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Heritage Partner Spotlight: Winnebago Surgeons Quarters
Posted by helen on February 5th, 2012
Article by Mary Ann Harding, Director of Surgeons Quarters
Soldiers from Fort Howard at Green Bay arrived at the Portage in September 1828 with orders to build a fort on 4,000 acres acquired for military purposes. They chose land at the site previously crossed by Marquette and Joliet in 1673, the 1.5-mile portage between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers. These early voyageurs were followed by a succession of explorers, missionaries, trappers, traders and soldiers, who left written records of their travels on the historic waterway and the Portage.
The third and last of the early Wisconsin territorial forts, Fort Winnebago, was closely linked via the waterway to forts at Green Bay (Fort Howard) and Prairie du Chien (Fort Crawford). It served as the center of local government and protected commerce, although by the 1830s the fur trade was essentially “trapped out.” The soldiers also built the Military Road between the three forts to transport people and supplies over land. Under the direction of the War Department, the Army negotiated treaties with Indian tribes living in the area.
The Surgeons Quarters
Presumed to have been built in 1828 by the soldiers, the tamarack log house served as temporary barracks and later as a sutler’s store. In 1834, it was converted to living quarters for the last two army doctors. A two-story hospital stood adjacent to the log house. A number of authentic artifacts survive from the fort and its time period, including the fort surgeon’s table, and are on display in the log house.
Among the many well-known historical figures at Fort Winnebago was 2nd Lieutenant Jefferson Davis. Davis would later serve as Secretary of War, as a U.S. Senator, and as President of the Confederacy.
Fort Winnebago was closed in 1845 and the land was sold by 1853. The buildings were rented out until 1856 when most of the wooden barracks burned. According to a newspaper account, the fire was caused by burning a bedbug-infested straw mattress in a fireplace. Only the Surgeons Quarters and a few other buildings escaped the fire. The remaining barracks fell apart from disuse and neglect and were torn down. An archeological study in the 1960s, which used the Army’s original blueprints and other surviving drawings, led to the discovery of the stone foundations of each of the fort buildings.
The Surgeons Quarters remains on its original foundation, on land which was originally the fort site. It was bought in 1937 by the Wisconsin Society, Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who continue to maintain and operate the historic site. The collections include many original items from the fort as well as authentic furnishings from the early territorial and statehood days.
The Surgeons Quarters is recognized by the National Register of Historic Places individually and as a part of the Fort Winnebago Historic Site. Other historic sites of interest nearby are the Ice Age Trail, the Portage Canal, and the Indian Agency House.
A favorite of visitors, the one-room schoolhouse was built ca. 1849 by settlers after the original school in the fort closed in 1845. It was used continuously from 1850 until 1960, and moved onto the Surgeons Quarters site shortly after. Furnishings include desks, 1800s books, class registers and the school bell.
The Surgeons Quarters has been a Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Partner since June 2011. When asked what the FWHP means to the Surgeons Quarters, Director Mary Ann Harding explains “The Parkway will bring the beauty of the waterway and the history of Wisconsin to visitors. This historic waterway was the lifeline of the territory. The Fox River led to the Great Lakes, Canada and ultimately to the Atlantic Ocean. Portaging from the Fox to the Wisconsin River led to the Mississippi River and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico, to the great heartland of America, and even to the Pacific Ocean. Fort Winnebago was strategically placed at the portage of these two great waterways”.
Both historic buildings are open daily, May through October. Plans are underway for a 1830s medicinal and culinary garden. Other research projects include a military road leading from the Surgeons Quarters to the fort cemetery, and discovery of an area believed to be the fort’s ice house.
Photos courtesy of Steve Wagner