Passion for her work and a 19th century diary put EMU grad student on the path to Princeton

The aged leather cover of the diary of Mary Hobart Williams, a French-Menominee woman

Rachael Schnurr has been interested in history since elementary school. Growing up west of Milwaukee in Oconomowoc, Wis., she’d wondered about the indigenous people who had given her town its name, and was drawn to stories about historical women persevering in the face of adversity. That curiosity stayed with her, and in August she’ll receive her MA in history, having completed a thesis that examines the life of one such woman: “A Métis Wife’s Tale: Race, Womanhood, and Adaptation to Settler Colonialism in the Diaries of Mary Hobart Williams.”

Rachel Schnurr
Rachael Schnurr

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a history degree, Schnurr taught with Teach for America (an Americorps program) for two years, then went on to teach middle school history for six more. It was her students, she says, who sparked her interest in settler colonialism – the replacement of one population by another through conquest.

“I’d had a lot of students ask about how European and African American people came to be in places like Wisconsin, and I felt sort of dissatisfied with my answers,” Schnurr says. “There’s the westward pioneer story everyone knows, but I knew it was very simplified. So, I wanted to research indigenous inhabitants, and see what life on the ground was like for existing peoples during European settlement.”

By then she had moved to Michigan, and was looking for a graduate program that would allow her to take in-person classes while continuing to teach.

“I applied to Eastern, and after taking one class my professor, Dr. McCurdy, told me about the Opperman Fellowship in History, which would allow me to stop working and study full-time,” she said. “It changed my life, for sure.”

Funded by EMU alumnus Judge Daniel Opperman, the fellowship provides support to students including 30 hours of graduate tuition over two years, a cash stipend and a graduate assistantship in the department.

Free to focus on her research, Schnurr began searching for information on indigenous women in the area that is now Green Bay, Wis., and hit pay dirt when she began an online search of the Wisconsin Historical Society archives.

“I typed something like ‘native American women’ into the search engine and found this diary, which had been embedded for many years in a much larger collection of papers belonging to her husband,” Schnurr says.

The diary, actually two volumes written 30 years apart, was written by Mary Hobart Williams, a French-Menominee woman and a member of the Métis [may-TEE] or “mixed” society created through marriages between French fur traders and the indigenous people who had lived in the Great Lakes region for thousands of years. It was an exciting find, but none of the collection had been digitized, so Schnurr traveled to Green Bay to see the diaries in person.

On first reading, they didn’t strike her as promising.

“I went expecting to read something from a Native American standpoint,” she says. “I realize now that what I was looking for was an extremely simplistic idea of what native people are. I thought I’d find obvious resistance, tribal culture – something that, in our minds, speaks directly to ‘oh, this is an indigenous person.’”

Instead, she said, all she found were a few references to wild rice cultivation and some unique names that could be indigenous.

“Over all, it just sounded like she was a dairy farmer,” Schnurr says.

But when she said as much to John McCurdy, professor and graduate coordinator in the department of history and philosophy, he had a different reaction.

“His eyes kind of lit up, and he said, ‘Yeah…I think you should think about it some more,’” Schnurr recalls.

Now, having pored over the diaries for roughly 16 months, Schnurr describes them as lush. They slowly reveal the canny ways Mary Williams navigated the changes brought by white settlers, and particularly the U.S. government, that allowed her to preserve a measure of the autonomy she enjoyed in her less patriarchal indigenous society. Her Menominee mother and French father had connected her to a broad kinship group, providing valuable connections she continued to cultivate throughout her life. Keeping the diary helped Williams do that, Schnurr says.

“I think her diary made her feel in control of a rapidly changing community and social network,” she says. “She relied on the many newcomers – Métis, Anglo-American, and later even Dutch, German, and Norwegian – to help keep her farm afloat. The entire diary is a collection of assets and ways to support herself, whether by boarding river travelers, counting her agricultural surplus, or keeping track of neighbor families.”

Having completed a thesis her professor calls amazing, Schnurr will be moving on to New Jersey and the Princeton University PhD program in history – one of the seven that accepted her. Schnurr said McCurdy’s mentorship helped her shape her grad school experience into the perfect springboard to an elite PhD program.  

“I've talked about getting a PhD in history since high school, but I had given it up as impractical and unlikely by the time I was done with undergrad,” Schnurr said. “The professors here showed me just how possible it was, and got me prepared to hit the ground running.”

While she’d like to turn her thesis into a book some day, Schnurr doesn’t know whether Mary Hobart Williams will figure into her research at Princeton.

“It’s uncertain now, but I’d be surprised if I didn't continue to write about mixed-race families, and women living in borderlands regions of the United States in the early 19th century,” she said. “Fortunately, I've got two years to mull it over before I have to decide.”

About Eastern Michigan University
Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves more than 16,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and, its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website.

July 14, 2021

Written by:
Amy Campbell

Darcy Gifford