James Pierson Beckwourth, born James Beckwith and generally known as, Jim Beckwourth (April 26, 1798 or 1800 Frederick County, Virginia – October 29, 1866 or 1867, Denver, Colorado Territory) was an American mountain man, fur trader, and explorer. A mulatto born into slavery in Virginia, he was freed by his father (and master) and apprenticed to a blacksmith; later he moved to the American West. As a fur trapper, he lived with the Crow Nation for years. He is credited with the discovery of Beckwourth Pass, through the Sierra Nevada (U.S.) Mountains, between present-day Reno, Nevada, and Portola, California, during the California Gold Rush years, and improved the Beckwourth Trail, which thousands of settlers followed to central California.
He narrated his life story to Thomas D. Bonner, an itinerant justice of the peace. The book was published in New York City and London in 1856 as The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians. A translation was published in France in 1860.
Early historians of the Old West originally considered the book little more than campfire lore. It has since been reassessed as a valuable source of social history, especially for life among the Crow, although not all its details are reliable or accurate. The civil rights movement of the 1960s celebrated Beckwourth as an early African-American pioneer. He has since been featured as a role model in children's literature and textbooks.
Early life and slavery
James was born into slavery in Virginia, but sources differ as to the year: 1798 or 1800. Being born of mixed race, he had a mother who was an enslaved African-American mulatto woman, and his father was her master, Sir Jennings Beckwith, a descendant of Irish and English nobility. Little was known about Beckwourth's mother, but James was said to be third of her thirteen children. When James was a boy, his father arranged to apprentice him to a blacksmith so that he could learn a good trade. He acknowledged James as his son. He was apprenticed to a blacksmith until age 19 to learn a trade. James was fired by the artisan after getting into an argument with him.
Jennings Beckwith moved to Missouri around 1809, when James was young, taking his mother and all their children with him. Although Beckwith raised his mixed-race children as his own, he legally held them as master. He freed James Beckworth by manumission, by deed of emancipation in court in 1824, 1825, and 1826. The young Beckwourth, as he later came to spell his surname, attended school in St. Louis for four years. When and why James changed his name to Beckwourth is unknown.
Into the Fur Trade, Indian fighter, and black chief of the Crow Nation
In 1824 as a young man, Beckwourth joined Gen. William Ashley's Rocky Mountain Fur Company, as a wrangler on Ashley's expedition to explore the Rocky Mountains. In the following years, Beckwourth became known as a prominent trapper and mountain man. He worked with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and was an Indian fighter. He was well known for telling tales about his adventures.
In July 1825, rendezvous, trapper and colleague Caleb Greenwood told the campfire story of Beckwourth's being the child of a Crow chief. He claimed Beckwourth had been stolen as a baby by raiding Cheyenne and sold to whites. This lore was widely believed, as Beckwourth had adopted Native American dress and was taken by some people as an Indian.
Later that year, Beckwourth claimed to have been captured by Crow Indians while trapping in the border county between the territories of Crow, Cheyenne, and Blackfoot. According to his account, he was mistaken for the lost son of a Crow chief, so they admitted him to the nation. Independent accounts suggest his stay with the Crow was planned by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to advance its trade with the tribe. Beckwourth married the daughter of a chief, and may have had multiple wives. (Marriages between Native Americans and fur trappers and traders were common for the valuable alliances they provided both parties.)
For the next eight to nine years, Beckwourth lived with a Crow band. He rose in their society from warrior to chief (a respected man) and leader of the "Dog Clan". According to his book, he eventually ascended to the highest-ranking war chief of the Crow Nation. He still trapped but did not sell his or Crow furs to his former partners of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Instead, he sold to John Jacob Astor's competing American Fur Company. Beckwourth participated in raids by the Crow on neighboring nations and the occasional white party. Sometimes such raids escalated to warfare, most often against bands of their traditional Blackfoot enemy.
U.S. Army soldier, courier, wagon master, and Indian trader
In 1837, when the American Fur Company did not renew his contract, Beckwourth returned to St. Louis. He volunteered with the United States Army to fight in the Second Seminole War in Florida. In his book, he claimed to have been a soldier and courier. According to historical records, he was a civilian wagon master in the baggage division.
From 1838 to 1840, Beckwourth was an Indian trader against the Cheyenne, on the Arkansas River, working out of Fort Vasquez, Colorado, near Platteville. In 1840, he moved to the Bent & St. Vrain Company (the Bent brothers built Fort Bent on the Arkansas River). Later that same year, Beckwourth became an independent trader. Together with other partners, he built a trading post in Colorado. It was the center of development of the community of Pueblo, Colorado.
In 1844, Beckwourth traded on the Old Spanish Trail between the Arkansas River and California, then controlled by Mexico. When the Mexican-American War began in 1846, Beckwourth returned to the United States. He brought along nearly 1,800 stolen Mexican horses, as spoils of war. In the war, he served as a courier with the US Army and helped suppress the Taos Revolt. His former employer, Charles Bent, then interim governor of New Mexico, was slain in that revolt.
Store keeper, professional gambler, rancher, hotel keeper, and author
By 1848 and the start of the Gold Rush, Beckwourth went to California. He opened a store at Sonoma, but he soon sold up and went to Sacramento, then a boomtown close to the mines, to live as a professional card player.
In 1850, Beckwourth was credited with discovering what came to be called Beckwourth Pass, a low-elevation pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountain chain. In 1851, he improved what became the Beckwourth Trail, originally a Native American path through the mountains. It began near Pyramid Lake and the Truckee Meadows east of the mountains, climbed to the pass named for him, and went along a ridge, between two forks of Feather River, before passing down to the gold fields of northern California, at Marysville. The trail spared the settlers and gold seekers, about 150 miles (240 km) and several steep grades and dangerous passes, such as Donner Pass.
