When early Europeans first arrived in what is now McLean County area, they found the Kickapoo and Potawatomi Indian tribes peacefully sharing the countryside. Following the War of 1812, the tribes signed a treaty with the Europeans enabling them to continue to live on the land and take game until European settlers moved in. In 1830 there were 630 Kickapoo living in a village in "Old Town Timber" south of Ellsworth.
The scattered groves of timber along the streams provided these early settlers with shelter from the bitter winds of winter, building materials, fuel and shade. The wet, sometimes marshy prairie lands, though tough and difficult to turn with their primitive implements, were gradually drained or cleared, and small farms sprang up everywhere, taking advantage of the rich fertile soils left by the glacial retreat.
By the middle of the 20th century, it became apparent that the heavily farmed countryside in an area whose topography and terrain precluded many good lake sites would require artificial manipulation to provide and maintain a water-based recreation area for its steadily increasing population.
In 1957, preliminary surveys were made, and in 1959 the State of Illinois purchased 760 acres in Dawson Township. Clearing contracts were awarded in 1960, and by July of 1962 construction had begun on a dam on the North Fork tributary of Salt Creek between U.S.150 and Illinois Route 9. The resulting lake, called Dawson Lake after the families of early settlers, was opened for fishing in 1963.
Originally known as the McLean County Conservation Area, additional acquisitions have expanded the area to its present 1,687 acres, and in 1975 it was designated as Moraine View State Recreation Area. Development of full recreational facilities has since made this one of the state's sterling examples of how economic and social necessity also can provide opportunities for conservation and recreation.