Updated: Jun 26
I am a philatelist – a stamp collector. I like all aspects of philately, but I particularly enjoy acquiring old envelopes and letters not only for the stamps and postmarks they contain but for their contents. It is the history of the people behind those envelopes and letters that is so intriguing.
Stamp collectors, especially those who specialize in collecting classic postal covers, are curators of historical artifacts. The items we acquire are ours only for a brief period. It is incumbent on us to not only celebrate what we have in our collections, but to safeguard those items for future collectors and historians. I was reminded of that duty when I acquired the stampless folded letter shown in Figures 1 and 2.
This three-page folded letter has some interesting philatelic features, but its contents are quite extraordinary. It captures a moment in the early history of northeast Wisconsin and mentions several individuals who participated in the region’s development.
“R.S. Satterlee” wrote this letter at Fort Winnebago on March 20, 1833. He addressed the letter to “Rev. Absalom Peters” in New York City.
Fort Winnebago was a fortification constructed in 1828 at the portage between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers some 120 miles southwest of Green Bay. At the time, this area was part of the Michigan Territory, a huge expanse that encompassed the present-day states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and the eastern halves of North and South Dakota.
The letter has a circular date stamp with the characters “Fort-Winnebago M.T.” (“M.T.” for Michigan Territory) around the edge and a manuscript “Mar 22” in the middle. The earliest known use of this postmark was March 16, 1832.
There is no stamp on this letter, but there is a manuscript “Paid 25” written boldly across the top. This letter was sent during the so-called “stampless era.” The first U.S. postage stamps were not issued until 1847, but the U.S. Post Office Department (USPOD) did exist prior to that. Indeed, the USPOD was established in 1792. National postage rates were set by the U.S. Congress and were based on the weight and distance a letter traveled. This letter was subject to the highest rate: 25-cents for a one-ounce or less letter traveling 400 miles or more. That would be equivalent to paying almost $10 to mail this letter in 2023!
Two days after he started the letter, “R.S Satterlee” took it to the Fort Winnebago post office where he paid his 25-cents postage. A clerk noted the payment and applied the fort’s postmark and wrote in the date – “Mar 22.” The letter would then have traveled up the Fox River to Green Bay and then likely by steamboat through the Great Lakes to the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825. From the western terminus of the Erie Canal, it was a quick trip across upstate New York and then down the Hudson River to New York City. The letter arrived in New York City on April 19, 1833, just short of a month after it was dispatched (Figure 3).
That is all remarkably interesting, for sure, but the "wow" factor for me is the story this letter tells.
Dr. Richard Sherwood Satterlee, “One of the Pioneers of Wisconsin”
“R.S. Satterlee” was Dr. Richard Sherwood Satterlee (Figure 4), a 34-year-old Army surgeon. Dr. Satterlee had been stationed at Fort Winnebago since November 1831. Dr. Satterlee has been in the Army for nearly a decade before he was stationed at Fort Winnebago, but his Army career was only just starting. Born in New York in 1798, Dr. Satterlee would serve his country for 47 years, from 1822 to 1869, and serve at Army posts in the upper Midwest and Florida and would participate in the Black Hawk War (when he was stationed at Fort Winnebago), the Mexican-American War, and the American Civil War. He survived the sinking of a steamboat off the coast of New York in the early 1850s. He oversaw the introduction of the "Satterlee bone saw" during the Civil War (which is still used today for amputations), although he had no role in its invention. His service was so well regarded that the Union's largest hospital during the Civil War was named after him: Satterlee General Hospital in Philadelphia, which cared for over 50,000 sick and wounded Union soldiers primarily from the battles of Second Manassas and Gettysburg. He died at age 82 in 1880 in New York City and was buried at Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum. The attendance at his funeral was not large, but General Ulysses S. Grant was among the pallbearers.
