Rendezvous Days History

Beginning of the Annual Rendezvous

 In the year 1977, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Fort Atkinson community, with permission of the Iowa State Preserves Advisory Board, organized a frontier rendezvous to re-enact life as it was in the 1840s. Participants, dressed in authentic costumes worn in the 1840s, recreated the time period in regards to general military life at the Fort as well as when hunters, trappers, & traders displayed their furs & supplies for barter and trade at a frontier rendezvous as existed further west in the Rocky Mountains. Re-creation of the frontier rendezvous and the 1840s military life at Fort Atkinson has continued every year since. The annual Fort Atkinson rendezvous occurs during the last full weekend in the month of September, with"school day" the previous Friday.

Indian Tribes of Northeast Iowa

This information was written by Al Becker, a member of the Fort Atkinson Historic Commission.

Turkey River Winnebago Indian Subagency
Historical Site: 13WH111
The Winnebago Indians were impacted by several treaties between 1825 and 1837. Early treaties established inter-tribal boundaries in and around Wisconsin as part of the eventual government effort to acquire all Indian land on the east side of the Mississippi River.
Treaty of 1825
This treaty established a “neutral line” that ran east and west across present day Northeast Iowa. Thisvline separated the Sioux to the north from the Sauk & Fox to the south.
Treaty of 1830
Due to continued fighting between the Sioux and the Sauk & Fox, this new treaty established 20-mile-wide strips on both sides of the neutral line forming what was called the “neutral ground”. This space was to keep the tribes apart from each other.
Treaty of 1832
Through this treaty, The Winnebago tribe gave up their land around the Wisconsin and Fox Rivers in Wisconsin for a portion of the ‘neutral ground’ in Iowa.
Treaty of 1837
When the Winnebago did not move into the neutral ground due to their sacred burial grounds existing back in Wisconsin, this treaty was then signed requiring the tribe to give up all land claims they had on the east side of the Mississippi River.
Yellow River Winnebago Indian Subagency
A small group of Winnebago had settled near the Yellow River in present-day Allamakee County in the early 1830s. Due to this action, the government established a subagency site and erected buildings there in 1833. This subagency existed until the government decision was made to move the Winnebago into the neutral ground in the year 1840.
Turkey River Winnebago Subagency
Construction of the military post of Fort Atkinson within the ‘neutral ground’ began during the summer of 1840. At the same time, Yellow River subagent, David Lowry, chose the new subagency site three miles southeast of the military post and ¾ of a mile west of the Turkey River around a natural spring. In the spring of that year, the Winnebago were escorted by military troops into the neutral ground. In 1839, Reverend Lowry, a Presbyterian minister, was appointed as the first agent in charge of the Turkey River subagency.
Functions of the Subagency
Fourteen buildings were eventually erected at the subagency site. Functions of the subagency included hiring doctors to provide health care to the Indians, and operating a school to teach white culture to Winnebago. In 1842, the agency school had over 100 Winnebago students who attended classes on music, Christian religion, and reading English. The girls were taught how to sew and make clothes for the younger children, while the boys were taught how to farm. School enrollment was 166 students by the year 1845, and 249 students in 1847.
The Model Farm
A model farm was established with five agricultural fields. Apparently the attempt was made to teach the Indian men and boys to farm, whoever this activity was unpopular with the Winnebago men since they were hunters. While Winnebago women apparently did most of the farm work, by 1846 it was reported that some of the Indian men had become interested in plowing & cultivation of the land.
Annuity Payments
Another factor that enticed the Winnebago to move into the ‘neutral land’ was the government’s promise of monthly annuity payments and supplies. The Indians needed these supplies and funds to survive since a normal life of hunting would be difficult. Blankets, pipes, sewing supplies, livestock, guns, and other materials promised to the Indians by the government were distributed at the subagency. Cash payments could be used to purchase additional supplies from licensed traders allowed into the neutral ground.
The Sub-Agents
Lowry was subagent until July 5, 1844, when he was replaced by James R. McGregor. Jonathan E. Fletcher replaced McGregor on June 2, 1845.
