James Pierson Beckwith

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James Pierson Beckwith

Also Known As: "Beckwourth"
Birthplace: Frederick County, Virginia, United States
Death: 1866 (67-68)
Denver, Denver County, Colorado, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Jennings Beckwith and Unknown Slave
Husband of Elizabeth Beckwourth and Maria Louisa Sandoval
Father of Julie Lettbetter Beckwourth and Matilda Mary Brown Beckwourth

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About James Pierson Beckwith


James Pierson Beckwourth (April 6, 1798 Frederick County, Virginia – October 29, 1866, Denver) was an American mountain man, fur trader, and explorer. An African American born into slavery in Virginia, he later moved to the American West. As a fur trapper, he lived with the Crow for years. He is credited with the discovery of Beckwourth Pass through the Sierra Nevada (U.S.) Mountains between present day Reno, Nevada and Portola, California during the California Gold Rush years, and improved the Beckwourth Trail, which thousands of settlers followed to central California.

He narrated his life story to Thomas D. Bonner, an itinerant justice of the peace. The book was published in New York and London in 1856 as 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.

Early historians of the Old West originally considered the book little more than campfire lore. It has since been reassessed as a valuable source of social history, especially for life among the Crow, although 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.

Early life and education

Beckwourth was born into slavery in Virginia, but sources differ as to the year: 1798 or 1800. His father was Sir Jennings Beckwith, a descendant of Irish and English nobility, and his mother was an enslaved African-American mulatto woman held by Beckwith. Little was known about her. He apprenticed to a blacksmith but got fired when he had an argument with him. The boy was said to be third of her thirteen children.

In the American West

Jennings Beckwith moved to Missouri around 1809, when the boy was young, taking all the family with him. Although Beckwith raised the boy as his own son, he legally held him as master until manumitting him by deed of emancipation in court in 1824, 1825, and 1826. The young Beckwourth attended school in St. Louis for four years. He was apprenticed to a blacksmith until age 19 to learn a trade.

In 1824 as a young man, Beckwourth joined Gen. William Ashley's fur trapping company as a wrangler on Ashley's expedition to explore the Rocky Mountains. In the following years, Beckwourth became known as a prominent trapper and mountain man. He worked with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and was an Indian fighter. He was well known for telling lore about his adventures.

On an 1826 rendezvous, trapper and colleague Caleb Greenwood told the campfire story of Beckwourth's being the child of a Crow chief. He claimed to have been stolen as a baby by raiding Cheyenne and sold to whites. This lore was widely believed, as Beckwourth had looked and acted like a Native American for years.

Later that year, Beckwourth claimed to have been captured by Crow Indians while trapping in the border county between the territories of Crow, Cheyenne and Blackfoot. According to his account, they thought he was the lost son of a Crow chief, so they admitted him to the nation. Independent accounts suggest his stay with the Crow was planned by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to advance its trade with the tribe. Beckwourth married the daughter of a chief, and may have had multiple wives. (Marriages between Native Americans and fur trappers were common for the valuable alliances they provided both parties.)

For the next eight to nine years, Beckwourth lived with a Crow band. He rose in their society from warrior to chief (a respected man) and leader of the "Dog clan". According to his book, he eventually ascended to the highest-ranking war chief of the Crow Nation. He still trapped but did not sell his or Crow furs to his former partners of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Instead, he sold to John Jacob Astor's competing American Fur Company. Beckwourth participated in raids by the Crow on neighboring nations and the occasional white party. Sometimes such raids escalated to warfare, most often against bands of their traditional Blackfoot enemy.

In 1837, when the American Fur Company did not renew his contract, Beckwourth returned to St. Louis and volunteered for the Second Seminole War in Florida. In his book, he claimed to have been a soldier and courier. According to historical records, he was a civilian wagon master in the baggage division.

From 1838-1840, Beckwourth was an Indian trader to the Cheyenne on the Arkansas River, working out of Fort Vasquez, Colorado, near Platteville, Colorado. In 1840, he moved to the Bent & St. Vrain Company (the Bent brothers built Fort Bent on the Arkansas River.) Later that same year, Beckwourth became an independent trader. Together with other partners, he built the trading post Pueblo in Colorado. From it the city Pueblo, Colorado developed.

