1856 engraving of Grand Tower on the upper Mississippi River, near where John Moredock’s family was killed. Today, Grand Tower, by highway, is about two hours south of St. Louis, MO.
Early in the series on the Dakota Commemorative March, I promised to return to the story of Louis Thiele, the German Renville County farmer who knelt over the bodies of his wife and child (killed on August 18, 1862) and vowed he’d kill Indians for the rest of his life. The next chapter in Thiele’s story is coming up.
If Thiele’s promise sounds like something out of a frontier romance, it is. Fictional characters who swore revenge on Native people to avenge the death of loved ones killed by warriors are so ubiquitous that literati have given them a name: Indian Haters.
The tragedy is that the Indian Haters made famous by novelists like Herman Melville (in The Confidence Man, 1857) were inspired by real-life Indian Haters like Col. John Moredock, and Abraham Lincoln’s uncle, Mordecai. For Mordecai Lincoln’s story, I refer you to Scott W. Berg’s 38 Nooses.
I want you to hear John Moredock’s story straight from the pen of the historian who made it famous. Why? Stories like Thiele’s can be misinterpreted in two directions. Over interpretation would imagine the Dakota War of 1862 birthed hundreds of Indian Haters. Under-interpretation would dismiss Thiele’s story as the experience of a single, deranged, man.
In historian James Hall’s matter-of-fact retelling, the story of John Moredock takes us inside 19th century American culture, where Indian Hating was viewed as an extreme, if understandable, reaction to personal tragedy.
Headings and paragraphing below are mine.
Hall Puts Moredock’s Story in Cultural Context
“If we attempt to reason on this subject, we must reason with a due regard to facts, and to the known principles of human nature. Is it to be wondered at, that a man should fear and detest an Indian, who has been always accustomed to hear him described only as a midnight prowler, watching to murder the mother as she bends over her helpless children, and tearing, with hellish malignity, the babe from the maternal breast? Is it strange, that he whose mother has fallen under the savage tomahawk, or whose father has died a lingering death at the stake, surrounded by yelling fiends in human shape, should indulge the passion of revenge towards the perpetrators of such atrocities?
They know the story only as it was told to them. They have only heard one side, and that with all the exaggerations of fear, sorrow, indignation and resentment. They have heard it from the tongue of a father, or from the lips of a mother, or a sister, accompanied with all the particularity which the tale could receive from the vivid impressions of an eye-witness, and with all the eloquence of deeply awakened feeling. They have heard it perhaps at a time when the war-whoop still sounded in the distance, when the rifle still was kept in preparation, and the cabin door was carefully secured with each returning night.
Such are some of the feelings, and of the facts, which operate upon the inhabitants of our frontiers. The impressions which we have described are handed down from generation to generation, and remain in full force long after all danger from the savages has ceased, and all intercourse with them been discontinued.
The Story of John Moredock, Indian Hater
Besides that general antipathy which pervades the whole community under such circumstances, there have been many instances of individuals who, in consequence of some personal wrong, have vowed eternal hatred to the whole Indian race, and have devoted nearly all of their lives to the fulfillment of a vast scheme of vengeance. A familiar instance is before us in the life of a gentleman, who was known to the writer of this article, and whose history we have often heard repeated by those who were intimately conversant with all the events.
We allude to the late Colonel John Moredock, who was a member of the territorial legislature of Illinois, a distinguished militia officer, and a men universally known and respected by the early settlers of that region. We are surprised that the writer of a sketch of the early history of Illinois, which we published some months ago, should have omitted the name of this gentleman, and some others, who were famed for deeds of hardihood, while he has dwelt upon the actions of persons who were comparatively insignificant.
John Moredock was the son of a woman who was married several times, and was as often widowed by the tomahawk of the savage. Her husbands had been pioneers, and with them she had wandered from one territory to another, living always on the frontier. She was at last left a widow, at Vincennes, with a large family of children, and was induced to join a party about to remove to Illinois, to which region a few American families had then recently removed. On the eastern side of Illinois there were no settlements of whites; on the shore of the Mississippi a few spots were occupied by the French; and it was now that our own backwoodsmen began to turn their eyes to this delightful country, and determined to settle in the vicinity of the French villages.
