A Family Saga of the American West

By Andrew R. Graybill

Liveright. 338 pp. $28.95

Andrew R. Graybill’s “The Red and the White” offers an intriguing account of how a Montana family negotiated the conflict between white settlers and Native Americans that has scarred the history of the American West. Graybill narrates the experiences of Malcolm Clarke and his descendants. In 1844, Clarke, then a trapper, married a Piegan Indian woman named Coth-co-co-na at a lonely fur-trading outpost along the Missouri River. The affectionate union produced four children, but Clarke — in what was a fairly common practice at the time — took a second Native American wife and fathered four children with her. By 1869, the entire family lived under one roof at Clarke’s Prickly Pear Valley ranch.

Clarke’s mixed family provided no protection from the tensions arising as white settlers encroached on Indian land. On Aug. 17, 1869, he was shot at point-blank range by Piegans at his ranch. The murder inflamed fears of an uprising and led to a punitive expedition by U.S. troops the following winter.

The expedition culminated in the massacre of as many as 217 Piegans along the Marias River, a tragedy compounded by the fact that the Army attacked the wrong band. Among those riding with the cavalry that day was Malcolm Clarke’s son Horace, who had been shot in the face the day his father was killed but miraculously survived.

Book cover of "The Red and the White: A family saga of the American West" by Andrew R. Graybill (Liveright)

Up to this point, Graybill’s account seems unfocused and anecdotal, but its direction becomes clear as he recounts how Malcolm Clarke’s descendants navigated the cross currents of their dual heritage. Despite his participation in the Marias River attack, Horace remained well regarded by the Piegans and assisted in their efforts to win restitution from the government for the massacre. After a brief career on the New York stage, Horace’s sister Helen enjoyed political success as one of the first women elected to public office in Montana before rising hostility toward mixed-blood Montanans drove her out of the territory. John Clarke, Horace’s son, became a noted artist whose work focused on Native Americans and Montana wildlife.

Graybill occasionally provides a distracting excess of background information about peripheral or irrelevant personalities (for example, an account of the travails and triumphs of theatrical impresario Edwin Booth). But his story of how one family walked “in two worlds — one red, the other white” — is, in the end, fascinating and often moving.

— Robert B. Mitchell