Dr. Satterlee spent about eight years in Wisconsin, serving at both Fort Winnebago and Fort Howard in Green Bay. He left Wisconsin for the last time in 1836, but when word of his passing reached Green Bay in 1880, he was remembered fondly. The Green Bay Weekly Gazette of December 11, 1880, said that when cholera hit the area in 1834, "his valuable services were called into requisition and freely given for the relief of the afflicted. His charitable disposition knew no discrimination between rich and poor, all alike receiving his kind and considerate attentions." The obituary continued, "Dr. Satterlee was also a sincere and devoted member of the Presbyterian communion and was associated with the founders of the first church of that denomination in the state." The tribute to Dr. Satterlee closed:
He became by his intimate intercourse with our citizens so much identified with the early history of Green Bay, that we may well claim him as one of the pioneers of Wisconsin, and his civic services, at a period when they were invaluable, should be held in grateful remembrance.
While Dr. Satterlee had been assigned to Fort Winnebago in 1831, it does not appear that he was a regular occupant of the fort until early 1833. The fort’s records show that he was in Green Bay for a spell and returned to Fort Winnebago on a seasonably chilly day in early February 1833.  The subject of the letter – obtaining a minister for the fort – had been on his mind for quite some time, however. About six weeks after returning to Fort Winnebago and realizing his position there was permanent (or as permanent as matters can be in the military), Dr. Satterlee finally got around to making his request for a minister to Reverend Absalom Peters (Figure 5), the corresponding secretary of the American Home Missionary Society (AHMS).
While I never heard of Dr. Satterlee, I had heard of Rev. Peters. At the time I purchased this item, I was reading Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden History of America's Cemeteries, by Greg Melville. Chapter 12 of his book is about Woodlawn Cemetery, which was established in the Bronx in 1863. Rev. Peters, it turns out, laid the groundwork for this cemetery in 1853, and he killed it financially on what was, in effect, a crafty real estate transaction (pun completely intended).
But well before getting into the cemetery business, Rev. Peters, who was born in New Hampshire in 1793, was deeply engaged in missionary work for the Congregational Church. After serving as a missionary in upstate New York and as pastor of a church in Vermont, he took on the role of secretary for the AHMS, a position he held from the AHMS's founding in 1826 to 1837. He also served as editor of the AHMS's publication, Home Missionary and Pastor's Journal, during that time.
“This Post is Delightfully Situated”
The letter that Dr. Satterlee sent to Rev. Peters is written in a clear and steady hand (Figures 6 through 8). The two crossed paths on a steamboat that plied the Great Lakes in the early 1830s and at some stage stopped in Cleveland. It was there that Dr. Satterlee promised to write to Rev. Peters.
Dr. Satterlee was quite pleased that when he returned to Fort Winnebago, he discovered that the officers were striving to obtain a minister for the post. Dr. Satterlee offered to write to Rev. Peters, which the officers empowered him to do.
He informed Rev. Peters that a minister would be well supported with room and board and a stipend of $300 per year. As for room, the minister would stay six months each year with Dr. Satterlee and his wife, Mary, and the other six months with their neighbor, "John H. Kinzie Esq. the United States Agent for the Winnebago Indians."
The record on Mary Satterlee (Figure 9) is sparce. She was born as Mary Hunt in Massachusetts in 1806. Where and when she met Dr. Satterlee is unknown, but they were married in Detroit in 1827. The census records showed that she moved as Dr. Satterlee was reassigned, finally settling in New York City after he retired from the Army in 1869. She passed away there in 1883 and was buried with her husband. The couple had no children, and their estate was passed down to a nephew. It is unfortunate that more is not known about Mary’s life because it could not have been easy being the wife of an Army officer posted to the American frontier.
Dr. Satterlee described the Kinzie's as a "very fine family. Mrs. Kinzie a member of the Episcopal Church. Mr. Kinzie a friend of religion but not a professor." By "not a professor," Dr. Satterlee meant that Mr. Kinzie was not a churchgoer.
The Kinzie's were a famous pioneer family. John Harris Kinzie (1803-1865) (Figure 10) was the son of John Kinzie, one of the original settlers of Chicago. He moved his family there when John Harris was only a year old. After working for the American Fur Company (organized by John Jacob Astor, a figure of some importance in Green Bay’s development) and as an Indian agent throughout the 1820s and into the early 1830s, John Harris returned to Chicago in 1833 where he became a prosperous businessperson.
