Photographic copy of a 1896 painting by Ira A. Ridgway depicting Fort Winnebago, based on the recollections of early settlers in Portage, Wisconsin. The Surgeons’ Quarters, the only structure still standing today, is the U-shaped building to the right of the main garrison. Wisconsin Historical Images WHi-28343.
Strategically located between the major waterways linking the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, Fort Winnebago was the third United States military outpost established in what is now the state of Wisconsin. For the Ho-Chunk and the French fur traders in the area, the establishment of the fort represented a threat to their way of life. But for early settlers from the east, the fort was a bastion of civilization in what they viewed as the untamed western frontier. The collections of the Fort Winnebago Surgeons’ Quarters, now a historic site operated by the Wisconsin Society Daughters of the American Revolution, reflect this extension of Yankee culture in the Wisconsin wilderness in the 1830s and 40s. Some of the artifacts I documented for the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database are thought to have been made by soldiers at the fort, such as a carved and painted eagle, a massive tilt-top desk, and, possibly, a pair of painted side chairs (below) that have traditionally been attributed to Jefferson Davis, who was stationed at the fort from 1829-1839. Other artifacts, like a turned sewing box, are not original to the fort but are of the time period and were donated by area families.
The Surgeons’ Quarters is the only building left standing at the former site of Fort Winnebago. In fact, this structure of pine logs and hand-hewn tamarack joists predates the fort itself by several years and is an important surviving example of early French vernacular architecture in the state. It was built about 1826 by Francois LeRoi, who made his living hauling goods and boats over the portage–the section of land separating the Fox and Wisconsin rivers. The United States government purchased the building in 1829 when Fort Winnebago was erected nearby, and for several years it served as a sutler’s store operated by Satterlee Clark, who provided supplies to the soldiers stationed there. In 1834 it was remodeled to serve as the home for the fort’s medical officer and his family. Two surgeons–Lyman Foote and Charles H. Laub–are known to have occupied the quarters from 1834 until the fort was closed in 1845. The building was home to a number of families in the ensuing years. In the 1930s, community members realized that the property was in grave need of preservation. The Wisconsin Society Daughters of the American Revolution undertook an extensive restoration and opened the Surgeons’ Quarters to the public in 1954.
For further reading:
Juliette Kinzie, Wau-Bun, The “Early Day” in the Northwest (Chicago: D. B. Cooke and Co., 1857). Available online via the Wisconsin Electronic Reader.
This memoir of Kinzie’s time in Portage in the 1830s includes a detailed description of Jefferson Davis’s cabinetwork at Fort Winnebago.
Satterlee Clark, “Early Times at Fort Winnebago, and Black Hawk War Reminiscences,” Wisconsin Historical Collections 8 (1879). Available online.
Andrew Jackson Turner, “The History of Fort Winnebago,” Wisconsin Historical Collections 14 (1898). Available online.
Ina Curtis, Early Days at the Fox-Wisconsin Portage (Pardeville, WI: Times Publishing Co., 1974).
“Territorial Forts of Wisconsin,” Archaeology Program, Wisconsin Historical Society. Available online.