James Pierson Beckwourth (1798-1866): Explorer and Frontiersman
- Played major role in settling of the American West
- One of the first African-American frontiersmen
- Only “mountain man” to document his story in a book
James Beckwourth was born in Virginia in 1805. His father was Sir Jennings Beckwith who was of Irish and English descent; James was the result of a relationship Beckwith had with a mulatto slave.
Beckwith moved from Virginia to St. Louis, taking James with him. James was considered a slave but his father seemed to raise him as a member of the family, teaching James to hunt and generally watching out for him. When James was in his twenties his father arranged for him to apprentice as a blacksmith; Beckwith also gave James his freedom at that time.
Working as blacksmith in St. Louis (a launch point for many trips west), Beckwourth may have encountered General William Ashley who was half owner of The Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Fur trapping and trading were the cause of much of the westward push, and General Ashley was looking for adventurous men to explore the upper Missouri and beyond, trapping as they went. Beckwourth joined the company, as did many who were to go on to become the most famous of mountain men (Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger and others).
Life with the Crow Indians
In 1828 Beckwourth was captured by Crow Indians; there are at least two variations on this story. One was that the Crows thought he was the long lost son of a chief so they wanted him back; the other story was that the Fur Company tricked the Indians into thinking that as they wanted Beckwourth to be able to recruit Indians to help with trapping. While living with the Crows, he married the daughter of the Chief and seemed to participate fully in Crow life.
When he left the Crows, he trapped in Utah and eventually moved into Wyoming where he may have helped explore Wyoming’s South Pass.
Fur Delivery and Payment
The Fur Company provided all the mountain men with a date and a location where they were to meet company representatives to deliver their pelts and be paid. For the mountain men, these were great occasions for coming together. Beckwourth was admired for his knowledge of the west and well-loved for his story-telling ability.
Beckwourth’s image matched his reputation. He was six feet tall, strongly built, and he often wore his dark hair to his waist though he sometimes braided it. Ribbons, earrings, gold chains and Crow leggings were often part of his attire.
By 1837 Beckwourth decided to go to Florida to participate in the Seminole War (1837-38). When he returned to the west, he headed for Colorado. He and some partners established El Pueblo along the Arkansas River, now the site of Pueblo Colorado. (At that time, the Arkansas River divided the U.S. from Mexico.)
The fort became the home for native people and immigrants from all over. The French, Canadian Iroquois, Mexican trappers and traders as well as Negroes, and European immigrants all came, particularly during the winter when they needed to get out of the mountains but didn’t want to make the trek back to St. Louis or Taos. No rent was charged for staying at the fort and Mexican whiskey could be paid for in beaver skins.
California and Beckwourth Pass
The lure of gold took many, including Beckwourth, further west. Beckwourth became known for his knowledge of the mountains and his ability to fend off Indians so he was frequently hired to guide wagon trains through the Sierra Nevada. He soon saw that travelers often needed new horses so he began horse trading, which eventually led to horse thievery. Working with a group of mountain men and some Ute Indians, the men’s largest effort was in 1840 when they swooped down on Spanish-owned ranches from San Gabriel to San Bernardino, rounding up 1200 horses.
During his travels in California, Beckwourth is credited with identifying Beckwourth Pass, a lower elevation pass that runs through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Plumas County. Beckwourth had learned of the pass from Native Americans, and he worked to improve the trail to make it more passable for wagon trains. It proved to be key to getting pioneers through the Sierra Nevadas on a safer, somewhat more manageable route. (The other route was over Donner Pass; the Donner Party had made that route infamous when they got stuck there the winter of 1846-47.)
Later he led the first intact wagon train into Marysville, California. Having a trail end at Marysville brought population and resulting commerce, but when Beckwourth asked to be paid for his work, the townspeople refused because they saw no need to pay a black man. Because of his color, he had no standing in the legal system and could not sue for damages.
Beckwourth dictated his life story to a Justice of the Peace whom he met in the gold fields of California (1854-55). The book, 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 and is the only recorded version of life in the West by an African-American during this era. While Beckwourth was a known spinner of yarns, this was certainly the style of the day. He may have embroidered the truth, but the book is still a valuable document of life as a trapper, explorer, and guide of the west.
Later in the 1850s Beckwourth returned to Colorado Territory, this time going to Denver. He often picked up work as a scout but by 1859 Beckwourth settled in Denver as a storekeeper. He also worked as an agent for Indian Affairs. By 1866 Beckwourth was moving on again, working as a scout at Fort Laramie and Fort Phil Kearny.
It was during this time that the 69-year-old Beckwourth fell ill and died. He was guiding a military unit in Montana but returned to the Crow village from which he had departed when he didn’t feel well, and he died there amongst the Crow Indians.
The Crow Indians honored Beckwourth by treating him as a Crow warrior. As was Crow custom, he was “buried” on a platform in a tree near the village to which he had returned.