The Marias (or Baker) Massacre of 1870, called by one participant “the greatest slaughter of Indians ever made by U.S. troops,” is rather obscure today. Andrew R. Graybill, an associate professor of history and director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, tackles that subject in The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West (see review, P. 77). Yet he reveals more than that one overlooked attack on a Piegan camp, for his 2013 book is also a history of interracial marriage that spans generations. Graybill took time from his university and writing duties to speak with Wild West about his findings.
What drew you to the Clarke family and the Marias Massacre?
It was an accident, mostly. I was on a research trip to the Montana Historical Society in summer 2006, preparing to dig into a project on the U.S.-Canada borderlands. But I grew bored with that story prettyearly on, and so one day in the middle of my monthlong visit to Helena I thought about other Montana stories that interested me, and James Welch’s Fools Crow came immediately to mind (I use it often in undergraduate classes). One of the key events in the novel is the murder of a character named Malcolm Clarke, and so in deciding where I might look in the archives, I decided to find out if Clarke was a real person or rather a literary invention Welch used to move the story along. With help from MHS librarians and archivists, I found microfilm and manuscript records and tumbled down the Clarke family rabbit hole.
Why is this massacre, unlike Sand Creek or Wounded Knee, almost forgotten?
That’s a great question to which I don’t have much of an answer. I’ve wondered if perhaps part of the problem is the extremely remote location where the slaughter took place, or that, like the Battle of the Washita in 1868, these two events are bookended by the opening and closing acts of the Plains Indian wars and thus get lost in the shuffle.
How difficult was it to research?
Turning up information on the event was actually not that difficult, at least to a point, because—although there hasn’t been much serious scholarly attention paid to it—the Marias Massacre is featured here and there in primary and secondary sources. Much harder to uncover was new information that helped flesh out what we already know. And harder still was tracking the lives of some members of the Clarke family, who are the primary subjects of the book.
What was Malcolm Clarke’s role?
Malcolm Clarke came up the Missouri River in the early 1840s and soon became one of the most powerful fur traders in Montana and a leading white pioneer in the territory. His 1844 marriage to a young Piegan [Piegans were part of the Blackfoot Confederacy] woman named Coth-co-co-na, while typical of the day (native-white intermarriage helped facilitate the business of the fur trade), propelled him to an especially successful career. But it was his murder in 1869 at his ranch north of Helena that led directly to the Marias Massacre, in which his two sons, Horace and Nathan, rode with Major Eugene Baker to avenge their father’s death.
Compare the mixed-blood children of the Clarkes to those of, say, William Bent and Granville Stuart.
The parallels are remarkable. For instance, William Bent’s sons George and Charles experienced enormous difficulty in walking between the diverging worlds of their parents and—like Horace and Nathan Clarke—were linked to one of the worst episodes of native-white violence on the Great Plains (though the Bents were victims at Sand Creek in 1864). Likewise, Stuart’s mixed-race children faced substantial prejudice as the 19th century waned, though their experience may have been even more painful than that of later Clarke generations, as their father distanced himself from his Indian relatives in a bid to win acceptance in white society.
How difficult was it to be a “half-breed” in Montana in the late 19th Century?
As I explain in the book, mixed-race peoples lost plenty as the space for such individuals contracted sharply after the Civil War. And yet their in-betweenness had unmistakable advantages, too. Consider that Helen Clarke’s appointment to the Indian Service in the 1890s stemmed directly from her native ancestry, while her nephew, John Clarke, capitalized on his mixed ancestry to gain fame (if not fortune) as an artist.
How has that changed?
The starkest change, I think, is the emergence of what one former resident of the Blackfeet Reservation has called “bloodism.” Whereas in the early 20th century those with a lower degree of native ancestry were considered biologically and culturally superior (especially by agents of the U.S. government, who tended to negotiate tribal matters with them alone), today the situation on the reservation is reversed. Now, those who claim a higher “blood quantum” (these are such ungainly terms) tend to hold more power on the reservation.
You talk a lot about John Clarke. What drew you to him?
John’s story is so remarkable because he achieved extraordinary success as a wildlife artist despite the fact that he faced anti-Indian prejudice and was deaf and mute (because of a scarlet fever epidemic that burned through the Blackfeet Reservation in the early 1880s). And he was apparently an extraordinarily kindhearted man.
How important was Charlie Russell to Clarke’s development as an artist?
The interaction between the two was brief—they first corresponded in 1918, and Russell lived only until 1926. But Charlie evinced an early interest in John’s work (which must have been enormously important to John, given Montanans’ reverence for Charlie), and Russell advised Clarke on how to position himself in the art market.
What’s happening with the Clarke family today?
Sadly, Joyce Clarke Turvey (John’s adopted daughter), died on Aug. 6, 2013. From the very beginning Joyce was incredibly supportive of my research, and I couldn’t have written the book (or at least not nearly as successfully) without her assistance. I’m not sure what her daughter, Dana Turvey, plans to do with the John L. Clarke Western Art Gallery and Memorial Museum that her mother established in 1977 in East Glacier Park.
Your previous books include Policing the Great Plains: Rangers, Mounties and the North American Frontier, 1875–1910 and, as a co-editor, Bridging National Borders in North America: Transnational and Comparative Histories. How did The Red and the White differ from those in writing and researching?
The biggest difference, of course, is that unlike the two earlier books The Red and the White is a narrative history, written for both professional scholars and educated lay readers. While the research process was as intensive as ever (perhaps even more so, given the difficulty in tracking some of the members of the Clarke family), I foreground stories in The Red and the White, which, frankly, I found much more fun to write and are surely more satisfying to read (or so I hope).
You were researching the 1873 Cypress Hills Massacre. Will you pick up where you left off?
I won’t, actually, in large part because I don’t think I could improve upon the telling of this episode in The Englishman’s Boy, the wondrous 1996 novel by the Canadian writer Guy Vanderhaeghe. This isn’t to say that a historian couldn’t use the event as a vibrant window onto the formation of the U.S.-Canada border (among other subjects), but as a narrative I don’t think it can be bettered.
And you sing high praises for the Montana Historical Society. Sing some more.
Put simply, I think it’s one of the finest archival collections in the Western U.S. (perhaps in the entire country), with a knowledgeable, attentive and exceedingly friendly staff. I’m tempted to dream up a project with a Montana focus just for the chance to go back.
So what’s next for you?
I’m just starting a project on the Taos Revolt of 1847, in which a joint group of Indians and Hispanos rose up to protest the absorption of New Mexico by the United States during the U.S.-Mexican War. But as I’ll begin a three-year appointment as chair of my department starting this August, I think it’ll be some time before I make much headway.