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As a fourth-year graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Joshua McGonagle Althoff ’19 did not expect to add a major publication to his CV before finishing his degree. But divine luck and the Organization of American Historians intervened—earlier this year, McGonagle Althoff was awarded the 2023 Louis Pelzer Memorial Award, given annually for the best essay in American history by a graduate student. His essay, “Peeyankihšiaki Neighbor Management: Narrating Johnson v. McIntosh within a Longer History of Piankashaw Community Building” will be published in the Journal of American History next year.
When McGonagle Althoff came to Knox, history wasn’t even on his radar. He planned to major in creative writing, but his assigned academic advisor was Associate Professor of History Danielle Steen Fatkin, and she proved to be a very persuasive influence. “Professor Fatkin encouraged me to take a course with her and I caught the bug,” he said. During his junior year, he began to think about his senior honors project. He applied for funding through the ASSET program and used his research funds to dig into a famous Virginia frontiersman named George Rogers Clark. Clark kept a journal, and this piqued McGonagle Althoff’s interest, as it combined his two loves, creative writing and history.
He set out to work with Clark’s journal as part of his Knox honors project. But as he dug deeper into the research, he found himself pulled in a different direction. “Eventually, I became less enthused with Clark the man and more interested in how historians are enunciating his story,” he says. His research led him to George Rogers Clark National Historical Park in Vincennes, Indiana, and a huge monument to Clark on the site. When McGonagle Althoff visited, he immediately noticed a discrepancy. “Unlike Clark’s journals, which record him interfacing with native people all the time, the monument does not mention indigenous people at all,” he said. That disconnect became the focus of his research and he started to dig into the history of Clark’s interactions with the Piankashaw people. This work became his honors thesis and, eventually, led him to his current focus.
He has found a wonderful, supportive home at the University of Minnesota, which is known for having a very collaborative Indigenous Studies program. “We are really encouraged to do research with tribes to be accountable,” McGonagle Althoff said. “I’m a settler scholar, and I am deeply grateful to be given the opportunity to meet with tribal officers and develop relationships.”
These relationships were a major influence on his award-winning essay, which explores how, throughout the 18th century, the Piankashaw people incorporated and managed new villages, trade routes, and non-Piankashaw people into their homelands in contemporary Illinois and Indiana. Drawing on indigenous sources and ways of knowing, McGonagle Althoff challenges the arguments made in legal documents and court cases that the Peeyankihšiaki had purportedly sold their land to the United Illinois and Wabash Land Companies in 1775. His argument pairs the United Land Companies’ memorial to Congress with colonial French sources to demonstrate that the Peeyankihšiaki did not intend to leave their homelands and negotiated with the intent of granting the right to live within Myaamionki (Miami homelands) rather than the right to own it.
McGonagle Althoff believes that his time at Knox prepared him for success in graduate school. “I think one of the reasons that I have been able to succeed in my program is precisely because I was a double major,” he said. “The focus on creative writing turned out to be really helpful in thinking through how to incorporate edits, how to structure drafts, and how to just get words on the page.” He also speaks highly of the collaborative writing environment he encountered at Knox. “It turns out that workshops are omnipresent in grad school but few others had steady experience doing them. I came in and felt comfortable in that space immediately,” he said.
As he works toward finishing his dissertation, McGonagle Althoff hopes to continue working with tribes. Being able to work closely with the Miami tribe has been a highlight of his graduate school experience. With just a year left in his program, he hopes to eventually return to Illinois, and, perhaps, to Knox. “I did so much growing at Knox,” he said. “I was free to explore things that would end up being incredibly influential in my personal and professional trajectory. I loved my experience at Knox. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Published on May 12, 2023