Place  /  Book Review

Remembering Black Hawk

A history of imperial forgetting.

Twenty miles from the small quarrying town where I grew up in Illinois, Moredock Lake sits nestled in the Mississippi River’s bottom lands. I passed it often as a child, on a bike or in a school bus, looking at it in the flat terrain below the bluffs. Local pronunciation drawled the lake’s name, which was said often but appeared only rarely on signs. I heard it as “Modoc Lake,” which gave it what sounded like an Indigenous origin.

But the truth of the lake’s name turned out to be much grimmer. I located it while teaching Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man (1857) in a college course. Near the book’s center, readers encounter the story of “Colonel John Moredock, of Illinois,” which is related, in a very Melville way, second- or thirdhand from a then-popular account, loosely plagiarized and wonderfully repurposed. Colonel Moredock, the book describes, stopped just short of being the “Indian hater par excellence.” He, having repeatedly lost family in clashes with Indians and devoting much of his life to revenge, is offered by the novel as an example of what it memorably calls “the metaphysics of Indian-hating.” Though he had quickly risen in the Illinois legislature on a path toward a shiny political career, Moredock sacrificed it, in Melville’s account, to be always at the ready to attack those whom he hated.

Was the Moredock Lake of my childhood named for this “Indian hater”? I found the answer in a local history book: “One of the most remarkable persons who ever lived in this part of the country, was John Moredock. In his honor this precinct received its name. His house was on the south side of Moredock lake.” What Melville describes as Moredock’s “vacations” from genocide and his indulgences in the “soft enticements of domestic life” took place on the shore of that familiar little lake.

This anecdote foregrounds the difficulty Illinois has had in understanding its history as a settler-colonial state. Almost 130 years ago, Frederick Jackson Turner famously described the “significance of the frontier in U.S. history,” with the Chicago 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition and settlement in mind. Recent writings on race and indigeneity by displaced Midwesterners situate this part of the country’s history as a crucial part of the U.S. present. Think, for example, of Missourian Walter Johnson’s recent attempt to reinterpret U.S. history from the vantage of St. Louis and its imperial penetrations in The Broken Heart of America (2020). Or think of Ohioan Tiya Miles’s thrilling account of the Indigenous, Black, and settler histories of early Michigan in Dawn of Detroit (2017). Adam John Waterman’s new book The Corpse in the Kitchen (2021) puts him in the company of these historians. Waterman is an out-migrating Iowan, born just off Black Hawk Drive in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The Corpse in the Kitchen examines how racism shaped Illinois before, during, and especially after the Black Hawk War of 1832.