Juliette Kinzie (1806-1870) (Figure 11) – “Mrs. Kinzie” to Dr. Satterlee - was an amazing woman. Born Juliette Magill in Connecticut, her family moved to Chicago in 1810 where she met and eventually married John Harris. After she returned to Chicago in 1833 with John Harris, she helped found St. James Church, which is now the oldest Episcopal congregation in Chicago. She and her husband also helped found St. Luke's Hospital and what is now the Chicago History Museum. Mrs. Kinzie was the author of several books, the best known being Wau-Bun: The Early Day in the North West. That book is available online and from used bookstores.
Dr. Satterlee then goes into some detail about the type of individual he thinks will succeed as minister at Fort Winnebago. The person needs to have "liberal principles," which Dr. Satterlee thinks is important because most of the religious people at the fort are Episcopalians, not Congregationalists. The candidate needs to be someone who "understands human nature well." Ideally, the minister will be well-educated, preferably at Princeton and not at Andover Seminary, whose students, according to Dr. Satterlee, are narrow-minded and unpleasant preachers. With those characteristics, the individual should be "aggregable to and respected by the officers," but even then, he should be prepared for a little trouble now and again.
While he does read the Bible to the fort’s occupants on occasion, Dr. Satterlee bemoans the general lack of attention to the spiritual needs of soldiers, especially when compared to sailors. He ends the letter with a request for a subscription to the Home Missionary and Pastor's Journal and with assurances that, "This post is delightfully situated on the east side of the Fox River. Your missionary will be very friendly treated here and will have every comfort. The climate is a very healthy one." Before his own salutation, he states, “Mrs. Satterlee desires to be kindly remembered to you.”
What came of Dr. Satterlee's request? Based on Volume 6-7 of the Home Missionary and Pastor's Journal from 1834, Dr. Satterlee received a reply from Rev. Peters dated July 27, 1833. In that journal is the reply that Dr. Satterlee sent to Rev. Peters in which he writes:
It gave me great pleasure to receive your letter of July 27th...and I assure you, it was a source of gratification to the officers and their families...that there seemed some prospect that a minister would be sent to them.
It is true, there is an Episcopal clergyman within a few miles of us, Mr. Williams, and the Rev. R.F. Cadle is expected back before long...but we rarely hear them preach here, and we want a man to be entirely devoted to the garrison.
“Mr. William” was most likely Reverend Eleazer Williams (Figure 12), a fascinating individual whose biography is well worth reading. Rev. Williams (1788-1858) was a Congregational and Episcopalian clergyman (his religious affiliations were fluid) who in 1819 and 1820 reportedly led the migration of the Oneida from upstate New York (where they were being pushed out by white settlers) to the Green Bay area and negotiated with the local Winnebago (or Ho-Chunk) and Menominee for the right of the Oneida to settle there. Rev. Williams lived in Green Bay until 1834. He died in 1858 in New York, but in 1947 his tombstone and remains were moved to the Holy Apostles Cemetery in Oneida, Wisconsin.
“Rev. R.F. Cadel” was Reverend Richard Fish Cadel (1796-1857) who was sent to Green Bay in 1829 by the Episcopal Church’s missionary society. He was ordered to Green Bay to revive a school started by a previous missionary and establish a parish. Rev. Cadel, along with his sister Sarah, were successful, and Christ Episcopal Church was incorporated in 1829. Christ Episcopal is still operating, albeit not in its original building.
It's surprising that Dr. Satterlee, who left Fort Winnebago in September 1833 to assume a new position at Fort Howard, did not mention to Rev. Peters a visit to Fort Winnebago in the late spring of 1833 by Rev. Aratus Kent (1794-1869), a Presbyterian minister from Galena, Illinois (Figure 13). It was surprising since Rev. Kent was assigned to Galena by the AHMS, Rev. Peters' organization, in 1827. It was doubly surprising because the services conducted by Rev. Kent were held in the hospital where Dr. Satterlee worked.
Rev. Kent certainly made an impression on Mrs. Kinzie. She writes in Wau-Bun that the garrison at Fort Winnebago was excited over the arrival of Rev. Kent and his wife. She writes:
This event is memorable as being the first occasion on which the gospel, according to the Protestant faith, was preached at Fort Winnebago. The large parlor of the hospital was fitted up for the service, and gladly did we say to each other: ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ For nearly three years had we lived here without the blessing of a public service of praise and thanksgiving. We regarded this commencement as an omen of better times, and our little ‘sewing society’ worked with renewed industry to raise funds which might be available hereafter in securing the permanent services of a missionary.
