- The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America by Julie Winch
Race, St. Louis, Mixed race, Land claims
When French merchant Jacques Clamorgan entered Spanish-controlled St. Louis in 1781, he put down roots and began a family that would be embroiled in his dealings on the borderlands for more than a century. Over the following three and a half decades, Jacques used his ambiguous national identity, international connections, and transitions in territorial ownership to lay claim to massive tracts of land throughout the Illinois Country and Upper Louisiana. While many histories of nineteenth-century North America engage with the themes of race, family, politics, law, money and the economy, or land and expansion, few historians substantially tackle more than one, let alone all of these issues. Julie Winch’s tale of the St. Louis-based Clamorgan family is therefore a feat of extraordinary breadth, organization, and dedication.
Winch traces the Clamorgan family from its progenitor, Jacques, and his initial investment in St. Louis and the Upper Louisiana Territory in the 1780s, through his great-grandchildren’s legal and personal battles to gain claim to the land in the early twentieth century. Clamorgan’s [End Page 142] descendants persistently faced the realities of living in a nation whose legal system made those land claims difficult to pursue, while making race an issue of legal contention. The Clamorgans is, therefore, as its subtitle suggests, a “history of race in America,” but perhaps Winch’s biggest contribution is that she shows how stories of family, politics, law, money, and land in American history all are fundamentally histories of race as well.
She begins her analysis with Jacques’s disingenuous methods of investment, including gambling with money and land on the borderlands. Even in times of fiscal hardship for Jacques, the author’s analysis resonates with current fiscal concerns. Winch points out that Jacques was “too big to fail” as he capitalized on the tenuous circumstances of business in the specie-poor economy of early St. Louis (76). Bureaucratic confusion over the transition to U.S. rule that ensued and Jacques’s own less-than-honest speculation ultimately resulted in an unfulfilled promise of riches that preoccupied his descendants for over a century after his death. Jacques owned property in both land and people, and bet on both. Taking advantage of the ambiguities of race and gender on the borderlands and starting a family with his former slaves, Jacques upped the ante, complicating a clear path of inheritance.
One of Winch’s most interesting and compelling findings that illustrates Jacques’s adeptness at fraud was the transfer of land deeds to his former slave and lover Ester in an attempt to hide such property from creditors. Winch explains that this transfer was probably why Jacques agreed to free Ester. Ester eventually found out and sued for her land, but Jacques used her race, gender, and her daughter’s enslaved status against her. Ester died before receiving any vindication. Ultimately, those land transfers remain at the center of the narrative as Jacques’s natural descendants battle through the courts to lay claim to their supposed fortune. Ester and the three other freedwomen of African descent with whom Jacques shared his bed—Hélène, Susanne, and Julie—are equally important to the story and make The Clamorgans an important piece of historical scholarship on race and gender in America.
Each subsequent chapter begins with a family tree that serves as a guide for the increasingly complex familial legacy that Jacques left behind. It is only the nineteenth-century realities of disease and high mortality that make the numerous Clamorgan descendants readily traceable. In chapters 2–4, Winch details the lives of Ester, Hélène, Susanne, Julie, and their children. The author uncovers a surprising amount of [End Page 143] information about these strong women and their children on the frontier, while also demonstrating how the double burden of race and gender applied in both slavery and freedom. Though most...