This is the third article of a Four Part Series on Black Folks, who helped to tame the west. First we looked at US Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves, followed by Mary Fields aka Stagecoach Mary. Today we examine the life of James Pierson Beckwourth, American Mountain Man.
There is some discrepancy as to when James Pierson Beckwourth was born. Was it 1798 or 1800? There is no disputed of the facts about the impact he had on discovering what came to be known as the Beckwourth Pass and subsequent Trail. A trail that went through the Sierra Nevada Mountains between Reno, Nevada and Portola, California, and in which thousands of settlers found their way into central California.
He was a mulatto, son of a black slave mother (third or thirteen children), who’s father was Sir Jennings Beckwith, an English white man. As prescribed by the law at the time, his father raised him as his own son. Yet legally, young James was considered a slave. His biography states that his father appeared in court, once in 1824, 1825, and 1826. All in an effort to “acknowledged the execution of a Deed of Emancipation from him to James, a mulatto boy.”
James, or Jim as he was sometimes called, was the only black person who recorded his exploits during the discovery and subsequent settlement of the old western frontier. While dictating his autobiography to Thomas D. Bonner (Traveling Justice of the Peace with corrupt reputation) in 1854-55 California gold fields, it was thought he stretched the truth. Later, some historians accused him of lying, although they may have had reasons for not wanting, who they called “a mongrel of mixed blood” to get credit for any discovery or good deed. Although many of the exploits detailed in the autobiography passed the truth test by others who substantiated his accounts of what happened, James role in events almost always made him the eventual hero. Many of his acquaintances who took part in forging trails and exploring the West didn’t see themselves as heroes but more of doing what they had to do to survive. That is probably why they viewed his 1856 book, (The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians, published by Harper and Brothers) as something of a joke. See Note 1.
Excluding those events that were substantiated by others as being accurate and true, James did have a way of exaggerating the numbers of Indians that attacked a particular exploration outpost or trading post. Historians found that some of the dates were also wrong or off by a couple of years. Some did consider the fact that the James dictation of events happened more than a few years and in some instances, decades earlier. They also found that correcting the misspelling of names in the book actually helped to authenticate the events. Most of the misspelling of names was attributed to Judge Thomas D. Bonners transcribing what he thought he heard from James Beckwourth. In the end, the book is now considered be an excellent account of life with the Crow for instance, or for life and hardships during a very historical era in our American History.
Captured by Crow Warriors (James account to his biographer) or assigned to the Rock Mountain Fur Company to the tribe to facilitate trade, according to a guess by independent sources (whoever they were and how independent were they is the question). James stay with the Crow Indian Tribe began sometime around 1828. He spent the next eight to nine years with them. Documents confirmed his eventual leadership role as a War Chief. James told his biographer he was appointed as the Chief of the Crow Nation immediately after the death of Chief Arapooish (Rotten Belly)
A restless man who tired of routines quickly, the fall of 1837 found him headed for Seminole country and the war they carried out against the white man. By October, his travels led him to the Florida Everglades as head of a band of Express Riders and Muleteers. He was to be paid $50 per month. His account of the incidents was accurate. It was not the adventure James had hoped for as the initial mission ended with men and horses stranded for days on a reef until rescued by a steam boat. This after the small boats carrying riders and horses ran into a killer storm which was too much for the inexperienced mountain men. There were no heroes in this story of men being fired for refusing to continue their mission on foot.
It was written that James Beckwourth also accurately described the Okeechobee Battle the following Christmas Day of the same year. Later, and for the next ten months he scouted while carrying messages and military dispatches from point to point. His job had become boring to him so he left for St Louis, where he was without a job for five days.
Once again, he was in his element, working again for The American Fur Company in the land of the Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho Indians. By the way, all three were enemies of the Crow tribe. As the agent-in-charge, they were sent to Fort Vasquez via the Santa Fe Trail. That trade expedition lasted two years after having a very successful first year.
His California connection came during January of 1844. A year later he was involved in the settler’s revolt against Mexican control of California. After experiencing the highs and lows of a marriage (Luisa Sandoval), independently traded with the Cheyenne angered his former employees. So much so, they tried to kick him, his wife, along with their almost thirty other settler families, out of the newly built Pueblo (now Colorado) trading post. This is why he is credited with helping found the town of Pueblo, Colorado. After being on the road again, James returned to Pueblo to find that Luisa had married another man. James said her current husband had produced a document that stated James wanted to be free from Luisa. He decided not to pursue the matter, once again becoming single.