I do not know if a minister was ever assigned to Fort Winnebago, but the fort was abandoned in 1845.
After he left his position at the AHMS in 1837, Rev. Peters became a professor of pastoral theology at a seminary in New York, served as pastor of a church in Massachusetts, authored religious books and a volume of poems, and helped establish Woodlawn Cemetery. He died at age 75 in 1869 in New York and is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. No surprise there.
I am a philatelist, and I enjoy learning about the design and printing of stamps and how postal items have been transported throughout the world from the stampless era through today. But for me, philately is so much more than that. It is learning something about people from long ago who used stamps and the postal system and then preserving and sharing that knowledge with future generations of collectors. I consider that a privilege but also a duty, and I am sure many stamp collectors feel the same.
 Author acquired the item at an H.R. Harmer auction held October 26-27, 2022. This item had been in the William B. Robinson Collection of Wisconsin Postal History. American Stampless Cover Catalog, Volume 1, 5th Edition, David G. Publishing Co. Inc., 1997, p. 439.  “Richard Sherwood Satterlee (1796-1880), Brevet Brigadier General, U.S. Army,” Phalen, James M., Army Medical Bulletin, No. 47 (Jan. 1939), pp. 82-85. https://stimson.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15290coll6/id/543/.  “Satterlee General Hospital: The Union’s Largest Hospital,” American Battlefield Trust. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/satterlee-general-hospital. The New York Times, November 14, 1880, p. 8. Green Bay Weekly Gazette, December 11, 1880, p. 3.  United States. Army. Hospital Department. Diary of Weather at Fort Niagara, 1823-1826, and Fort Winnebago, 1828-1842, p. 174. Online facsimile at http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/u?/tp,56407.  “Peters, Absalom, D.D.,” The Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, James Strong and John McClintock, 1880. https://www.biblicalcyclopedia.com/P/peters-absalom-dd.html.  “A True Pioneer Couple – John H. and Juliette Kinzie,” Pamela S. Meyers, April 4, 2021. https://www.hhhistory.com/2021/04/a-true-pioneer-couple-john-h-and.html.  Wikipedia contributors, "Juliette Augusta Magill Kinzie," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Juliette_Augusta_Magill_Kinzie&oldid=1160862878 (accessed June 23, 2023).  Home Missionary and American Pastor's Journal. United States: American Home Missionary Society, 1834, Vol, 6-7, p. 130. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Home_Missionary_and_American_Pastor_s_Jo/_iSy2toGc6AC?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false. Philippe Sylvain, “WILLIAMS, ELEAZER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 23, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/williams_eleazer_8E.html. Christ Episcopal Church (Green Bay, Wis.) Records, 1829-1973, Wisconsin Historical Society. http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/wiarchives.uw-whs-micr0610.  WikiTree, Aratus Kent (1794-1869). https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Kent-8648. Kinzie, Juliette. Wau-Bun: The Early Day in the Northwest. United States: Applewood Books, 2010, pp. 376-377. ------------------------------------
Text of letter:
Portage of the Fox & Wisconsin Rivers
March 20th, 1833
Since we parted at Cleveland, I have failed to fulfill my promise of writing you in consequence of not knowing where I should be permanently located until my arrival at this post last month where to my great joy, I found the officers stationed here have made exertions to obtain a Minister and when I proposed to them to send to your Society, they immediately empowered me to address you on the subject in their behalf. Therefore, I solicit your early attention to it and trust that you will as soon as possible send us a Minister.
We have pledged for his support, his board and three hundred dollars a year. This we are sure of and it is probable more may be raised. This however depends upon circumstances – he is to live six months of the year in my family and the other six months in the family of John H. Kinzie Esq. the United States Agent for the Winnebago Indians who resides very near us. They are a very fine family. Mrs. Kinzie a member of the Episcopal Church. Mr Kinzie a friend of religion but not a professor.