Mrs. Moredock and her friends embarked at Vincennes in boats, with the intention of descending the Wabash and Ohio rivers, and ascending the Mississippi. They proceeded in safety until they reached the Grand Tower on the Mississippi, where, owing to the difficulty of the navigation for ascending boats, it became necessary for the boatmen to land, and drag their vessels round a rocky point, which was swept by a violent current. Here a party of Indians, lying in wait, rushed upon them, and murdered the whole party. Mrs. Moredock was among the victims, and all her children, except John, who was proceeding with another party.
John Moredock was just entering upon the years of manhood, when he was thus left in a strange land, the sole survivor of his race. He resolved upon executing vengeance, and immediately took measures to discover the actual perpetrators of the massacre. It was ascertained that the outrage was committed by a party of twenty or thirty Indians, belonging to different tribes, who had formed themselves into a lawless predatory band. Moredock watched the motions of this band for more than a year, before an opportunity suitable for his purpose occurred. At length he learned, that they were hunting on the Missouri side of the river, nearly opposite to the recent settlements of the Americans. He raised a party of young men and pursued them; but that time they escaped.
Shortly after, he sought them at the head of another party, and had the good fortune to discover them one evening, on an island, whither they had retired to encamp the more securely for the night. Moredock and his friends, about equal in numbers to the Indians, waited until the dead of night, and then landed upon the island, turning adrift their own canoes and those of the enemy, and determined to sacrifice their own lives, or to exterminate the savage band. They were completely successful. Three only of the Indians escaped, by throwing themselves into the river; the rest were slain, while the whites lost not a man.
But Moredock was not satisfied while one of the murderers of his mother remained. He had learned to recognize the names and persons of the three that had escaped, and these he pursued with secret, but untiring diligence, until they all fell by his own hand. Nor was he yet satisfied. He had now become a hunter and a warrior. He was a square-built, muscular man, of remarkable strength and activity. In athletic sports he had few equals; few men would willingly have encountered him in single combat. He was a man of determined courage, and great coolness and steadiness of purpose. He was expert in the use of the rifle and other weapons; and was complete master of those wonderful and numberless expedients by which the woodsman subsists in the forest, pursues the footsteps of an enemy with unerring sagacity, or conceals himself and his design from the discovery of a watchful foe.
He had resolved never to spare an Indian, and though he made no boast of this determination, and seldom avowed it, it became the ruling passion of his life. He thought it praiseworthy to kill an Indian; and would roam through the forest silently and alone, for days and weeks, with this single purpose. A solitary red man, who was so unfortunate as to meet him in the woods, was sure to become his victim; if he encountered a party of the enemy, he would either secretly pursue their footsteps until an opportunity for striking a blow occurred, or, if discovered, would elude them by his superior skill. He died about four years ago, an old man, and it is supposed never in his life failed to embrace an opportunity to kill a savage.
The reader must not infer, from this description, that Colonel Moredock was unsocial, ferocious, or by nature cruel. On the contrary, he was a man of warm feelings, and excellent disposition. At home he was like other men, conducting a large farm with industry and success, and gaining the good will of all his neighbours by his popular manners and benevolent deportment. He was cheerful, convivial, and hospitable; and no man in the territory was more generally known, or more universally respected. He was an officer in the ranging service during the war of 1813-14, and acquitted himself with credit; and was afterwards elected to the command of the militia of his county, at a time when such an office was honourable, because it imposed responsibility, and required the exertion of military skill. Colonel Moredock was a member of the legislative council of the territory of Illinois, and at the formation of the state government, was spoken of as a candidate for the office of governor, but refused to permit his name to be used.
There are many cases to be found on the frontier, parallel to that just stated, in which individuals have persevered through life, in the indulgence of a resentment founded either on a personal wrong suffered by the party, or a hatred inherited through successive generations, and perhaps more frequently on a combination of these causes.”
Hall’s book, Sketches of History, Life, and Manners in the West, Vol. 2 was published in Philadelphia in 1835. The book was an American classic, about two decades old at the time Melville discovered Moredock on its pages, and about 27 years old when the Dakota War of 1862 spawned Indian Haters like Louis Thiele.
Excerpt from Hall, p. 79-82
Image Credit: Le Voyage en Papier via Google Images.