By his account, the business communities of the gold towns in California were supposed to fund the making of the trail. However, when Beckwourth tried to collect his payment in 1851 after leading a party through, Marysville had suffered from two huge fires and town leaders were unable to pay. (In 1996, in recognition of his contribution to the city's development and of the outstanding debt to him, the City of Marysville officially renamed the town's largest park Beckwourth Riverfront Park.)
Beckwourth began ranching in the Sierra. His ranch, trading post and hotel, in today's Sierra Valley, were the starting of the settlement of Beckwourth, California. In the winter of 1854/55, the itinerant judge, Thomas D. Bonner stayed in the hotel, and on winter nights Beckwourth told him his life story. Bonner wrote it down, edited the material the following year, and offered the book to Harper & Brothers in New York. The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth was published in 1856. According to the contract, Beckwourth was entitled to one half of the proceeds, but he never received any income from Bonner.
United States Indian agent and scout during Sand Creek Massacre
In 1859, Beckwourth returned to Missouri briefly, but settled later, that year in Denver, Colorado. He was a storekeeper and was appointed as local agent for Indian affairs. In 1864, Beckwourth was hired, by Colonel John M. Chivington, of the Third Colorado Volunteers, to act as a scout, for a campaign against the Cheyenne and Apache. The Colorado Territory's campaign resulted in the Sand Creek Massacre, in which the militia killed an estimated 70-163 friendly Cheyenne men, women and children, who had camped in an area suggested by the previous commander of Fort Lyon and flew an American flag to show their status.
Outraged by the massacre, the Cheyenne banned Beckwourth from trading with them. Well into his 60s by then, Beckwourth returned to trapping. The US Army employed him as a scout at Fort Laramie and Fort Phil Kearny in 1866.
While guiding a military column to a Crow band in Montana, Beckwourth complained of severe headaches and suffered nosebleeds, most probably the result of a severe case of hypertension. He returned to the Crow village, where he died on October 29, 1866, with unstoppable nose bleeding. William Byers, a personal friend and the founder of the Rocky Mountain News, claimed the Crow had poisoned Beckwourth, as the tribe felt they could not trust him because of his involvement in the Sand Creek Massacre. However, Byers had no supporting evidence, which made the claim pure speculation.
Marriage and family
At different times, Beckwourth had married at least four women: two Native Americans, an Hispanic, and an African American. He had numerous children by them, although he spent most of his time on the move exploring and trapping beaver and bear.
Beckwourth's frontier memoir
Beckwourth recounted his life history to Thomas D. Bonner, who wrote the book The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation. Beckwourth's language and style (as written by Bonner) were as notable as the reported adventures. The book provides historical information on how US government officials used alcohol; how occupations affect those who work in the field; the historical relationship among diseases, wildlife, and the environment; as well as reports dealing with massacres and war.
"Jim Beckwourth, who knew, said that though the Indian could never become a white man, the white man lapsed easily into an Indian." -
Book, television, and film
In the 2015 film The Revenant, an unnamed African-American is depicted, as part of Ashley's 100. Since the chronology of events in the life of Hugh Glass was changed slightly for the film, it is unclear if the African-American shown was intended to be James Beckwourth, Edward Rose, a lesser known black mountain man, or simply a representation of the wider acceptance and equality of blacks on the western frontier that gave rise to historical figures like Beckwourth. Hugh Glass' legendary return, after being abandoned and left for dead, occurred in 1823, and Beckwourth did not join the expedition until 1824. However, there was an intervening period of time, between the return of Glass and his confrontation with Bridger and Fitzgerald, that did occur subsequent to 1824, that was changed in the film for the sake of brevity.
Legacy and honors
- Beckwourth Pass, named in honor of James Beckwourth, is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Plumas County, California. State Route 70 crosses the Sierra at an elevation of 1,591 m (5,221 ft), making it one of the lowest crossings of the Sierra Nevada in California. It is also the route that the Western Pacific Railroad used to cross the Sierra along their Feather River route. The pass is located east of Portola, California.
- Beckwourth improved a Native American path to create what became known as the Beckwourth Trail through Plumas, Butte, and Yuba counties. In August 1851, he led the first intact wagon train into the burgeoning Gold Rush city of Marysville, California. Beckwourth demanded payment for improving the trail, claiming he had an agreement with the city and its merchants. The city failed to pay him because it had suffered two fires and had extensive property damage. Beckwourth could not sue for damages. The former major had lost not only the town, but the state, and the council claimed there was no paper record. The trail was heavily used through 1855, when people began to shift to the newly constructed railroad for passage.
- In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 29 cent commemorative postage stamp honoring Jim Beckwourth.
- In 1996, the city of Marysville renamed its largest park Beckwourth Riverfront Park in recognition of Beckwourth's significance to the growth of the city. The city sponsored, for a few years, the former "Beckwourth Frontier Days", annually held in October, then the only living history festival in northern California.
- Leigh Brackett, "Follow the Free Wind," New York: Doubleday, 1963 (novel based on Beckwourth's life)
- Bill Hotchkiss, The Medicine Calf, New York: Norton, 1981, ISBN 0-393-01389-8 (novel based on Beckwourth's life.)
- Matt Braun, "Bloody Hand," New York: St Martin's Press, 1996, ISBN 0-312-95839-0. (novel about Beckwourth's life with the Crow)