Peter Shrake at Historic Indian Agency House

Historian and author Peter Shrake answers community members' questions Wednesday about the fur trade in the American frontier in the early 19th century. The Historic Indian Agency House in Portage is hosting several speakers this month to educate the public on the local community's ties to significant historical events.

Decades before a population boom when Chicago was still a cluster of huts in the early 1800s, the American fur trade was thriving in the western Great Lakes areas, with Portage at the geographical center and a key outpost.

Historian and author Peter Shrake spoke about the importance of the American Fur Company to Portage’s history during a visit Wednesday night to the Historic Indian Agency House.

His visit was the first of four events in a speaker series this month at the museum aimed at educating the public on the importance of fur trading in local history.

“It’s fun to learn about what happened in this area in the past,” Historic Indian Agency House Curator Adam Novey said. “Being able to see how decisions were made in the past, how people work, is all part of history.”

Novey said the museum’s staff began planning this month’s events and seeking visitors to speak in November. The aim, he said, is to preserve artifacts while also educating people as to why those artifacts are important.

The Portage museum provided support to Shrake while he wrote a book titled, “Silver Man,” chronicling the 19th century life of local historical figure and Native American agent John Kinzie.

“I’m always happy to come here,” Shrake said. “This is one of my favorite historical sites in the state.”

By researching and sharing historical events and figures, Shrake said people can better understand why current events are happening and how communities are rooted in the nation’s history.

“History doesn’t operate in a vacuum,” Shrake said.

Shrake added he’s glad to see Portage residents are interested in learning more about local history.

Because Native Americans played a key role in Portage’s fur trading history and are still members of the community today, it’s important for other people to come out and learn more about the impact of their values, culture and customs, Shrake said.

The schedule of events runs through July 31. Each Wednesday, a speaker will visit the museum at 6:30 p.m. to speak about different aspects of fur trading and Portage community history.

  • On July 17, Ho-Chunk tribal member and emerita academic librarian Janice Rice will talk about how Ho Chunk values and culture shaped the fur trade.
  • Herman Bender on July 24 will share the role various geopolitical forces played in early fur trading in the American frontier.
  • On July 31, Ryan Howel will present his findings on how fur trading affected the overall archaeology of Portage.

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