Alice takes the wheel and takes to it well, though 190—running right across the top of Indiana, a state now farmy, once swampy—is truck heavy and hot.
Just a little to the North lies Lake Michigan, just a little to the south, ancestral ghosts.
Trucks to the right, trucks to the left, trucks right in front, blocking the view.
No way I’m sleeping or even looking down. Fifteen and tall, she drives her body through her name-sake’s birth state.
So bland and so bad, America’s highways, where it feels that nothing could ever again begin.
Behind us the sun, before us the craven, within us or under us, that kitschy horror that made us, that whiteness, witness, fallow pleasures and crimes—
I said I was going to dig it up, this core of badness, dig it right out of Andrews, Indiana or Broken Bow, Nebraska or Montrose, Colorado. Dig it up like a little piece of shit so I could look at it, maybe throw it away, or maybe just eat it again.
It was the summer after the election and everyone had a name for it, for that piece of shit, that core of badness, that kitschy horror we had to dig up.
Said: Patriarchy. Said: Capital. Said Racism. Said: Whiteness. Said Populism. Said: Russia. Said: Fascism. Said: Oil. Said: Same as it Always Was.
Going to find it by driving, going to find it by being in it, on these roads, parking my stupid car somewhere, reading all the books, looking at the old photos, reading the old laws. I was going to find that piece of shit in the core of my body, or my daughter’s body, or the earth, and dig it up and maybe just eat it again, like a dog.
A farmhouse, a silo, a cluster of cows.
A Best Western, a Days Inn, Ramada, Motel 6.
Started with a year (could be any year). Started with the year 1850.
1850: What’s the plan?
Two federal laws and one constitutional amendment: The Fugitive Slave Act, The Swamp Land Act, and in swampy Indiana (though tried in other states as well), Amendment 13, which bans all future migration of free black and mixed-race people to the state.
We begin on the road. Or we begin in the mud, in the swamplands of Indiana from where our ancestors hail.
We begin here in this trans-material, this hybridized earth, these glacial remains, this broadening border between what is and what is not terrain.
Radio signals beam our map, our map that is a product of the law in which “the irrational haunts the civilizing claims of the reasonable.”1
Prior to the Swamp Land Act of 1850 nearly all of Northwest Ohio and much of Indiana’s top half lay under water, as did large portions of Indianapolis. The Swamp Land Act grants all wetlands to their respective states; the states then sell their wetlands to developers, such that what was once public land held in common is now rapidly privatized. In Indiana, speculators from the eastern states grab huge swaths, then rent to poor whites willing to drain the swamps (dig ditches headed river-wards), in the hope of pulling a crop from the mud.
To sell the swamp to drain the swamp. To drain the swamp to farm it.
And what might be the connection between the swamp and the fugitive, and the two acts passed just ten days apart by the 31st US Congress during the Presidency of Millard Fillmore?
“Few American landscapes have historically been more feared, reviled, and stigmatized than wetlands” writes Anthony Carlson in 2010.2
To sell the swamp to drain the swamp, to drain the swamp to farm it.
“Wetlands impeded travel, depressed property values, segregated otherwise arable land from agricultural production, provided sanctuary for dangerous reptiles and predators, and were thought to release dangerous miasmas...attributed to a host of febrile illnesses in people, livestock, and barnyard fowl,” he goes on.
One eight-year-old Esther, who died of dysentery (also known as Bloody Flux) in 1852, who shat blood and vomited emptiness while mercury (the favored treatment) rotted her face right off its bones while her mother, father, and siblings were also unrelentingly releasing fluids in great pain, is buried in the mud somewhere near what is now the Whitewater Canal.
Her little sister Ellen, seven at the time, would survive long enough to marry a doctor and birth a baby girl given the Indian name Minnie Ha-Ha, but would die at 27 of a different bacterial infection, equally as common, which though not inducing the shitting of blood, does result in the coughing of it.
And while the short lives of women were in those years generally unremarkable or at least unremarked upon, their deaths were quite often cataclysmic, not just because they might have been loved, but also because those that they cared for, the little children, would be immediately in need of a replacement.
Mud as transporter of illness, as trans-material, as fertile ground, as temporary home for those in motion, as indicator of all that is not yet, has not yet arrived, not yet resolved itself into recognizable form, not yet been made to produce.
