Legendary Pioneer James Beckwourth
James Pierson Beckwourth was an African American mountain man whose exploits rivaled those of more well known frontier figures such as Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith. He played a major role in exploring and settling of the American West. Although there were many others credited with doing the same Beckwourth was the only African American who recorded his life story and adventures. He dictated his autobiography to Thomas D. Bonner, a traveling Justice of the Peace while in the gold fields of California about 1855.
Beckwourth may have been taken more seriously if he had selected another writer to record his memoirs. Bonner was notorious for getting names and dates wrong. That, along with Beckwourth’s talent for spinning a good yarn, exaggeration and knack of showing up just in time to witness or participate in some historic event, gave him a reputation for being a "gaudy liar."
The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians was published by Harper and Brothers in 1856. The title itself is indicative of Bonner’s talent as a journalist. And Beckwourth was also bad with getting exact dates and names. But in his defense, it should be noted he was recalling events which sometimes had taken place many years before. Therefore, historians often dismissed events in the book as pure fabrication. However, when corrections and adjustments were made it was found much other supporting evidence often turned up.
There’s a humorous often told tale about the book when it was published. It seems there were a group of miners who knew Beckwourth well and one was told to go to San Francisco and pick up a copy. Apparently, not the brightest member of the group, he bought a bible instead.
After his return he was asked to read the book to the rest. He picked a chapter at random and began reading the story of Samson and the foxes. One of the men stopped the reading in mid paragraph and bellowed "That'll do! I'd know that story for one of Jim's lies anywhere!"
But Beckwourth's role in American history was often dismissed by historians for other reasons, Mainly prejudice. Many refused to recognize the contributions of a "mongrel of mixed blood," as one articulate writer described him. But later, historians discovered much of what Beckwourth claimed in his autobiography were true accounts. His exploits were confirmed by other mountain men of the day. If Beckwourth's autobiography is to be believed, he had a hand in almost every recorded event in the history of the Rocky Mountain’s during the 1820s.
Beckwourth was born in Frederick County, Virginia in 1798. His mother was an African American slave and his father, Englishman Jennings Beckwith. Even though he was half white, according to the law, he was still legally considered a slave.
In the early 1800s, Beckwourth's family moved to Missouri. Young Jim became a blacksmith apprentice, but soon tired of the job finding it boring and tedious. He craved excitement and adventure and when the opportunity arose in 1822 he signed on with an expedition to the lead mines in the Fever River area, now Galena, IL.
Beckwourth later briefly returned home but was gone like a shot when he heard of General William Ashley’s trapping expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1824. He spent a number of years trapping fur with the American Fur Company and Rocky Mountain Fur Company. During those years he met and worked with other famed mountaineers like Jim Clyman and Edward Rose.
For about two weeks he ran a trading post which failed with some Blackfeet Indians. His marriage to two Blackfoot women lasted about the same.
In about 1828, Beckwourth was supposedly captured by a party of Crow warriors. In Beckwourth's account, he was mistaken for the long lost son of one of the tribal chieftains and adopted into the tribe, eventually rising to the rank of War Chief. However, most believe he came to live with the Crow as part of his job working to establish trade for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
During his time with the Crow, by his own account, he fell in love with a young warrior woman, Pine Leaf. Pine Leaf had been captured from another tribe by the Crow at about the age of ten. She had vowed she would not marry until she killed one hundred enemy warriors.
Beckwourth pursued her relentlessly, but his advances were continually rebuffed saying she would marry him "when the pine-leaves turn yellow" or "when you find a red-headed Indian." But, Pine Leaf relented when Beckwourth returned after an excursion during which everyone thought he had been killed. However, Beckwourth got the wanderlust again and left the Crow about five weeks after being married.
By the summer of 1836 Beckwourth's career with the American Fur Company was coming to an end. The demand for beaver pelts was decreasing and after years of trapping, beaver were becoming scarce. Additionally, most of the tribes the Company did business with were at war with the Crow.
In 1837, several writers accused Beckwourth of deliberately infecting the plains Indians with smallpox. Beckwourth had many friends among the mountain men, but also a few enemies. There is no evidence to support the accusation. In fact, most were written by those who had an axe to grind and the story doesn't fit Beckwourth’s known character. Beckwourth was known to have had a tremendous respect for the Indian.
Later in 1837 Beckwourth joined up with General William Gaines, who was recruiting mountain men to serve as muleteers in the Florida Seminole Wars. The British, who controlled Florida at the time, had recruited Seminoles to raid frontier settlements, thus making them an enemy of the United States.
Beckwourth recruited other mountain men and worked as an "Express Rider for $50 a month. He stayed in Florida for about ten months, scouting and carrying dispatches, but when the war settled down Beckwourth once again became bored so in the summer of 1838 he found himself in St. Louis looking for a job. It didn’t take long for someone with his exceptional skills since there were still many opportunities for independent traders.