Subagent Fletcher reported that approximately 2400 Winnebago, living in 22 detached bands, existed with the ‘neutral ground’ in 1846.
Winnebago encampments existed throughout the neutral ground and included separate villages of Little Decorah, Waukon Decorah, & Winneshiek, each on the Upper Iowa River, then known as the Iowa River.
Duration of the Turkey River Winnebago Subagency
The Turkey River Subagency lasted from 1840-1848. In the latter year, the Winnebago were moved into central Minnesota. Once the buildings at the subagency site were abandoned, settlers quickly took advantage of the cleared land, established roads, and existing buildings by purchasing the former subagency land for their own settlement.
Turkey River Subagency Site Recorded as an Official Archaeological Site
In 1988, the Turkey River Winnebago Indian Subagency Site was recorded as an archaeological site in the state of Iowa. It was given the official site number of 13WH111 (“13” represents Iowa; “WH” represents Winneshiek County; 111 is the designated site number within Winneshiek County).
Winnebago Tribal Historian Visits the Subagency Site
On July 19, 1995, David Lee Smith was escorted to the military post and the 1840s subagency site by members of the Fort Atkinson Historic Preservation Commission. Smith is director of Indian Studies at Little Priest Tribal College, Winnebago, Nebraska, and also serves as Tribal Historian of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. David Lee Smith is an accomplished Winnebago professional storyteller. During the year long celebration of Iowa’s Sesquicentennial in 1996, Smith conducted traditional Winnebago oral history story-telling activities at the Sept. Ft. Atkinson rendezvous that year. On the day preceding rendezvous, identified as “School Day”, Mr. Smith shared tales of Winnebago myths & legends as well as historical & cultural information about the Winnebago Indians to over 1300 students from Iowa Schools.
Winnebago Indians
The Winnebago people called themselves Hochungra which means “People of the Parent Speech”, or “Big Fish People”. The origin of the tribe is not known although some theory supports the idea that the Winnebago’s migrated into North America from Middle America around 1000 B.C., and later arrived in Wisconsin about A.D. 700. Historical records from the French fur traders indicate that their first recorded contact with the Winnebago Indians occurred in Wisconsin in the early 1600s. At that time, the Winnebago numbered about 20,000 with most living around Lake Winnebago in the Green Bay area.
Around the year 1630, the Winnebago’s were at war with the Huron nation. Jean Nicolet, a French Jesuit, was sent to Lake Winnebago to help make peace between the tribes. Five years later, the Winnebago tribe contracted smallpox and shortly their population dropped to 16,000. In 1637, a smallpox and measles epidemic hit the tribe reducing their numbers to 8000.
In 1820 it is reported that the tribe consisted of 900 warriors, 1300 women, and 3600 children for a total of 5800 people. In 1834, yet another large smallpox epidemic killed off approximately 1500 members of the tribe.
Between 1825 and 1837, the government worked to acquire all the Indian lands on the east side of the Mississippi “River through a series of treaties made with the Winnebago. With the Treaty of 1837, the Winnebago gave up their final claim to land on the east side of the Mississippi River.
In the year 1840, the tribe was escorted by U. S. military soldiers into the “neutral ground” located in the Iowa Territory (what is now northeast Iowa). Total numbers of the Winnebago population and the number of villages they were located in within the ‘neutral ground’ is somewhat conflicting. According to a Winnebago Census taken in the year 1842 by J. W. Hancock, superintendent of the Turkey River Indian subagency school, the Winnebago’s totaled 2183 in number living in 13 different villages.
Subagency school superintendent, J. W. Hancock, listed the following Winnebago band chiefs, and the number of men, women and children within each village:
Bent Nose25252070
Big Nose476161169
Whirling Thunder506463177
Little Hill68114158340
Little Soldier435040133
Yellow Thunder515240143
Big Thunder503634120
Big Canoe405850148
Little Thunder405040130
Little Decorie28302280
Note: regarding the above chart – Nak-hawn is possibly ‘Waukon’.
In a letter dated August 15, 1846, sent from J. E. Fletcher, subagent at the Turkey River Subagency, to James Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affair’s, Fletcher reported that the Winnebago Indians numbered about 2400, living in 22 detached parties or bands. Fletcher also reported that each band had a chief, and that there were also about 75 half breeds living among the Indians at that time.
When Iowa became a state in December, 1846, the Winnebago were the only Indians “legally” remaining in eastern Iowa.