There are, in Europe alone, dozens of different names for female creatures who live half-hidden in a semi-fluid world: nixie, knucker, neker, kelpie, brook horse, melusine, siren, water sprite (recognizable in human form by the wet hem of her skirt), Rhine maiden, lorelei, naiad.
Half in, half out: the female, often part-animal (slit ears, fish tales, horse’s hair) wants only to pull you under.
And always she is a lover of music and song.
In the still new American continent, a woman half in and half out of the water is likely to have escaped from slavery.
In the Great Dismal swamp of Virginia, archaeologist David Sayers discovers the remnants of a settlement of fugitives from the plantations who had lived there for ten generations. A “nameless site,” he calls it. “I don’t want to put a false name on it...I’m hoping to find out what the people who lived here called this place.”3
Their story, such as it is and can be told, is derived not from documents, not from words or images on paper, but from the remnants in the ground itself. The deep history of marronage is discovered in the mud.
Indiana’s swamps too (the Bacon and Fletcher, and likely the Black Swamp and Grand Kankakee) were crucial sites for refugees, especially once the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made no state free (though in fact some Indiana whites had enslaved both African and Indigenous people from the time of their earliest arrival until at least the 1820s).4
To sell the swamp to drain the swamp, to drain the swamp to kill it.
“Refugees from slavery used retractable wooden ‘steps’ across the [Fletcher] swamp to help avoid detection.”5
Where the Fletcher and Bacon swamps once oozed, now Indianapolis’s parking lots, strip malls, and hotels:
And where’d the fugitive live, where’d the fugitive hide? Drain and sell, sell back down.
And be it further enacted: That any person who harbored or concealed such fugitives be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($30,000 today), and imprisonment not exceeding six months.6
And be it further enacted. Sell and drain and sell back down.
Done with school and done with parents, Omer Kem, brother to Ellen and Esther, and Alice’s Great Great and my Great Grandfather, was, in 1871, just 16. Cutting down trees, draining.
“This county at the time was virtually, a wilderness” he writes in the first volume of his thirteen-volume autobiography, housed now in Creighton University’s rarely visited Rare Books room. “This was flat swampy country, acres and acres of it under water the year round, running in depth to as much as five feet in places, and miles and miles of corduroy roads which were anything but pleasant to ride over.” 7
After he turns to “the Slashes” (swamps from which trees nevertheless grow), Omer never lives with his parents again, for they’d left him behind when they moved north to raise three-year-old Minnie Ha-Ha, whose mother Ellen had just died.
Ellen rocked and sang him to sleep when he was a little boy.
“My favorite song was one in which the trials and tribulations of a bachelor’s life was set forth in rather tragic terms, and that part that appealed to me in particular, went something like this, ‘He threw himself across the bed and tore all the hair out of his head.’ This was so thrilling to me I remember it as clearly as the day of its utterance and it’s the only part of the song that I do remember” (“The Old Bachelor,” unlocatable on YouTube, Spotify, and not even listed on the Kodály Center’s American Folk Song Collection website).
Later, Ellen would visit him, a comforting spirit, a ball of light, or just a hand reaching from the folds of a curtain, in the parlors of Washington DC’s Spiritualist elite.
At 18, still destitute, he marries Nan and sets up house in a log cabin whose walls had “cracks large enough to throw a cat through.”
Omer and Nan had a black dog named “Nig.”
Also, writes our ancestor: “Indiana was a hotbed of southern sympathizers during the war and the spirit hung on for several years after.”
The map is a product of the law; the law is product and producer of its own enforcement.
Buys a cow. Sells the cow. Buys a cow. Sells the cow. Buys a horse. Sells the horse. Drains a swamp. Plants a crop. Drains a swamp. Plants. Sells or fails to sell. Moves on and on and on.
Both laws, some might say, simply honor, reinforce, and increase the economic independence of the states. Both laws, one might say, honor, reinforce and increase the situation in which power is concentrated in the one racial group called white.
She drives 190, long tall Alice, named for Kem’s second wife. If the ancestors believed in spirits—spirits who moved tables across rooms, hauled heavy rocking chairs on top of beds, played catch with couch pillows, and inhabited the bodies of the children—who am I to deny them their presence on the road?
Draining the swamp was the work of the tenant in his house full of holes and baby sick with cholera. Though by Omer’s time in the swamps, the war was won and the fugitive no longer supposedly in hiding, neither was he or she welcome there. Amendment 13 stood still.
