm with the intent of reconstructing and revitalizing the building as a hay barn for his property. However, the cost calculated for reinforcing the aging joinery and replacing the missing materials outweighed the benefit. The pieces remained sheltered on his property where they had been carefully staged for a decade. In 2021, researchers convened at the site to document, study, and preserve if possible that which remained.
While no direct written documentation exists which can fully trace the story of the building, the body of empirical and historical evidence largely validates the claims of the oral story.
First, the dating of the original hardware and construction methods—combined with information about the area's pattern of settlement and evidence of intensive reinforcement around the time of the purported move of the building—confirm with little room for doubt that the structure was built earlier and relocated from elsewhere during the time span indicated by the oral story. While this evidence does not indicate specifically from whence the building originated, the only structures of this nature within a feasible radius at the apparent time of its construction were those contained within the Fort Winnebago complex at the portage.
Second, the building is constructed using resources and methods which were premised on the availability of a large labor force that could provide for the transport of non-local materials and contribute the vast man hours required to fabricate a hand-hewn product. Fort Winnebago's garrison offered both the manpower and engineering expertise to accomplish something of this nature.
Finally, with evidence confirming a number of fort structures available for relocation around the time of the presumed move, direct comparisons may be drawn to two specific officers' quarter within the fort complex. These quarters are known from documentary evidence to have the same dimensional footprint; utilize the same materials and processing methods; and boast the same hardware and joinery as the structure being studied. Hints of prior use match a number of particulars of the officers' quarters right down to sundry details where evidence still exists.
While the limited body of surviving evidence cannot empirically resolve every question, the direct and contextual evidence largely affirms the oral tradition. Considered alongside the plans and letters left behind by Jefferson Davis, as well as accounts of settlers and travelers through the are, the dimensions and construction techniques evidenced by this building have no parallels outside of a Fort Winnebago provenance. An application of the process of buildings archaeology and historical research supports the conclusion that a Fort Winnebago officers' quarters has eluded the public eye for nearly 200 years, surviving into modern times.
The new exhibit may be viewed admission-free during the Agency House's regular seasonal hours.
March 2022 article, Wau-Bun Express
Where history and science meet
Unassuming structure reveals notable provenance
Sometimes historians and scientists find themselves conducting vital research in unconventional places. Our quest to document, preserve, and analyze vestiges of a potential Fort Winnebago structure took us to an Amish cow pasture.
Because the structural remnants were deteriorating rapidly, urgency was necessitated. If the remains did, indeed, turn out to be one of the officers’ quarters from Fort Winnebago as preliminary research seemed to suggest, then it would be the only timber frame building from the military complex known to be extant. The surgeon’s quarters—a trader’s cabin which predates the 1828 fort—is unable to offer insights into military construction practices on the frontier, and the Fort Winnebago Indian agency house was built in 1832 by private contractors rather than by the military.
Our main queries at the outset involved the identity of the structure; the construction methods and materials employed; whether or not examples of key architectural features could be preserved and exhibited; and how the results of the research would be shared.
A multidisciplinary effort enlisting the expertise of an archaeologist, a licensed architect, a historian, a forest products lab botanist, and others has been underway. Resources such as period maps and artwork; blueprints and photos; firsthand accounts; newspaper articles; 21st century documentary footage; and structural comparables from the period and region are being utilized within the framework of the scientific method to yield a thorough and careful interpretation of the evidence. Such is the process of “buildings archaeology.”
A paper co-authored by Peter Chiappori, Adam Novey, and Daniel J. Joyce is cur-rently under peer review for prospective publication. A brand new exhibit using elements from the structure is also in the works at HIAH.
Although all the professionals have graciously volunteered their time, there is expense involved in the preservation of the artifacts and the construction of the exhibit components. The Community Foundation of South Central Wisconsin and Michael & Sally Connelly (in honor of NSCDA-WI president Barbara J. Meyer) have provided the financial support needed to accomplish this important undertaking.
In addition to the original investigational inquiries, another question must be posed at this juncture: What do you get when you put an architect, an archaeologist, and a historian into a cow pasture to conduct research?
There was the exceedingly friendly kitten who insisted upon being the center of attention; the calves who sucked with gusto on our water bottles, clothing, and equipment (the Amish children rescued us on the second day by taking the calves to another pasture); the stinging nettles that we located the hard way… repeatedly; the massive yellow jacket attack during which we deployed three full cans of Raid and experienced some minor but vexing casualties; and the singalong with the raucous chickens (don’t ask). There was plentiful sunshine, but also some rain, and of course pies (lots and lots of pasture pies). It’s all part and parcel of an unexpected research project in an unexpected location.
We are eager to share our findings with you.
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.