There are no Clamorgans anymore. Until fairly recently, people with that name ran businesses and made their mark in society in New Orleans, St. Louis, and elsewhere. Mostly, though, they darted back and forth along the fringe of respectability, spending an undue amount of time in front of judges, hoping to secure dubious land claims or avoid hungry creditors. They were not political leaders. They were not glamorous. Though they dreamt of riches, the most successful were practitioners of the “tonsorial art” - barbers.

So, why should we care about them? Because they were quintessential Americans - on the make, on the take, unrelenting, unrepenting - and they tried to keep their secrets to themselves. Seduction and betrayal. Notorious fraud. A marriage annulled. Now, as a result of many years of sleuthing, Julie Winch has composed an epic portrait of a captivating American family that isn’t noble and isn’t ignoble, isn’t quite white and isn’t quite black - in fact, one branch took its claims of Indian ancestry seriously enough to name their children Pocahontas, Tecumseh and Minnehaha. No joke.

The story begins with its shady patriarch, Jacques Clamorgan, a founding father of St. Louis, born sometime in the 1740s. Even his national origins are sketchy: older generations of historians disagreed as to whether he was a Spaniard (he lived in what was then Spanish Louisiana); a Welshman (from the shire of Glamorgan); or an Irishman named James Morgan. Those who dealt with him knew him as French. What matters is that he was a trader in the West Indies during the American Revolution, and on the run from justice in New Orleans. In fledgling St. Louis, he speculated in land, acquired a Virginia-bred slave named Ester from former preacher Ichabod Camp, and took her to bed.

Jacques moved on from Ester to another woman of color; and then to a Susanne, whom he left, in short order, for still another woman. Meanwhile, he and Susanne had a daughter together, Apoline, who, at 14, became the mistress of a wealthy white man, and, in time, a serial mistress of several others. In mid 19th-century St. Louis, her sons made waves in the free black community. One of Apoline’s boys, Louis, opened the famed “Italian Baths,” catering to gentlemen in the market for an “easy shave” and a fine soak in a marble tub. (The visiting Prince of Wales was one customer.) Another son, Cyprian, who successfully “passed” for white, published a daring commentary on the times: The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis.

The mixed-race Clamorgans were, to a man and to a woman, risk-takers and wheeler-dealers. But Cyprian may have been the most full of surprises. There were two women in his life: an Irish immigrant, Joanne, and an English merchant’s daughter, Hebe White. Cyprian and Hebe lived in New Iberia, and they collaborated on his tell-all, Colored Aristocracy, which Winch describes as a “wickedly funny little book.” In fact, she believes that Cyprian made money on it by accepting cash from some distinguished families who wanted their names left out.

He did not refrain from calling into question the virtue and chastity of upper-class women.

So the Clamorgans, clumsily yet creatively, navigated laws and customs. On the one hand, they claimed vast tracts of land that old Jacques had schemed for; on the other, they subtly challenged the limitations placed on free people of color in 19th-century America. By the opening of the 20th century, one of Apoline’s grandsons, Henry, had “become” white, changed his name to Dr. Fordé Morgan, and married a white New Englander who wrote a hit show with Beatrice (mother of Cecil B.) DeMille. Another in the extended family who exchanged Clamorgan for Morgan resided in an exclusive white community, and let her appearance dictate how she was treated by the neighbors - all this without denying descent from the roguish Jacques Clamorgan and his “Negro wives.”

This is a remarkable American story. It presents history as it is: messy. And as it really happens: with bruised egos, contradictory laws and values, and elastic memories.

Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship Professor of History at LSU and author of books on American political culture. His website is: http://www.andburstein.com.