In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Charlotte Ouisconsin Van Cleve and Telling Midwestern Regional Stories
  • Sara Egge (bio)

In May 1877, fift y- seven- year- old Charlotte Ouisconsin1 Van Cleve took the stand in defense of accused murderer Kate Noonan. Van Cleve spoke glowingly about her former cook, an uneducated Irish immigrant, explaining that Noonan was "beloved … in her household" and "respected and cared for wherever she had lived."2 She did not dispute the charge that Noonan had shot and killed William Sidle, a prominent banker's son. Instead, she pleaded with the jury to save Noonan, a "fallen girl" preyed upon by Sidle. Though the judge ridiculed Van Cleve, calling her "vanity in gray curls,"3 his insult failed to impress the jury—who ultimately could not reach a verdict—and even provoked one of the lawyers for the prosecution, William McNair, to defend Van Cleve's character. At Noonan's second trial, the jury found her not guilty.4 after the trial, Van Cleve continued to support Noonan financially and arranged for her to learn needlework at a school for young women.5

The trial of Kate Noonan might anchor a story in which Van Cleve embodies the qualities of a "model Midwesterner"—a benevolent protagonist whose actions most shaped the narrative and who embraced civicmindedness, morality, and respectability, qualities traditionally attributed to the region's white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant settlers.6 "Model Midwesterners" supposedly valued education, engaged enthusiastically in economic development, and aligned themselves with broad, national ideals.7 Midwesterners like Van Cleve did indeed shape the region, but they were not alone. Many others, including immigrants and indigenous peoples, also powerfully influenced the region with designs that at times complemented and at others contradicted their white counterparts.8

Even though Van Cleve exhibited all of the allegedly iconic qualities of [End Page 103] "a model Midwesterner," women like Charlotte Van Cleve rarely received mention from historians of the region who, instead, limited the narrative to prominent, white men.9 Recovering a full history of the Midwest must take into account peoples representing familial, ethnic, tribal, national, imperial, and other identities and how they built communities while navigating dynamics of power and belonging. Moreover, the elements that comprise the "lost" region's narrative arc remain anything but clear as scholars continue to produce research that challenges previous conclusions.10 The region and its peoples evade easy designations and labels. Scholars have attempted to impose order, but the efforts make for a series of polarized assertions: the Midwest was either local or global, a destination or a crossroads and its people either provincial or cosmopolitan, stiflingly homogenous or fantastically diverse.11 Arising from these divisions is a certainty that stories framed by a century, set of values, or narrowly defined group of people offer only limited glimpses at this vast, strikingly complex interior land. Uncovering midwestern regionality requires an approach that expands, revises, and reconfigures narratives and their notions of time, belonging, and boundaries.

Van Cleve lived much of her life before the region garnered the name "Middle West" or "Midwest," but she pursued initiatives that aligned with purportedly midwestern qualities, which stretches regional periodizations.12 In 1875, she founded Bethany Home, a religiously based institution for "abandoned women."13 By 1892, it had served almost twenty-five hundred people, moving to ever larger spaces four times in under twenty years. In 1876, she became the first of two women to win seats on the East District of the Minneapolis School Board.14 While Van Cleve's efforts bolster the ideals of midwestern religiosity and civic virtue, they paint a one-dimensional portrait. First, Bethany Home was a controversial endeavor, and Van Cleve faced "strong opposition and sneers" for years.15 That so many people relied on it seriously undermined claims that the region was a bastion of morality. Second, gender inequalities derailed Van Cleve's second run at a political office. In October 1877, in the midst of the Noonan trials, Minnesota's attorney general ruled that Van Cleve could not run for county superintendent. He reasoned that since women could vote and run for offi ce only in district elections, Van Cleve was ineligible, despite the fact that...