“The Constitution of 1851...completely denied Negroes the right to enter the state...and provided a penalty of ten to five hundred dollars for employing or otherwise encouraging Negroes to remain in the state...In fact, Indiana appeared so anxious to dispense with its colored population that the legislature appropriated five thousand dollars to colonize Negroes, then residents of Indiana, in Africa;...each Negro was to be given fifty dollars to induce him to leave...Negroes in the state prior to the adoption of the Constitution were to register with the county clerk and receive a certificate of their right to remain.”8
By the time our ancestor, destitute and now desperate, heads to Nebraska where he will receive from the Government of Chester A. Arthur 160 Acres of what was just a year prior, Otoe Indian Land, Indiana has been drained of 70% of its wetlands.
Start with a year. Any year.
Though the three legal adjustments of 1850 are not necessarily conjoined, they are, in fact, effects of similar forces.
Schuyler Colfax, one of the sole delegates to reject Indiana’s 13th Amendment, provided the minority viewpoint:
“The slave States drive the free negroes from their borders, and the free States declare they shall not come within their limits. Where shall the negro go?...The lust and avarice of the white man stole them from their homes, herded them in the slave factories, doomed them to the horrors of the ‘middle passage,’ and landed them on our shores to live the bondman’s life of unrequited toil.
He was dragged from his home, and now by the accidents of life a portion of the race find themselves free but ordered off the earth by constitutional provisions, like the one now before this Convention.
Where shall the negro go? Into the Ohio river!...Let us not adopt such measures as we shall hate to look back upon from the future; such provisions as we shall burn with shame to see inscribed on the first page of our organic law.”9
Schuyler Colfax is the namesake of our dog, who does in fact eat his own shit. The shock of that, the humor of it, resonates with us as people exposed to our own history.
At 26, Kem boards a train headed to Nebraska where he will receive, as a reward for his whiteness and as remedy for his poverty, a stretch of prairie he will fail to farm. Ten years hence he will find himself a member of the US House of Representatives, representing the Populist Party of Nebraska (another story). Let it be said: the free mobility of whiteness is a product of and producer of the law.
We cross the border out of Indiana without incident.
Just South of Chicago we sleep in a Best Western which seems to have been built in the parking lot of a Target. Alice sleeps well, but I lie on my side staring at history as it slides in and out of focus under the bright light of my phone.
1. Colin Dayan. The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (Princeton UP, 2013): xii [back]
2. Anthony E. Carlson. “Drain the Swamps for Health and Home: Wetlands Drainage, Land Conservation, and National Water Policy, 1850-1917,” (PhD diss, University of Oklahoma, 2010). [back]
3. David Sayers. A Desolate Place for a Defiant People: The Archeology of Maroons, Indigenous Americans, and Enslaved Laborers in the Great Dismal Swamp (University Press of Florida, 2014). & https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/deep-swamps-archaeologists-fugitive-slaves-kept-freedom-180960122/ [back]
4. Earl E. McDonald. “The Negro in Indiana Before 1881,” Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 27, Issue 4, 1931: 291-306. https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/6622/6965 [back]
5. Stephen J. Taylor. “Fletcher’s Swamp and Bacon’s Swamp,” Hoosier State Chronicles, March 31, 2015: http://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/fletchers-swamp-and-bacons-swamp [back]
6. The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/fugitive.asp [back]
7. Family Archive [back]
8. Earl E. McDonald. “The Negro in Indiana Before 1881,” Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 27, Issue 4, 1931: 291-306. https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/6622/6965 [back]
9. Report of the Debates and Proceedings of the Convention for the Revision of the Constitution of the State of Indiana, 1850 (Indiana Historical Collections Reprint for Indiana Historical Bureau, 1935), 458. [back]
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Julie Carr’s most recent book is Objects from a Borrowed Confession (Ahsahta, 2017). A mixed-genre work, Real Life: An Installation (Omnidawn) is due out in 2018, as is a book of critical essays, Someone Shot My Book (University of Michigan Press).
39.7392° N, 104.9903° W
With Alice, Lucy, Ben, Tim, and the dog Colfax, near a park once a graveyard in which still lie buried thousands of bodies of the 19th Century poor, on the traditional territory of the Arapahoe Nation.