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  • African American, African Indian, and Midwestern
  • Jennifer Kirsten Stinson (bio)

First cabin, first farm, first judge to preside, first white man to arrive. So goes nineteenth-century histories' founding formula for rural midwestern settlements.1 Pioneers' memoirs spun similar tales. Effi e Revels Delaney recalled, in 1908, her parents' homesteading, forty-six years earlier, on land she called the "roughest that part knows of," where steep ridges and plunging valleys challenged farmers' fortitude.2 Common and expected as such narratives are to the identity Midwesterners assumed, complexities and surprises lurk between the lines. Race and people belonging to a rich African diaspora were everywhere and nowhere.

The scholarship on race in the Midwest is flowering, and that African American rural settlements enlivened the region is clear.3 This essay summons stories that show ways of construing midwestern identity through an African diasporic lens.4 It reveals race's centrality to the production of whites' midwesternness. Moreover, it asserts the diversity of the African diasporic Midwest: it included African American, African French, African Ojibwe, African Cherokee, and African Lumbee men and women, as well as people whose lives bridged or contested some combination of these identities. Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century rural Wisconsinites populate this essay, but their stories represent larger historical trends and truths. At its heart, being midwestern was about belonging and shaping one's own place and narrative in the heartland. For people of color, it hinged upon how much one fit within or chafed against standard white narratives, as well as one's efforts to assert the rights and culture of African diasporic people within their rural communities and beyond. Regional identity was deeply intersectional for African diasporic Midwesterners. They were, for instance, African Cherokee and midwestern at exactly the same time; each identity [End Page 57] fundamentally enriched or tainted the other, sometimes with a southern flare. Their midwestern identity, like the region itself, was linked to national contests, whether for suffrage or Indian sovereignty.5

The 1881 History of Washington County and the St. Croix Valley typified late-nineteenth-century county histories. Early chapters, devoted to the lands flanking the Minnesota and Wisconsin banks of the St. Croix River just east of the Twin Cities, addressed exploration, settlement, and organization at the county level. Later ones focused on specific villages, townships, towns, and residents. Together, they chronicled European and American progress and Indian decline. To modern-day scholars, such stories narrate settler colonialism, oversimplifying and demeaning Indian societies and their relations with whites. To the white Midwesterners who wrote and read them, they cemented identity: we transformed a frontier into civilization, we made lasting communities, we made Indian country into white people's land—free land. We did it ourselves.6

Until page 202. The man introduced there "created quite a sensation among the settlers" in 1848 when he stepped off the steamboat in Hudson, Wisconsin. The crowd, Judge Joel Foster explained in his "Reminiscences," "appeared greatly surprised to see me," welcoming "my three barrels of beans, one of sugar, a sack of coffee, a barrel of vinegar, one of hard-bread, and one of flour." But that was not all: A twenty-year-old, 200-pound Black servant named Dick loomed by Foster's side.7

The Connecticut-born Foster represented a new wave of U.S. settlement that entered, in the 1840s, what would become Wisconsin's Pierce and St. Croix counties. Dick's life with him, which began in Madison County, Illinois, where Foster had moved in 1831, represented an insidious race-based institution. Indentured servitude figured centrally in Mississippi Valley settlers' concepts of whiteness, white freedom, and Americanness, defined not only against African American and African French people, but also against Indians. Around 1837, the nine-year-old Dick, as Foster put it, "bound himself to me until he should be twenty-one."8 His claim echoed midwestern indenture contracts' cloaking of coercion and targeting of children in the language of benevolence and consent. The Illinois state legislature's 1819 "Act respecting Free Negroes, Mulattoes, and Slaves," conflated "slave" and "servant" status in many respects. Although the 1818 state constitution barred indenturing of adults unless they "shall enter into such indenture...