From 1844 he traded on the Old Spanish Trail between the Arkansas River and California, then controlled by Mexico. When the Mexican-American War began in 1846, Beckwourth returned to the United States. He brought along nearly 1800 stolen Mexican horses as spoils of war. In the war, he was a courier with the US Army and helped suppress the Taos Revolt. His former employer Charles Bent, then interim governor of New Mexico, was slain in that revolt.

By 1848 and the start of the Gold Rush, Beckwourth went to California. He opened a store at Sonoma, but he sold quickly. He went to Sacramento, then a boomtown, to live as a professional card player.

In 1850 he was credited with discovering what came to be called Beckwourth Pass, a low-elevation pass through the Sierra Nevada. In 1851 he improved what became called Beckwourth Trail, originally a Native American path through the mountains. It began near Pyramid Lake and the Truckee Meadows east of the mountains, climbed to the pass named for him, and went along a ridge between two forks of Feather River before passing down to the gold fields of northern California at Marysville. The trail spared the settlers and gold seekers about 150 miles (240 km) and several steep grades and dangerous passes, such as Donner Pass.

By his account, the business communities of the gold towns in California were supposed to fund making the trail. When Beckwourth tried to collect his payment in 1851 after leading a party through, Marysville had suffered from two huge fires and town leaders were unable to pay. (In 1996, in recognition of his contribution to the city's development and of the outstanding debt to him, the City of Marysville officially renamed the town's largest park Beckwourth Riverfront Park).

Beckwourth began ranching in the Sierra. His ranch, trading post and hotel in today's Sierra Valley were the starting settlement of Beckwourth, California. In the winter of 1854/55, Thomas D. Bonner stayed in the hotel, and on winter nights Beckwourth told him his life story. Bonner wrote it down, edited the material the following year, and offered the book to Harper & Brothers in New York. The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth was published in 1856. According to the contract, Beckwourth was entitled to one half of the proceeds, but he never received any income from Bonner.

In 1859, Beckwourth returned to Missouri briefly, but settled later that year in Denver, Colorado. He was a storekeeper and local agent for Indian affairs. In 1864 Beckwourth was hired by Colonel John M. Chivington of the Third Colorado Volunteers to act as a scout for a campaign 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 interdicted 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, where he died on October 29, 1866 with unstoppable nose bleeding. The founder of the Rocky Mountain News, William Byers, claimed the Crow had poisoned Beckwourth without any supporting facts.

"Jim Beckwith, who knew, said that though the Indian could never become a white man, the white man lapsed easily into an Indian." - Bernard DeVoto, The Year of Decision: 1846 Boston: Little, Brown, 1943) p. 65.

Marriage and family

At different times, Beckwourth had married at least four women: two Native Americans, a Hispanic and an African American. He likely had numerous children by them, although he spent most of his time exploring and on the move.

Beckwourth's memoir

Beckwourth recounted his life history to Thomas D. Bonner, who wrote the book The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation. Beckwourth's language and style (as written by Bonner) were as notable as the reported adventures. The book provides historical information on how US government officials used alcohol; how occupations affect those who work in the field; the historical relationship to diseases, wildlife, and the environment; as well as reports dealing with massacres and war.

Legacy and honors

Beckwourth Pass, named in honor of James Beckwourth, is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Plumas County, California. State Route 70 crosses the Sierras at an elevation of 1,591 m (5,221 ft), making it one of the lowest crossings of the Sierra Nevadas in California. It is also the route that the Western Pacific Railroad used to cross the Sierras along their Feather River route. The pass is located east of Portola, California.
Beckwourth improved a Native American path to create what became known as the Beckwourth Trail through Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties. In August 1851, he led the first intact wagon train into the burgeoning Gold Rush city of Marysville, California. Beckwourth demanded payment for improving the trail, claiming he had an agreement with the city and its merchants. The city failed to pay him because it had suffered two fires and had extensive property damage. Beckwourth could not sue for damages. The former major had lost not only the town but the state and the council claimed there was no paper record. The trail was heavily used through 1855, when people began to shift to the newly constructed railroad for passage.
In 1996, the city of Marysville 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.
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James Pierson Beckwith's Timeline

Frederick County, Virginia, United States
Age 68
Denver, Denver County, Colorado, United States