Some old acquaintances of his, Andrew Sublette and Louis Vasquez recruited him to head out Southwest with them to establish relations and trade with the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux. They set out on the Santa Fe Trail for the fort Vasquez had founded in 1835 on the Platte River in what is now Colorado.
Beckwourth was named "agent-in-charge," and he set out to establish himself among the Cheyenne. One well known trader in the Cheyenne camp, William Brent was quoted as "You are certainly bereft of your senses. The Indians will make sausage-meat of you." This was said in light of the fact Beckwourth was a recognized Crow chief, hated enemies of the Cheyenne.
In true Beckwourth fashion, he played on the Cheyenne’s respect for bravery and their pride. “I have killed a great Crow Chief, and am obliged to run away, or be killed by them,” Beckwourth bragged. “I have come to the Cheyenne, who are the bravest people in the mountains, as I do not wish to be killed by any of the inferior tribes. I have come here to be killed by the Cheyenne, cut up, and thrown out for their dogs to eat, so that they may say they have killed a great Crow Chief.”
His ploy, in addition to 20 gallons of whiskey, worked and Sublette and Vasquez had a thriving fall and winter. But the following winter business fell off and they sold out. 1840 saw Beckwourth again temporarily out of work, but not for long. Another more successful outfit headed by Charles and William Bent, quickly added the skilled frontiersman to their payroll, dealing with the same tribes.
But, as always Beckwourth got itchy feet and he set out with a companion for Taos, New Mexico, where he formed a partnership with a friend. However, this time he was in business dealing with the Cheyenne. The business was successful and Beckwourth settled down and married Luisa Sandoval.
In October, 1842, Beckwourth and Luisa moved north in what is now Colorado. There he set up another trading post which attracted more settlers and soon a small community was established. It was named "Pueblo.”
But the “Pueblo’s,” as they came to be known weren't popular in Bent country as Beckwourth’s former employers saw the newcomers as competition. They complained continually to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, calling them "renegade Americans" and "Mexican traders" and requesting a military fort be built. But apparently the authorities saw their opposition for what it was…a case of sour grapes.
Meanwhile, tensions between Mexico and Texas had a devastating effect on Beckwourth’s business and he was forced to move on. To make matters worse, his wife had remarried claiming Beckwourth had deceived her with a forged document expressing his desire to be free.
Shortly after, Beckwourth and a partner established a successful hotel in Santa Fe. His partner ran the hotel, while Beckwourth carried dispatches for the army. Fate seemed to favor Beckwourth as word soon came all the Americans living in Taos, including his old boss Charles Bent, had been massacred in an insurrection.
Beckwourth, mountain men, friends and employees of the Bent brothers gathered, to exact revenge on the Indian and Mexican rebels. He witnessed the defeat and hangings for the atrocities committed in Taos on January 19, 1847.
About a year later he decided to try his luck once again in California. Like always he managed to show up at the right time…just ahead of the gold rush in 1848. But he was also first on the scene as a dispatch carrier at one of California’s most infamous atrocities, the “Reed Murders.”
At the San Miguel Mission, owned by William Reed, he stopped for a rest as the sun was setting. He and the Reed’s had become fast friends. Looking around, his suspicions began to be aroused as there seemed to be nobody around. Beckwourth began investigating in the kitchen and promptly stumbled over the body of a man. He lit a candle and searched further.
He found the bodies of two other women. When he was about to push open a door, he thought better of it. Fate had once again intervened, since the murderers were hiding in the room with pistols aimed at the door. Instead, Beckwourth rode for help and returned with about fifteen men. The posse found eleven bodies and the culprits had set fire to the mission. But fortunately, the fire had died out.
The victims were Reed, his family and the hired. help Reed had been shot in the head, and the rest had been butchered with axes. The murderers were captured near Santa Barbara.
In 1850 he discovered a pass through the Sierra Nevada which bears his name, easing the way for prospectors and California bound settlers.In August 1851, he led the first intact wagon train into the Gold Rush city of Marysville, California.
During the Civil War he accompanied an army regiment to Sand Creek, Colorado, against his will. where a group of peaceful Cheyenne were camped. He witnessed the massacre of a group of Cheyenne and Arapaho which became known as the Sand Creek Massacre.
Beckwourth died at age 69 on October 29th, 1866 after guiding a military column to a Crow Tribe in Montana. Complaining of severe headaches and suffering nosebleeds, Beckwourth returned to the Crow village where he died and was placed on a traditional burial platform. Some accounts say he was intentionally poisoned, but no substantiating evidence was ever presented.
In 1996, Marysville renamed its largest park, Beckwourth Riverfront Park, in recognition of Beckwourth's contributions to the city’s growth.
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