While each Winnebago band had its own chief, supposedly Chief Winneshiek was appointed (by the U.S. government) to lead the entire tribe. Chief Winneshiek remained a leader of one of the twenty-two bands.
Another band-chief was Chief Waukon-Decorah. David Lee Smith, the current Winnebago Tribal Historian on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska, is the great-great-great grandson of Chief Waukon-Decorah.
Chief Winneshiek
The principal home for Chief Winneshiek was located on the Root River located about seven (7) miles west of the village of Houston, Minnesota.
Winneshiek located his winter home on the Iowa River (now called the Upper Iowa River) so as to be closer to the sub-agency (located 3 miles south of the military post of Ft. Atkinson) where the members of his band could obtain monthly annuity supplies during the winter.
While Winneshiek, at first, served as the chief of one of the twenty-two bands of Winnebago, in the year 1845, at the Turkey River subagency, he was appointed the overall tribal chief.
Chief Winneshiek was called “Wa-kon-ja-good-gah”, which means “Coming Thunder”.
Military records indicate that he was a very shrewd, wise, and stubborn man, but free-hearted. No person ever left or entered the great chief’s lodge without receiving something to eat.
Winneshiek had four wives, who with himself and family, lived in one lodge.
Winneshiek County was legally named on February 27, 1847 with its boundaries then described. The name was in honor of the Winnebago tribal leader, Chief Winneshiek.
On January 15, 1851, an organizing act was approved by the Iowa governor, and Winneshiek was recognized as an organized county of 468,000 acres.
During the celebration of Iowa’s sesquicentennial in the year 1996, the Winneshiek County Sesquicentennial Commission adopted an official county flag that depicts Chief Winneshiek.
Northeast Iowa & U.S. History
Events from 1838-1855
1838 -Cherokee Indians made “Trail of Tears”; removed from Georgia to Oklahoma
1840- William Henry Harrison elected President of U. S.
1840- Construction of military post of Fort Atkins on begins
1840- Winnebago Indians of Wisconsin given military escort into the “neutral ground” of the N. E. Iowa Territory
1840-Turkey River Indian Subagency established
1841- John Tyler (VP) became President of the U. S.
1841- 1st Company of dragoons (horse mounted soldiers) arrived at Fort Atkinson
1841- According to J. W. Hancock, superintendent of the Turkey River Indian subagency school, the Winnebagoes within the “neutral ground” totaled 2183 in number living in 13 different villages
1843- A Catholic Mission was established next to a Winnebago village east of Fort Atkinson
1844- First message over first telegraph line sent May 24 by inventor Samuel F. B. Morse from Washington to Baltimore: “What hath God
1844- Jim Beckwourth discovered a pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains that led to California and the Pacific Ocean
1844- Telegraph put into operation
1845- James Polk inaugurated as President of the U. S.
1845- Texas became the 18th state
1846- Great Britain and the U. S. agreed to divide Oregon between the twocountries at the 49th parallel of latitude
1846- Discovery of ether as an anesthetic
1846- Sewing Machine is patented
1846-1848 - U. S. War with Mexico
1846- Iowa enters the Union
1846- Ft. Atkinson troops sent to fight in the Mexican-American War
1846- According to J. E. Fletcher, subagent at the Turkey River Subagency, the number of Winnebago Indians in the “neutral ground” totaled about 2400 living in 22 detached parties or bands
1847- Frederick Douglas publishes an anti-slavery newspaper in New York called “The North Star”
1847- First adhesive U. S. postage stamps on sale July 1st
1847- Mormon migration to the Great Salt Lake
1848- Zachary Taylor elected President
1848- Gold discovered in California
1848- Winnebago Indians removed from Iowa & taken into Minnesota
1848- The government abandoned the Turkey River Indian Subagency
1848- Seneca Falls, New York Convention for Women’s Rights
1849- Harriet Tubman escapes from slavery; becomes a conductor on the “Underground Railroad” helping other slaves escape to freedom
1849- Gold Rush to California
1849- Walter Hunt invented the safety pin
1849- Elizabeth Blackwell became the 1st U. S. woman to graduate from a medical college
1849- In February, the last company of infantry left Ft. Atkinson and the military post was abandoned
1855- On April 21, the first train crossed the Mississippi River on the rivers first railroad bridge which was between Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa
1855- The Fort Atkinson military post was sold to privateowners by public auction and the buildings were torn down 
Clink on the link below to read information on the Indian Tribes who lived in the area.

