The Indian Agency House, 1832
The Indian Agency House was built with federal funds in 1832 to serve as the home and workplace of Indian sub-agent John H. Kinzie. The late Federal-style home—designed to be an impressive symbol of the government’s wealth and power—was constructed on Ho-Chunk land just across the Fox River from Fort Winnebago. Many of the original features of this home, which continues to rest on a stone foundation in its original location, have been preserved.
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, 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. While carpenters and masons were summoned from distant St. Louis, the stone was quarried nearby, and the bricks were made locally.
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 Fort Winnebago, 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.
Robert McCabe replaced Kinzie as sub-agent from September 1833 until July 1834. Upon his departure, the commandant of Fort Winnebago was appointed to this position until the subagency closed in 1837. The federal government retained ownership of the Agency House until 1854, during which time it functioned in various capacities. The house was rented out to Fort Winnebago personnel, including fort sutler Satterlee Clark, and for a while, it served as a frontier tavern providing lodging and meals to travelers. There is some indication that Captain Gideon Lowe and his family might have lived in the home for at least a decade. In 1854, the Agency House and its land were deeded to James Martin, who sold the land to George C. Tallman in 1857. Tallman farmed the property until he sold it to James B. Wells. In 1878, Mr. Wells sold the property to Edmond S. Baker, who continued to farm the land until he died in October of 1928.
The home was purchased on January 7, 1931, by the National Society of
the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Wisconsin (NSCDA-WI) who began restoring the 100-year-old building under the guidance of prominent 20th century Madison architect Frank Riley. At that time, the house itself was the only remaining agency-era building on the property. The NSCDA-WI opened 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.
The Historic Indian Agency House (previously known as the Old Indian Agency House) was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. In 2012, the house and the site on which it sits was elevated to Nationally Significant status on the register, and another large-scale historic restoration of the home was completed. Today—nearly 200 years since its founding—the Historic Indian Agency House endures as a notable place of pilgrimage for visitors from across the nation and around the world.
Courtesy of Tim Hatfield, September 1, 2019