June 03, 2013
Knox College faculty member Catherine Denial recently presented her research into an unusual 1840 divorce that reveals a great deal about the social, political, and cultural upheaval of the Wisconsin Territory in the mid-19th century.
Denial, associate professor of history, delivered Knox's 2013 Edgar S. and Ruth W. Burkhardt Lecture in History. Her presentation was titled, "More Questions Than Answers: The Strange Case of Margaret McCoy's 1840 Divorce."
Divorce was "hard to come by" in that era because North Americans believed that "good government and an orderly household, created by marriage, went hand-in-hand," Denial said.
"The territorial, state, and federal governments of the United States were built upon a particular vision of civic responsibility - that men, as heads of households, entered civic life on behalf of their dependents: wives, children, servants, and slaves," she explained. "To sever the bonds of matrimony, therefore, undermined male control of women and children, and caused social disorder."
Still, Margaret McCoy, who was part Ojibwe, and her husband, fur trader Joseph Brown, received a divorce through an act of the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature. According to the legislature's act, the reason was "because of the hostile incursions of Sioux Indians" against the couple.
Through her research into the divorce case, Denial uncovered details about the westward expansion of the United States in the Upper Midwest and the interactions among fur traders, Native peoples, settlers, missionaries, and military personnel.
"Exactly why Joseph and Margaret were permitted to divorce may remain a mystery," she said, "but the stories that surround their divorce reveal much about a region in flux."
The Burkhardt Lecture Series features work by members of the history department at Knox College. Denial's lecture was sponsored by the Edgar S. and Ruth W. Burkhardt Fund for History. Knox College alumni Richard and Dorothy Burkhardt, members of the Class of 1939, established the fund in memory of Mr. Burkhardt's parents.
A member of the Knox faculty since 2005, Denial's research interests include marriage, gender, sexuality, race and nation-building in the 19th-century United States. Her book, Making Marriage: Husbands, Wives, and the American State in Dakota and Ojibwe Country, is forthcoming this August from the Minnesota Historical Society Press.