The Fort Preserve

The Military Post of Fort Atkinson

Historic Site: 13WH57


In the broader context, the story of the military post of Fort Atkinson is a story of the United States government policy in removing native Americans from the east side of the Mississippi River over to the west side.  In the narrower context, the story is about the life of the inhabitants of the 'neutral ground' of the northeast Iowa Territory from 1840-1848

The Winnebago Indians

Throughout the 1830s, the Winnebago resisted leaving their homelands in Wisconsin.  The region contained their tribal burial grounds, and the Winnebago also had concern for moving into the region near their old enemies, the Sioux.  General Henry Atkinson then suggested the idea of establishing a temporary fort along the Turkey River within the 'neutral ground'.  Atkinson supposedly promised that the U. S. military would provide protection to the Winnebago tribe from the Sioux tribe located to the north.  While the Fort was not really constructed for this purpose, the soldiers did monitor the location of the Sioux, and also kept settlers out of the "neutral ground" since they were prohibited from entering this territory reserved for the Winnebago.

Construction of the Fort Begins

The first log barracks of the fort were constructed in the year 1840.  The cold Iowa winters led to many desertions that first winter, so beginning in April, 1841, the first stone barracks were constructed.  Due to the difficulty the infantry (foot soldiers) had in monitoring the various Winnebago bands throughout the 'neutral ground', a unit of dragoons (soldiers mounted on horseback) arrived at the fort in June, 1841.

The Buildings Constructed at Fort Atkinson

Labor continued on the fort and by the fall of 1842 most of the work was completed.  A total of 24 buildings were erected.  Ten of these existed inside the stockade walls of the Fort, & included such buildings as two enlisted men's barracks, an officers' quarters, a non-commissioned officers' quarters, a commissary storehouse, a sutler's store, a powder house or powder magazine, two block houses (cannon houses) and a guardhouse.  Another 14 buildings were located outside the gates.  Some of these buildings included the stables, a granary, three laundresses' huts, a carpenter shop, a blacksmith shop, a bake house, root house, ice house, and three dragoon (mounted infantry) stables.

Main Army Units are Pulled form the Fort in 1846

In the year 1846, the regular army troops stationed at Fort Atkinson were sent to Mexico to fight in the Mexican-American War.  Volunteer troops then took over the manning of the Fort.

By the mid-1840s, the southeast Iowa Territory had been invaded by settlers, and shortly these pioneer farmers were located at the southern edge of the 'neutral ground'.  The government made the decision to move the Winnebago Indians out of the region and into Minnesota.  In 1846, the same year that Iowa was admitted as a state to the union, the Winnebago signed a treaty to relinquish their land within the neutral ground.  It would not be until June, 1848, that the military escort of the Winnebago into Minnesota was completed.  With no more Winnebago Indians left in the region, the last company of infantry soldiers left Fort Atkinson in February, 1849.

