Jim BeckwourthJul 13th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment, Military & Exploration, The West
1798-1866 James Pierson Beckwourth was the only African American pioneer to record his exploits in the early days of the western frontier. He was involved in major events from Canada to Mexico and Florida to California, where he discovered the Beckwourth Pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Like his better-known contemporaries Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and Davy Crockett, he was a true adventurer.
Beckwourth was born in 1798 in Frederick County, Virginia. His father was a white military officer; his mother was a slave who bore him 13 children. His father raised Beckwourth as his own son, and signed his emancipation papers. While Beckwourth was still a teenager, the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, at that time, the limit of the western frontier. After completing four years of school, the boy was apprenticed to a stern blacksmith. In 1822, following an altercation with the blacksmith, he abandoned his apprenticeship and family to join an expedition to the lead mines in the Fever River, Wisconsin, area. He then set out for New Orleans, but had difficulty finding work there as a free Black.
Then in 1823, he signed on for an expedition with the Rocky Mountain Fur Trading Company, which took him deep into the western wilderness. There, he perfected the skills that would serve him as an adventurer: he became a sharpshooter, and was equally adept with a bowie knife and a tomahawk. He also became acquainted with the local Native American tribes, and began a lifelong pattern of marrying often: during this period, he wed two Blackfoot women, only to desert them.
In 1825, he was captured by the warrior Crow tribe and began a six-year sojourn living with them. Beckwourth distinguished himself in battle with enemy tribes and earned the rank of War Chief. And he married no fewer than 10 Crow women, including one named Pine Leaf who was herself an esteemed warrior. But he abandoned her and the Crow shortly thereafter. He tried his hand at running two trading posts before returning to St. Louis in 1836 to find it much changed. A brief visit back to the Crow nation earned him the malicious charge of having spread the smallpox epidemic that decimated the Plains Indians in 1837.
By this time, several factors had diminished the fur trade. Fashions had changed, reducing demand. Wildlife had been depleted, and the Crow’s hostilities toward white settlers and their trading partner tribes had taken a toll. The Rocky Mountain Fur Trading Company no longer had need of Beckwourth’s services. But the U.S. Army, fighting the Seminole tribe in Florida, did. Beckwourth was recruited, along with other Missouri mountain men and Indian fighters to join the campaign, but he found it lacked adventure.
Returning to St. Louis, Beckwourth was hired by an acquaintance with a trading company in the Platte River region of Colorado who would represent him to the Cheyenne. After several years, he headed south to Taos, New Mexico, and traded on his own. He also married Luisa Sandoval. The couple then founded their own settlement called Pueblo in Colorado, where a town of that name still stands. Stifled by the more established Bent Brothers who had a near monopoly on trading in the Colorado region, Beckwourth decided in 1844 to seek more opportunities in California. But 1845 saw the outbreak of hostilities between the white settlers there and the Mexican government; and with the declaration of war between the United States and Mexico, he and several associates fled, gathering some 1,800 horses from Mexican ranchers on the way and bringing them back to Colorado. There, he found that Luisa had given up on him and remarried, and he relocated to Santa Fe where he established a hotel with a partner. In 1847, he received news of a massacre of all the white settlers in Taos, joined the retaliatory force, and witnessed the hangings of the Indian and Mexican rebels there.
The Beckwourth Pass
Beckwourth decided to return to California and the burgeoning gold rush, and became chief scout for General John C. Fremont in 1848. Several miles northwest of present day Reno, Nevada, he found a passage across the treacherous Sierra Nevada Mountains into the lush interior of the California gold country that was easier to navigate than the notorious Donner Pass. The new Beckwourth Pass would be used by thousands of settlers and gold prospectors, and was chosen by the Western Pacific Railway as its gateway to the west. Beckwourth then signed on for one of the mail routes on the west coast. At a rest stop at the home of his friends, the Reed family, he accidentally discovered the worst mass murder of the era and barely escaped with his own life. In 1854 and 1855, Beckwourth dictated his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians, to a Justice of the Peace in the California gold fields. It was published in the United States in 1856, in England the following year, and in a French translation in 1860. While riddled with exaggerations and errors of factual detail, the overall impression of someone who participated in or witnessed seemingly every major event in the opening of the west has largely been borne out by historical study.
In 1866, Beckwourth fought his last battle in the Cheyenne War, and was subsequently engaged by the U.S. government as an interpreter in peace talks with the Crow. The Crow hosted him at a ceremonial dinner that year, and asked him to rejoin the tribe and lead it back to prominence. Beckwourth refused, and returned home to Denver where he had become a storekeeper. He soon died of mysterious causes. Legend holds that the Crow poisoned him, thinking that if they couldn’t have his leadership in person, they would have the next best thing by thus capturing his spirit on their behalf. Whether or not true, the story captures the essential adventure of this true pioneer’s life.