Beckwourth, James P.
Beckwourth, James P.
Born c. 1800
Died September 25, 1866
Near Denver, Colorado
Fur trapper, Indian chief, and mountain man
"The restless youthful mind, that wearies with the monotony of peaceful every-day existence, and aspires after a career of wild adventure and thrilling romance, will find, by my experience, that such a life is by no means one of comfort."
Jim Beckwourth led an extraordinary life. Born to a slave mother, he grew up to become a skilled fur trapper, a mountain man, an expedition leader, an army scout, and an Indian chief. Near the end of his life he recorded the details of his life in an autobiography that made him famous and fueled Americans' ideas about the excitement and danger of life in the West.
James P. Beckwourth claimed to have been born on April 26th, 1798—but like many elements of his life, this date is disputed. Diligent biographers suggest that a better date would be 1800. The identity of Beckwourth's father is certain: he was Sir Jennings Beckwith, a member of a prominent white Virginia family and a veteran of the recent Revolutionary War (Jim later changed his name from Beckwith to Beckwourth). Less is known of his mother. She was certainly an African American, and probably one of Beckwith's slaves known as "Miss Kill." In any case, Beckwith took his entire brood—slaves, children, and livestock—and moved to a large farm on the American frontier, near St. Charles in Missouri Territory, where the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers meet. In St. Charles, young Jim grew up not as a slave but as the free son of a fairly prosperous farmer.
A youth on the frontier
Jim Beckwourth grew up on the frontier. He and his family cleared the land, and along with several other families, they built blockhouses—small forts—in which they would take shelter in the case of Indian attack. The boy learned a variety of skills, including how to hunt and fish and track animals in the woods. He also learned that the frontier was sometimes a harsh and violent place.
When Beckwourth was about ten his father entrusted him with carrying a sack of grain from their settlement into the local mill. He recounted the experience in his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians:
On my way I rode joyously up to the little fence which separated the house from the road, thinking to pass a word with my little playmates. What was my horror at discovering all the children, eight in number, from one to fourteen years of age, lying in various positions in the door-yard with their throats cut, their scalps torn off, and the warm life-blood still oozing from their gaping wounds! In the door-way lay their father, and near him their mother, in the same condition; they had all shared the same fate.
Jim hurried back home to tell his father, and his father and some other men set off to hunt down the band of Indians who had attacked their neighbors. They returned several days later with eighteen scalps. Jim learned how quickly one's fate could change on the frontier—but he didn't grow up to hate Native Americans. With the help of his father, he came to realize that both the Indians and the settlers were capable of both kindness and cruelty. It was a lesson that would serve him well.
Between the ages of ten and fourteen Jim attended a school in St. Louis, Missouri, where he learned to read and write and studied math and history. St. Louis bustled with the trade that coursed down the Mississippi River, the major transportation route for the interior of the growing United States. Beckwourth dreamed of one day exploring the West he heard so much about. When he was fourteen he was apprenticed to (sent to learn a trade with) a local blacksmith. Jim learned a valuable trade and became a strong man in the process. But by the time he was eighteen Jim was convinced that he was cut out to be neither a blacksmith nor a farmer like his father. He longed for adventure.
Expeditions and Indians
Beckwourth soon joined an expedition led by Colonel Richard M. Johnson that was setting out to negotiate a treaty with the Sac Indians for access to lead mines on their land. Camped along a bluff of the Mississippi River, the band of men spent over a week with the Sac and Fox tribes. Beckwourth joined the Indians' hunting parties and grew to appreciate Indian culture and religion. He spent nearly eighteen months in the area and earned his first real money working in the mines.
Beckwourth soon found more opportunities for exploration, and in 1824 he joined a trapping and trading expedition to the Far West sponsored by William Henry Ashley's Rocky Mountain Fur Company. The party was making slow progress on its journey and soon recognized that they would need more horses. Beckwourth joined an experienced adventurer named Moses Harris in a two-hundred-mile march to buy horses from the Pawnee Indians. Beckwourth not only passed the test of keeping up with Harris; he saved both their lives by finding the trail of the departing Pawnees—or so he told the story in his autobiography. Others challenged this account and other tales Beckwourth told, leading some historians to distrust the reliability of the autobiography as a historical document. True or not, Beckwourth's book remains one of the few firsthand accounts of the life of a trapper and an American man living with Indians.
Beckwourth loved the difficulties and challenges of the life of a trapper and mountain man, so he continued to trap and work for William Sublette, who had purchased Ashley's fur trading business. Under Sublette, Beckwourth enjoyed his share of battles with Indians, killing a number of Blackfeet Indians over the years. Around 1827, when the white men wanted to establish a trading post among the Blackfeet, Beckwourth volunteered for the duty and was welcomed by the Indians, who respected him. "I soon rose to be a great man among them," recalled Beckwourth, "and the chief offered me his daughter for a wife. Considering this as an alliance that would guarantee my life as well as enlarge my trade, I accepted his offer, and, without any superfluous ceremony, became son-in-law to As-as-to, the head chief of the Black Feet."