Aftermath of the Fort Site

In 1855, the Fort was sold to private owners by public auction, and the outside buildings were torn down.  It wasn't until the 1920s that he residents of the town of Fort Atkinson began to realize the role that the military fort in the community had played not only as a part of our country's history, but more specifically in the importance to local history.  Through efforts of local citizens, the Iowa Board of Conservation acquired the fort site in the 1920s.

Reconstruction of Foundations & Some Buildings

In June, 1940, workers remarked the foundations of the original buildings within the stockade.  In 1957, funds were appropriated which were used from 1958-1962 to reconstruct the north barracks into a visitor center, and the log stockade wall was partially reconstructed.   Due to rotting of the stockade wall poles, the stockade wall was replaced in the fall of 2006.

Fort Atkinson Becomes A State Preserve

In 1968, the Fort was dedicated as a State Preserve.  In 1976, the Iowa Conservation Commission, along with the Travel Development Division of the Iowa Development Commission, decided to develop a new program of promotion of interest areas on state-owned land in Iowa with Fort Atkinson being the starting point.

Previous Archaeological Investigations

Two previous archaeological investigations have been conducted at the Ft. Atkinson military post site.  In 1939-41, Sigurd S. Reque, a professor at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, conducted excavations at the fort.  The purpose of the investigation was to determine the exact locations of the building foundations located inside the stockade wall, and to collect artifacts for display at a State Museum within the fort.  A report on Reque's work was never published.

The second archaeological investigation was conducted by Dr. Marshall McKusick, then State Archaeologist of Iowa, in the summer of 1966.  McKusick dug outside the stockade wall and located the foundation of the bakehouse as indicated by Lieutenant A. W. Reynolds sketch of the post.  Reynolds made the sketch for the War Department in September, 1842.  McKusick then excavated the officer's latrines inside the stockade wall.  Artifacts associated with the latter part of the fort's occupation were discovered.  McKusick never published the findings of his excavations.

Fort Atkinson ‘Self-Guided Walking Tour Brochure

In the year 2008, the Fort Atkinson Historic Preservation Commission was awarded a $5505 grant from the Winneshiek County Gaming Revenue Committee for development of a 'self-guided-walking-tour-brochure' to be available to visitors to the military post grounds and for development of two 'teaching trunks' of historic Fort Akinson materials/artifact replicas/military elements/Winnebago/Ho-Chunk Indian cultural items that could be check out by schools and other organizations.

The project was conducted by personnel from the Office of the State Archaeologist in Iowa City with assistance from the Fort Atkinson Historic Preservation Commission members. OSA staff that developed the brochure included Lynn Alex, Cherie Haury-Artz, and Angela R. Collins.
Since the current military post grounds are not staffed during the week and the State Museum on the post grounds is only open weekend afternoons during the summer, visitors to the grounds can now have access to the historical aspects of the fort by picking up a copy of the Walking Tour Brochure when they enter the fort.

The brochure gives a history of the 1840s military post and specific information on over fifteen stopping points on the grounds.
One side of the brochure contains a large water color painting by Deanne Wortman showing the layout of the fort buildings in its heyday. Numbered stops guide visitors to the location of reconstructed structures such as blockhouses, the North Barracks (now the museum) and the stockade.

Images on the brochure such as dominoes, a jaw harp, buttons and artifacts found by archaeologists on the post grounds help create a sense of the Fort's residents and their everyday lives.

The teaching trunks contain replicas of period artifacts and educational resources that can be utilized in the elementary grades of regional schools. The lessons and activities are excellent sources for use in social studies and history units on the 1840s military post of Fort Atkinson and the Winnebago/H-Chunk Indian history in the 'neutral ground'.

Visitors to the fort are encouraged to pick up a copy of the brochure to get a detailed story of the military post and the current sites on the grounds.

  Self Guided Walking Tour Brochure of the Fort Atkinson Fort