Leaving, he wound up in Santa Fe and entering into a partnership with an acquaintance in ownership of a hotel. Outside of being an excellent trader as evidenced by his trade with the Indians, he more or less left the administration of the hotel matters in the hands of his partner. James continued to do what he did best, scout, and blaze trails while carrying dispatches from the Army. News of the massacre of all the Americans living in Taos angered all settlers in the area including James whose former boss, friends and acquaintances were among the dead. After the Indians and Mexican rebels defeat, he managed to witness the January, 1847 hangings which many saw as revenge for the Taos massacre. This in keeping with his uncanny fortunate or misfortunate in some cases to be at a historic event and in most case is involved in many ways.
Such was the same with his trek to the California Gold Fields in the fall of 1848. There is the authenticated report James discovering a grisly murder of the family, servants and visitors at the San Miguel Mission. While on an assigned route on the Monterey to Nipomo mail route, he almost tripped over a man’s body located in the house. He recalled the notion to look no further and rode to get a posse. He returned to the house to find the entire gross scene of eleven murdered family members (husband William Reed), wife, her infant child, a midwife, along with other children and Indian servants. The perpetrators tried to burn the Reed’s house bodies and dwelling, but the fire died out. It turned out they were still in the house when James first entered and was intending to shoot him if he had opened a door behind which they were hiding. The posse caught the murderers near Santa Barbara. Beckwourth bio went on to state there were “two Americans, two Englishmen, and ten Irishmen,” responsible for the hideous killings. Others put the number at four men, one of which drowned in an attempt to escape the posse. The thought was that James Beckwourth biographer, Judge Bonner misunderstood the words an Irishmen to be ten Irishmen as James recounted the incident to him to transcribe. James did dictate the murderer’s fate as tried in his words, “we shot them, including the state’s evidence.” Meaning the one murderer who told them what happened while hoping to be spared immediate death, and sentenced to imprisonment for turning states evidence. At least that is how historians interpreted this account. As to who tried them, or where anyone would go to prison, well that’s another story not told here.
1850 found James (Jim) P. Beckwourth in northern California prospecting for gold. Without going into the descriptive details of his thoughts as written, he correctly surmised that a pass he found would accommodate horse or mule pulled wagons headed into what was called the American Valley (Central California). It would be especially helpful to those people coming from the east. It was the lowest mountain pass and a direct route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains which was no small discovery at the time. It actually saved travelers approximately 150 miles whereas they avoided having to climb several steep slopes like Donner Summit. Remember the Donner Party (1846-47) being caught there having to stay the winter. His discovery is currently called Beckwourth Pass.
After working to develop the trail during that summer, and well into the spring and summer of 1851, he led the first wagon train of settlers over the trail into Marysville, California. He was supposed to be paid for his discovery and efforts by the Marysville business community and other local gold towns. However, (also summer of 1851) when he tried to collect his earnings, Marysville blamed their inability to pay on two major fires that economically hindered the town. Subsequently he had no other recourse but to accept their reasoning. As a black man, he could not sue for damages (see Note 2) in a California Court. Other wagon trains and travelers used the Beckwourth Trail and Pass up through 1855 and beyond. Even as the railroad became the preferred method of travel to California in 1855. In fact, the Western Pacific Railroad (at the time) used the route to cross the Sierra’s running along the Feather River.
Ever the enterprising trader, Beckwourth established his ranch and trading post in the valley just west of the pass. Add his hotel to the area located in the Sierra Valley that is now called Beckwourth, California. This is the site and timeframe upon which his biography was dictated to Judge Thomas D. Bonner, who produced the book. According to a contract, James Beckwourth was to receive half the proceeds from the book from Bonner, which never happened. Reportedly James stayed here until 1858. He left for Missouri in 1859, eventually settling in Denver, Colorado that same year. He was employed as a storekeeper and was also appointed as Indian agent by Denver’s City Council.
By 1864, he was forced to act as a scout against the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians which led to the infamous Sand Creek Massacre. The massacre resulted in ending any further contact or interaction between Beckwourth and the Cheyenne or Arapaho tribes.
In 1866, while acting as a scout for Forts Laramie and Kearny, he suffered nosebleeds and headaches which complicated the carrying out of his mission or assignments. Finally, he returned to his beloved Crow Indians along the Bighorn River where he died on October 29, 1866. He was placed on an elevated platform (customary of the Crow) in Laramie, Albany County, Wyoming.
Note 1: Bonner edited or “polished up” Beckwourth rough narrative, and submitted the book to the eventual publisher, Harper and Brothers in 1856. Despite its flaws in dates and misspelling of subjects name, historians have touted the book as an acceptable reference of Frontier Life. It also provides a look at government policies regarding alcohol, diseases, massacres, and war.
Note 2: In 1996, the Promoters of Beckwourth Frontier Days was instrumental in renaming Marysville’s largest park to Beckwourth Riverfront Park. This act was in direct recognition of the unpaid debt owed to James P. Beckwourth causing the following growth of the city.
Peace, make it a day in which Jesus Christ would be proud of you,
Codis Hampton II
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