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There’s never been ‘traditional marriage’ in Minnesota, says author Catherine Denial

But the origins of marriage in Minnesota had little to do with matters of the heart or the pulpit, says scholar Denial.

Catherine Denial

Last year at this time, Minnesota was deep in a heated debate over whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Those in favor suggested that marriage was a human right and love between consenting adults transcended gender norms. The opposition cited religious dictates and disruption to tradition. But the origins of marriage in Minnesota had little to do with matters of the heart or the pulpit, says scholar Catherine Denial, who has closely watched the marriage debates of recent times, while studying the role marriage played in the development of the Upper Midwest.

“It drove me a little nuts that those debates were informed by so little history. Claims that marriage had ‘always’ been one way or another ignored enormous changes in the history of marriage over time,” she says. Her new book, “Making Marriage: Husbands, Wives & the American State in Dakota & Ojibwe Country” (Minnesota Historical Society Press), explores the history of marriage in the United States through the stories of early Minnesotans who played a critical role in shaping the rules and laws that have defined marriage across the nation in the years since.

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In a series of case studies, her book explores marriage as it functioned for fur traders, explorers, missionaries and native communities. A chapter features Pelagie Faribault, the Dakota wife of the famous French fur trader Jean-Baptiste Faribault. Through a complicated set of circumstances, Pelagie became the legal owner of Pike Island during a time when women and native people weren’t landowners — and she entered into a battle beyond death with the U.S. government to keep her land. Another chapter investigates the divorce of Margaret McCoy, who took two calves, two sows and “a dozen Dung-hill fowl” as her share of the marital assets in one of the first and most influential divorces in the young territory.

The wives of the missionaries who came to the Minnesota territory to convert the Dakota and Ojibwe are given a chapter, too, as Denial follows Mary Riggs into Dakota territory and observes the marriage customs of the native population in the 1830s. The sum of these stories illustrates that marriage has meant different things to different people, and served different purposes from those it does today in a country that was still figuring out what “equality” meant, much less marriage.

MinnPost: You’ve studied and taught American studies and women’s history, so I imagine you’ve sifted a great deal of research. What tidbit of information inspired this book?

Catherine Denial: As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I researched the legal status of women in Wisconsin territory. This involved many hours in the basement of the library, scrolling through microfilm copies of all the laws passed by the territories of Michigan and Wisconsin, both of which, at one time or another, had jurisdiction in the region. While reading these laws, I came across a law which divorced Margaret McCoy, a half-Ojibwe woman, from her American husband, Joseph Brown. The law said that the two were granted a divorce because of “the hostile incursions of Sioux Indians” against them. I didn’t know very much about legal history at the time, but it seemed to me that situation was better solved by moving than by getting a divorce. So in my Ph.D. research I set out to try and answer the question of why Joseph and Margaret were allowed to divorce at all. Everything else I found out — about Pelagie Faribault, about the women at Fort Snelling, about the missionaries who traveled to the region — was as a consequence of trying to explain that divorce.

MP: When did you know it would center on Minnesota?

CD: I quickly learned that while Joseph and Margaret had gone to the Wisconsin territorial legislature to get their divorce, they actually lived on the other side of the Mississippi River, in unorganized territory that would one day become Minnesota. All of their family connections in the region were in Minnesota; their whole lives had been spent in Minnesota. But to get a legislative divorce, they had to say they lived in the territory across the river.

MP: Pelagie Faribault, a Dakota woman who owned Pike Island, was remarkable. Yet she’s been largely forgotten. Why didn’t she have a larger impact on history and property rights issues?

CD: One reason is because the male, white founders of the state of Minnesota didn’t want anyone to remember that American Indian people had once owned the land, or had a meaningful impact on the way Minnesota’s early history played out. When they formed the State Historical Society of Minnesota in the late 1840s, they were quick to write essays and solicit reminiscences that lauded white, male achievements and wrote Indian people out of the story completely. Pelagie’s story was doubly handicapped — she was a woman as well as Dakota, and there were almost no women included in the early records of the society.

Another reason is because her circumstances were unique. It would be almost impossible for anyone to replicate the circumstances under which Pelagie gained ownership of Pike’s Island, in early treaty negotiations with local native groups during which her husband provided friendship to Colonel Leavenworth, the representative of the U.S. government in the matter. And few non-Native Minnesotans would have wanted to establish Pelagie’s ownership of Pike’s Island as some kind of precedent. In Euro-American law, a woman’s legal identity became suspended in that of her husband when she got married: In all but the rarest of cases she couldn’t own property in her own name. This was foundational to the way in which Euro-American society functioned, and recognizing that there were alternatives would have thrown the whole social fabric of Euro-America into chaos.

MP: It’s illustrative to try to understand or define marriage through the legal and historical record. I’m curious to know whether you also looked to the fiction of the day to expand your understanding.

CD: Both fictive and non-fictive literature about marriage in Euro-American culture in the early 19th century was prescriptive: It set out to establish an ideal to which women should aspire. As such, the women in that literature were usually sainted housewives with a brood of contented children whom they educated in the rudiments of math, reading, and citizenship, or they were women who had subverted the ideal — by sleeping with someone before marriage, let’s say — and had been ruined by their experience. Very few stories of real women found their way into ladies’ magazines or books.

In native cultures, there are multiple stories about what marriage is, why it exists, and how to be a good wife. In many senses you could say that these stories were also prescriptive — they taught people how they ought to behave, and what qualities befitted an excellent spouse.

In both cases women would have had the example of real women around them, so the stories would have been only one way in which they crafted their idea of what marriage was and should be. Practical examples carried particular weight.

MP: Marriage during this time period served a number of practical functions. What evidence did you find of affection or friendship between these parties?

CD: One of the best places I found evidence of affection between parties was in divorce petitions. While the petitions often contained stories of hardship, others told elaborate stories about extra-marital affairs, and the lengths people would go to to be able to live with a new partner. The tone of the petitions was often penitent or punitive (depending on who was petitioning, and why) but reading between the lines, you could find stories of real passion.

There’s lots of evidence of friendship in the letters of the ABCFM missionaries. Many of the private letters written by male missionaries contain affectionate notes about their wives, or reflections on the worthiness of their spouses during times of great difficulty (such as when their households were visited by disease). The missionary letters also unwittingly contain a lot of information about affection between native couples. The missionaries plain could not understand why native people did not want to change their family structures to match that of Euro-Americans, but in the stories of that resistance, we can find glimpses of the affectionate relationships husbands and wives and extended kin groups had for one another.

MP: What memorable experiences did you have during the research process?

CD: I walked the breadth of Pike Island at the juncture of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers in December, when the ground was thick with snow and the water at the shore of the island frozen. I visited Fort Snelling numerous times. I went to Pine City and visited the fur trader fort that’s maintained by the Minnesota Historical Society up there.

My favorite memory from all of these visits was the time a friend and I went to Fort Snelling. As we passed into the main grounds, we could hear people singing incredibly haunting hymns — the very sound of the music shouted that it was old. There was no one else in sight, and my friend and I had a real moment of wondering what on earth was happening — had we somehow stepped back in time? We followed the sound of the singing and discovered that a group of shape note singers from St. Paul were holding a sing-along in the surgeon’s quarters. I’ll never forget how powerful that music was, how it rang off the walls and gave me chills. It was a wonderful afternoon.