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8 “The Mark Unmistakably Fixed upon Their Brows” A Free Family of Color on America’s Borderlands JUlie winCh In 1858, a slim pamphlet sent shock waves through St. Louis society. Even before it rolled off the press, one family“for whom streets and parks [were] named” pleaded with the author to omit any mention of them. The pamphlet ’s title, The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis, and the approach the author , Cyprian Clamorgan, took to his subject reveals why they were so panic-stricken. He was not merely a talented writer with a taste for satire and invective; he had secrets to sell. He could, he declared, point to people in St. Louis who were “separated from the white race by a line of division so faint that it can be traced only by the keen eye of prejudice.” Although he said he intended to focus only on those individuals“who have the mark [of African descent] unmistakably fixed upon their brows,” he claimed he could name many others who inhabited the racial borderlands in one of the nation’s quintessential “frontier” cities.“We, who know the history of all the old families of St. Louis, might readily point to the scions of some of our‘first families,’and trace their genealogy back to the swarthy tribes of Congo or Guinea.”1 Cyprian Clamorgan’s own lineage explains why his pamphlet had the power to send prominent white St. Louisans hurrying to his door, some to offer bribes and others to deliver threats. They knew he had it in his power to reveal all the branches of their judiciously pruned family trees, because + 188 · Julie Winch they were well acquainted with the intricacies of Clamorgan genealogy. Sadly, the history of Cyprian Clamorgan and his kin has lain quietly buried over the century and a half since The Colored Aristocracy first appeared. Without an understanding of that history, Cyprian’s pamphlet becomes just an ephemeral piece, bereft of context. Happily, though the Clamorgan clan’s saga has been quietly covered over, traces of it remain. In endeavoring to recover the family’s story, historians have the signposts that Cyprian left to guide us along the way. We must begin with him. Cyprian Clamorgan readily admitted that he was a man of color in the introduction to The Colored Aristocracy. He took pride in that fact and in being a native of St. Louis. But how, in an era when the law of Missouri barred people of color, enslaved and free, from getting an education, did Cyprian become so polished a writer? He liberally sprinkled quotations from Shakespeare, Byron, and a host of less-well-known authors across the pages of The Colored Aristocracy.Cyprian’s mention of places far distant from St. Louis revealed a well-traveled and decidedly well-informed individual . But who was he? One passage in his book supplies a clue. In highly romanticized terms,Cyprian described the efforts of the early French voyageurs to find female companionship to replace the white wives they had left “in peaceful security at home.” While some turned to“the sylvan maids of the forest,” others looked elsewhere: At that time the blood of Africa had crossed the Atlantic, and the colored race had found a foothold in the West Indies. It was there that many of the voyageurs . . . obtained wives to share their fortunes in the wilderness; and from this union have sprung up many of those whom we designate the“colored aristocracy.”2 Was Cyprian the descendant of just such a union as he described between a French voyageur and a woman of color? It seems plausible. And then there was his last name, borne by only one American family. The litigiousness of that family, and the tendency of its members to push the law to its utmost limits, answers the question of Cyprian Clamorgan’s identity . When he claimed in 1858 that he had secrets for sale, he was telling nothing less than the truth. He could make disclosures that many people found profoundly disturbing to contemplate. A Clamorgan to the core, Cyprian had no compunction about making what capital he could from A Free Family of Color on America’s Borderlands · 189 his situation. He and his family had done that since the first Clamorgan arrived on America’s shores. On many different levels the Clamorgans inhabited America’s borderlands . In the most literal sense, the geographical one, the members of the family lived on the frontier...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780813052021
MARC Record
OCLC
1017610503
Pages
224
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Language
English
Open Access
No
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