Sunday, June 10, 2007


James Welch is by far the most noted of the Blackfeet writers and, in fact, has probably broken out of the Native American category to be shelved with mainstream writers. In fact, he was not exclusively Blackfeet but he was strongly related or associated with many outstanding personalities on the Blackfeet Reservation. These are his Blackfeet connections:

His grandfather, James Welch, came from North Carolina. He had left a wife and three children there on the Cherokee Reservation. In Montana he married Ellen Sanderville. Her father was Isidore Sanderville or Sandoval (who was half-Piegan on his mother’s side) and her mother was Isidore’s full-blood Piegan wife, who had been adopted and raised by Charles Phemister, who ranched just to the south of Charles Davis’ allotment but across Birch Creek so that he was off the reservation. They were associated with the Heart Butte community.

Ellen’s grandfather, also Isidore Sandoval or Sanderville, came from New Mexico and was a companion or possibly a brother of Pablo and related to the Starr of Starr School. His Piegan wife was named Catch-for-Nothing. In 1833 he was an informant to Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, the visiting naturalist. When Bodmer painted an Assiniboine attack on the Piegan camp just outside a fort, Sandoval was there. Later he was the right hand man for Alexander Culbertson until he was murdered by another engagĂ©. Isidore II was adopted by Malcolm Clarke and survived an Arikara attack on Clarke’s fort on the Marias, even though he, a blind girl, and Helen Clarke (then a child) were outside the fort when the attack came. Their rescue is a thrilling story.

In addition to Ellen, Isidore Sanderville II had a number of outstanding children by several wives: Oliver, Richard and Thomas were strong interpreters, political campaigners and ceremonial leaders. Louise married a Croff and Cecile married a Yellow Wolf.

The first James Welch was the father of the James Welch who was a playmate of Bob Scriver, the two of them becoming the bane of superintendent Doug Gold’s efforts to keep an orderly school. He grew up to be a very fine welder and a hospital administrator, doing well enough that at one point he bought each of his three sons a car of their own. Evidently inheriting his father’s fiddlefoot, he held jobs from Seattle to Minneapolis and married a Fort Belknap woman (they met at Haskell) with whom he had three sons. By a late marriage he also had a daughter. All four children did well in life. Just last spring this James was buried in the Dupuyer cemetary between his mother and his grandmother. His son, James Welch Junior, had earlier died of cancer.

The third James Welch, who used "Junior" with his name, is the famous writer who actually spent many formative years on the Fort Belknap Reservation. His two early break-through novels, “Winter in the Blood” and “The Death of Jim Loney” are about that reservation rather than the Blackfeet one. Among his Fort Belknap relatives is Sidner Larson, author of “Catch Colt,” a memoir that tells about his own careers as a rancher, bar owner, lawyer and professor of Native American literature.

Ellen Welch’s uncle, Richard Sanderville (3/4 Piegan) was a nephew of Good Singing, Malcolm Clarke’s wife, who was married to him by Father de Smet in 1862. Good Singing’s and Clarke’s daughter, Judith, married Tom Dawson. They lived in East Glacier. Richard Sanderville was educated at the St. Ignatius Mission and Carlisle. He was an advisor to Louis Hill, the Glacier Park Service, Schultz, and Grinnell. Some of his correspondence survives.

Ellen’s sister, Cecile, married Yellow Wolf. Yellow Wolf’s sister, Fine Shield Woman, married James Willard Schultz. Yellow Wolf’s son, Sam Yellow Wolf, was the second husband of Mary, widow of William Jackson, a scout with Custer. Yellow Wolf is buried near the grave of James Willard Schultz on the cliffs overlooking the Two Medicine valley, or rather the other way around, since Schultz asked to be buried near his uncle-in-law.

David Duvall (1/2 Piegan), the informant for Clarke Wissler, early anthropologist, had a half-sister, Mary Eagle Head, who was the first wife of Hart Schultz.

Oliver Sanderville/Sandoval was with the Clarke family on Prickly Pear Creek when relatives of Malcolm’s first wife, Kakokima, murdered Malcolm in August, 1869, provoking the “Baker Massacre” in January 1870. (This ranch is now Sieben, the home ranch of Senator Baucus.)

Oliver Sanderville’s uncle was Sleeping-in-Daytime (male) whose daughter Yellow Spotted married Dick Kipp, son of Heavy Runner and grandfather of Darrell Kipp, head of the Piegan Institute.

Though there may not be genetic connections among all these people, it’s clear that the family “culture” was one of openness to progress, valuing of education and writing, and willingness to accept whites. They have been people who successfully assimilated without losing their identities.

(This entry is based on “Blackfeet Heritage, 1907-1908,” edited by Roxanne DeMarce and “Who Was Who In Glacier Land” by Jack Holterman.)


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed James Welch's "Fools Crow". My brother-in-law, Terry Wean, introduced me to it. I believe Terry met Welch while he (Terry) was finishing his MFA at U of M in

Anonymous said...

As a grandson to Richard Chief Bull Sanderville I am grateful that you have documented our Blackfeet genealogy.

Dr. John Ewers wrote a great story about my grandfather Chief Bull in the book American Indian Intellectuals.

James Mountain Chief Sanderville

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Mr. Sanderville, I think there needs to be a formal biography of the Sanderville brothers. Much of their story is not remembered and they were vital to the growth and success of the Blackfeet.

Might you write such a book? Would you email me: mary.scriver at Or call me in Valier?

Thanks very much.

Prairie Mary

Beth Judy said...

Was it not Malcolm Clarke's daughter Isabel who married Tom Dawson and lived in E. Glacier? It would add to the amazing connections here to also talk about the Clarkes--especially John L., the sculptor, and his interesting aunts.