James Pierson Beckwourth
The fur trade spurred the early exploration west of the Appalachians into the untamed west. It surprised me how early trappers and tradesmen began to cross into the great unknown to seek their fortunes. We know many of these men already, but the person who surprised me most was James Pierson Beckwourth. Honestly, I had never heard of him until I went searching for something interesting to post on Sweethearts of the West. This amazing man shows the spirit and tenacity of the American heart.
James Beckwourth was born a slave in Fredericksburg, Virginia on April 6, 1798. His mother was a mulatto slave in the service of his white father’s (Sir Jennings Beckwourth of Irish and English nobility) household and was raised “free”. James was the third of their thirteen children. After the Beckwourth family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, James attended school for four years. His father, who acknowledged him as his son, had him apprenticed to a black smith for five years to give him a good trade. He ran away when he was eighteen, but had trouble finding work until he signed on to General William Henry Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Trading Company.
James Beckwourth, Frontiersman
In 1825 he left Ashley’s company and went to live with the Crow Indians for six years. The Crows made him a chieftain and called him “Bull’s Robe.” 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.) In 1837 he returned to “civilization” and established two trading posts and helped found the town of Pueblo, Colorado.
He fought in the Seminole War in 1842 and the California Revolution in 1846. He became General John C. Freemont’s chief scout in 1848. Later he lived in Sacramento, then a boom town, to work as a professional card player.
He discovered a safer route through the Sierra Nevadas in 1850 which is now called “Beckwourth’s Pass” between present day Reno, Nevada and Portola, California during the Gold Rush years. It was in this area that he built a ranch, hotel, and a trading post. It was at his hotel that Beckwourth met Thomas D. Bonner.
Beckwourth liked to tell his life’s adventures and narrated his story to Thomas D. Bonner, an itinerate justice of the peace, who wrote a book titled 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. He was supposed to receive half the proceeds of the book, but he never received any payment from Bonner. At first, historians considered the book nothing more than a book of adventures to read around the campfire. But later, the book was reevaluated and became considered as a valuable source of social history, especially for life among the Crow, even though 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.
His last adventure came when he fought in the Cheyenne War in which he fought against the Cheyenne and Arapaho. The 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 prohibited 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, he complained of severe headaches and suffered nosebleeds (most probably a severe case of hypertension). Beckwourth returned to the Crow village along the Little Big Horn River, where he died on October 29, 1866 with unstoppable nose bleeding. William Byers, a personal friend and founder of the Rocky Mountain News, claimed the Crow had poisoned Beckwourth, but he had no supporting facts.
James Beckwourth traveled over the years from the everglades of Florida to the Pacific Ocean blazing trails in the early exploration and settlement of the Old West. In 1996, the city of Marysville, California 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.
I am so amazed that I have never learned of this extraordinary adventurer until now.
In The American West
From Black History Now
For Further Reading, here is the book I mentioned:
The Life and Adventures of James Pierson Beckwourth
Written from his own Dictation
by T. D. Bonner
Sarah J. McNeal, Author