2006-06-10 / Top News

State Park Historians Hope To Buy Rare Collection From 1831

By Karen Gould

Commandant William Whistler Commandant William Whistler A rare portrait of William Whistler, who served as a commandant at Fort Mackinac in 1833, is part of a collection the Mackinac Island State Park Commission hopes to purchase, if it can raise $54,000.

"The portrait was likely done when he was serving at Fort Niagara," around 1831, said Steve Brisson, the chief curator at Mackinac State Historic Parks.

The painting is one of three items in the collection that is owned by a Canadian antique dealer who acquired the pieces from Commandant Whistler's granddaughter. Also included is a silver Indian trading piece Mr. Brisson calls a gorget. The gorget contains an engraving depicting Winnebago Chief Red Bird surrendering to Commandant Whistler. Two of Commandant Whistler's pistols, housed in a wooden box, round out the collection. The pistols were made in 1820 by Stewart Meyer of London.

Phil Porter, director of Mackinac State Historic Parks, said the antique dealer is asking $60,000 in Canadian funds for the collection, about $54,000 in U.S. dollars, which he said is a reasonable price for all three pieces.

Commandant Whistler's pistols were made in 1820. Commandant Whistler's pistols were made in 1820. Chief Red Bird surrendered to Mr. Whistler when he was commandant at Fort Howard in Green Bay during the Winnebago War of the 1820s.

"This is a significant event in Northwest history," said Mr. Brisson, and, in fact, there is a mural on the wall in the Governor's Room in the Wisconsin State Capitol Building that depicts the surrender of Chief Red Bird.

Mr. Porter said the portrait likely once hung in Fort Mackinac's Stone Quarters.

Commandant Whistler, who was an officer at Fort Mackinac in 1823, left the post, but returned as its commandant in 1833.

"He was a significant officer in the U.S. Army," said Mr. Brisson. "He served for over 60 years and when he retired in 1861, he was a full colonel."

Unsigned by the artist, the portrait is attributed to Grove Sheldon Gilbert, a famous portrait painter who worked in western New York in the early 19th century. To make the identification, art experts compared the work to hundreds of other

paintings by the artist, who did not sign his other portraits, either.

A silver Indian trading piece depicting the Winnebago Chief Red Bird surrendering to Commandant Whistler. A silver Indian trading piece depicting the Winnebago Chief Red Bird surrendering to Commandant Whistler. Mr. Gilbert was known to be painting in the Niagara area at the time Mr. Whistler was at Fort Niagara.

"All experts are 99 percent sure this was painted by Gilbert in 1931," said Mr. Brisson.

Park staff became aware of the collection from Mackinac Island cottager and historian Brian Dunnigan, who is curator of maps and head of research and publications at the Clements Library at the University of Michigan. Several years ago while Mr. Dunnigan was the director of Fort Niagara, the collection was offered to the fort, though it never was purchased. He recently heard the

collection is still for sale and passed the information on to the park.

The collection passed through several generations of the Whistler family before it was sold to the Canadian antique dealer.

"This is an outstanding opportunity for us to add significant objects to our collection," Mr. Brisson said.

Mr. Porter said Mackinac State Historic Parks has about $20,000 available for the purchase, and hopes to raise the balance this summer. Meanwhile, the Canadian dealer has agreed to hold the collection.

If acquired, the items would be displayed at Fort Mackinac in the Soldiers Barracks.

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