There are in the fort five professors of religion all of the Protestant Episcopal Church except Mrs S and myself. I thought it proper to state this fact as it might have some weight in the selection of a minister to send us. They are however unprejudicial I think – their object is to get a man of talents, of gentlemanly deportment, of liberal principles. (I mean with respect to sects) and above all of ardent piety. I need not say to you how important it is that he should be a man of education and one that can make himself agreeable to and respected by the officers. If he succeeds in this, he will find this place a very pleasant one, but he should make up his mind not to be alarmed at a little trouble of any kind.
There is I think a prejudice existing here against the Andover students on account of their general unpleasant manners in the (illegible). It is also thought they are more narrow minded than those from Princeton so that I think one from the latter institution other things being equal would be preferred but you are the best to judge. If you find the right kind of a man for us do not let the place he comes from be an objection. I feel very anxious that whoever you send should (illegible) for I am confident that he will be the means of doing either great good or great harm to the best of causes. I most constantly pray and I cannot but hope that God will bless this effort to the satisfaction of many precious souls here.
This garrison is composed of four companies of the 5th Infantry under the command of the Lt. Colonel of the Regiment and when they are full will contain nearly three hundred souls, too many to be without having the Gospel preached to them. I think some of the men are in an interesting state of mind, a few I hope enquiring the way to Zions. I read a (illegible) in the forenoon on the Sabbath in the Hospital, and in the evening a chapter in the Bible with Dr. Scotts Notes & Practical Observations in one of the company quarters. But what can I do my dear Sir & send us (illegible) we need it as much as the inhabitants of Macedonia did. When will the religious community awake to the wants of soldiers dispersed as they are over our widely extended frontiers. They are certainly as destitute of religious institutions and as much in want of it of as sailors for whom so much is done. These remote garrisons should no longer be neglected not that I think less should be done for sailors but much more for soldiers.
You will recollect our conversation on board the Steam Boat with respect to the qualifications necessary for a minister to do good in the Army. I think he should understand human nature well. Would it not be better that he should have some experience in the ministerial offices.
I did not write to the Secretary of War upon the subject of Chaplains for the Army. It was too late before I got settled. I wish something might be done by the government but the subject seems to me to be surrounded with many difficulties. If the government would appropriate a sum of money for each post sufficient for the support of a chaplain and leave the selection to the officers I think much good would be done, but this I fear cannot be.
I will thank you to send directly to me at this post The Home Missionary & American Pastors Journal. I will send money by a gentleman who leaves here soon for New York.
This post is delightfully situated on the east side of the Fox River. Your missionary will be very friendly treated here and will have every comfort. The climate is a very healthy one.
Mrs. Satterlee desires to be kindly remembered to you.
I am dear sir with Christian affection yours,
Rev. Absalom Peters
Corresponding Secretary of
Home Missionary Society
Figure 1 - Front
Figure 2 - Back
Figure 3 - Unfolded letter
Figure 4 – Richard Sherwood Satterlee, circa 1860-1865. Photo by Matthew Brady. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gen._Richard_S._Satterlee_-_NARA_-_528545.tif.
Figure 5 – Reverend Absalom Peters, 1858. Source: https://www.wikitree.com/photo/png/Peters-4230.
Figure 6 - Page 1 of 3 of the letter
Figure 7 - Page 2 of 3 of the letter
Figure 8 - Page 3 of 3 of the letter
Figure 9 – Mary Satterlee, 1827. Anonymous. Source: https://digitalcollections.frick.org/digico/#/
Figure 10 – John Harris Kinzie. Source: Chicago: Its History and Its Builders, J. Seymour Currey, 1910, p. 6. https://archive.org/details/chicagoitshistor00curr/page/4/mode/1up?view=theater.
Figure 11 – Juliette Kinzie, photograph of an oil painting made in 1855 by G.P.A. Healey. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society. https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Image/IM2398.
Figure 12 – Reverend William Eleazar, attributed to Giuseppe Fagnani, 1853, oil on canvas, from the National Portrait Gallery. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eleazer_Williams,_attributed_to_Giuseppe_Fagnani,_1853,_oil_on_canvas,_from_the_National_Portrait_Gallery_-_NPG-NPG_75_40Williams_int.jpg. Figure 13 – Reverend Aratus Kent. Source: https://www.wikitree.com/photo/jpg/Kent-8648#location.
Figure 13 – Reverend Aratus Kent. Source: https://www.wikitree.com/photo/jpg/Kent-8648#location.