The Indian Agency House, est. 1832
The Indian Agency House was built at the Fox-Wisconsin portage in 1832 to house Indian Agent John H. Kinzie and his wife, Juliette. This Indian Agency was established as a means of fulfilling the treaty of 1829 between the United States government and the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) tribe. A lead mining boom had caused such an influx of settlers on Ho-Chunk lands that the government determined to purchase the area from the tribe in order to avoid conflict. This resulting treaty promised the tribe a yearly annuity payment in silver along with blacksmithing services and other goods in return for their land east and south of the Wisconsin River.
The late Federal-style home—designed to be an impressive symbol of the government’s wealth and power—was built on Ho-Chunk land just across the Fox River from Fort Winnebago. Because the spacious timber-frame structure was built of milled lumber rather than the log construction that was used in the region at that time, it stood out in this prairie wilderness of the Wisconsin frontier. Pine lumber was floated down the Wisconsin River from the forests of the north under the direction of Lieutenant Jefferson Davis, and the house was furnished according to Juliette Kinzie’s refined tastes, featuring artwork, carpeting, fine furniture such as a sideboard, and a Nunns and Clark piano.
From this home, Kinzie acted as an ambassador to the Ho-Chunk Nation. He distributed the annuity payments, received Native delegations, and settled disputes between Natives and settlers. At various times, the home was also used as a place for Juliette to educate local children, host social activities for those living in the fort, and provide a resting spot for visiting officials. The Agency House’s use in these capacities was short lived, however. Kinzie’s resignation and the relocation of the tribe across the Mississippi River soon rendered it obsolete.
The Agency House was subsequently rented out to various Fort Winnebago personnel, including Satterlee Clark, the fort sutler. It eventually became a frontier tavern which provided lodging and meals to travelers, and then a private farmhouse. In 1930, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Wisconsin (NSCDA-WI) purchased and began restoring this 100-year-old historic landmark under the guidance of esteemed 20th century architect Frank Riley, opening the house as a museum in 1932. In 1967, Polly and Stanley Stone financed the construction of the visitor center, which also stands as a testimony to the vision and commitment of the NSCDA-WI.
Today, visitors from around the world continue to visit this important historic site which is deemed Nationally Significant on the National Register of Historic Places.
Courtesy of Tim Hatfield, September 1, 2019