A few years later Beckwourth left the Blackfeet tribe and went to live among the Crow tribe, who claimed him as a long-lost tribe member who had been captured by enemies. Soon his fighting skills against the Crow's enemies earned him the title "Chief Medicine Calf." In later years, Beckwourth led the Crow in a great battle against their Blackfeet enemies in which he claimed that all the Blackfeet were killed and the Crow lost thirty or forty warriors. For a time Beckwourth's life with the Crow was ideal: he had gained the kind of respect that he could never earn as a black man in a racist country, and his Indian "brothers" led him to rich hunting and trapping grounds inaccessible to most American trappers. Beckwourth sold his furs to the American Fur Company of St. Louis until 1837, when he was dropped from the company's books and decided to look elsewhere for a livelihood.
Beckwourth left the Crow tribe and worked for a time as a scout and mule driver for the U.S. Army in its military campaign against the Seminole tribe of Florida. Beckwourth fought against the Seminole in the Battle of Okeechobee on December 25, 1837, but the soldier's life didn't suit him and he soon returned to Missouri and the fur trade. Hired by Andrew Sublette, the younger brother of William, he traded for a time on the Santa Fe Trail and married a local Mexican woman. In October 1842, the couple opened a trading post on the Arkansas River that later became the town of Pueblo, Colorado.
Beckwourth again grew restless, and he left Pueblo for California in 1843. Through the 1840s Beckwourth bounced around the Southwest, joining Los Angeles residents in their battle against Mexican officials in 1845. (California was still Mexican territory at the time; this battle was a precursor to the Mexican-American War, which lasted from 1846 to 1848.) Beckwourth traded along the Santa Fe Trail and worked as a guide for the U.S. Army in 1848—always on the lookout for adventure. In 1849 he traveled to northern California to participate in the booming California gold rush.
But Beckwourth did not dig for gold. Ever resourceful, he made a living gambling, trading horses, and profiting from the needs of prospectors. His adventures eventually took him into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, to a mountain pass that now bears his name. Beckwourth Pass lies just west of the California-Nevada border about thirty miles north of Reno. Beckwourth hoped to make the pass a major entrance from the east into the gold mining region in California, and he and his companions set about building a road through the pass. Beckwourth guided the first wagon train through the pass in late July or early August 1851.
By 1852 he had built a road and established a trading post just west of Beckwourth Pass, hoping to profit from the stream of immigrants coming to California. In October 1854, T. D. Bonner, a justice of the peace in nearby Butte County, California, met up with Beckwourth and agreed to write up Beckwourth's stories and publish them as his "autobiography." The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, published in 1856, became a best-seller and made Beckwourth an instant celebrity.
Beckwourth's days as an adventurer were over by the late 1850s. After leaving California in 1858, he moved to Denver, Colorado, managed a general store, and was briefly married (though it is unclear what happened to his previous wife). After his new wife's death Beckwourth lived with a Crow woman. In the 1860s he briefly joined the U.S. Army in several battles against Cheyenne Indians. On September 25, 1866, while on an extended visit at the Crow Indian reservation in Colorado, Beckwourth died of mysterious causes.
Beckwourth knew that he had lived a remarkable life, one not available to many men. In closing his autobiography he declared:
The restless youthful mind, that wearies with the monotony of peaceful every-day existence, and aspires after a career of wild adventure and thrilling romance, will find, by my experience, that such a life is by no means one of comfort, and that the excitement which it affords is very dearly purchased by the opportunities lost of gaining far more profitable wisdom. Where one man would be spared, as I have been, to pass through the perils of fasting, the encounters with the savage, and the fury of the wild beasts, and still preserve his life ... it is not too much to say that five hundred would perish, with not a single loved one near to catch his last whispered accent, would die in the wilderness, either in solitude, or with the fiendish savage shrieking in revolting triumph in his ear.
Though historians doubt the truthfulness of some of the stories in Beckwourth's autobiography, there can be no doubt that Beckwourth led a nearly legendary life. His many exploits—his brushes with death in the wild; his battles against and alongside Indians; his travels with some of the trailblazers of the West—make him a central figure in the opening of the West. Beckwourth's life was all the more remarkable because he was an African American man who enjoyed the riches of freedom at a time when so many of his race were enslaved.
For More Information
Blassingame, Wyatt. Jim Beckwourth: Black Trapper and Indian Chief. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.
Bonner, T. D. The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians. 1856.
Reprint. University of Nebraska Press, 1972.
Locke, Raymond F. James Beckwourth: Mountain Man. Los Angeles: Holloway House, 1995.
Marvis, B. James Beckwourth: Legends of the West. New York: Chelsea House, 1996.
Sabin, Louis. Jim Beckwourth: Adventures of a Mountain Man. New York: Troll, 1993.
Wilson, Elinor. Jim Beckwourth: Black Mountain Man and War Chief of the Crows. Lincoln: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.