James Beckwourth

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James Beckwourth
James Beckwourth.jpg
James P. Beckwourth, circa 1856
James Pierson Beckwourth

April 26, 1798 or 1800
DiedOctober 28, 1866 or 1867 (aged 66–69)
Resting placeCrow Indian Settlement, Burial Ground, Laramie, Albany County, Wyoming, U.S.
Other namesJames Beckwith
Occupationblacksmith, trapper, wrangler, soldier, rancher, hotel keeper, store keeper, author, scout
Employerenslaver, Rocky Mountain Fur Company, American Fur Company, Bent, St. Vrain, & Company, U.S. Government, self employed
Known forBeing one of the few African-American mountain men, on the American Western Frontier
Spouse(s)An African-American wife and several Native American wives
Military career
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Army

 Colorado Territory Militia

Colonel John M. Chivington's 3rd Colorado Cavalry Regiment
RankU.S. Army wagon master (1837–?), U.S. Army scout (1866) Territorial militia scout (1864)
Battles/warsSecond Seminole War (1835–1842) Red Cloud's War (1866–1868)

James Pierson Beckwourth (born Beckwith, April 26, 1798[1]: 30  or 1800 – October 29, 1866 or 1867), was an American mountain man, fur trader, and explorer. Beckwourth was known as "Bloody Arm" because of his skill as a fighter. He was mixed-race and born into slavery in Virginia. He was freed by his white father (and owner) and apprenticed to a blacksmith so that he could learn a trade.

As a young man, Beckwourth moved to the American West, first making connections with fur traders in St. Louis. As a fur trapper, he lived with the Crow Nation for years. He is credited with the discovery of Beckwourth Pass through the Sierra Nevada, between present-day Reno, Nevada, and Portola, California, during the California Gold Rush years. He improved the Beckwourth Trail, which thousands of settlers followed to central California.

Beckwourth narrated his life story to Thomas D. Bonner, who was described as "an itinerant justice of the peace", but was also a temperance speaker[2] and journalist,[3] who, according to his preface, by chance was present in Beckwourth's rustic California hotel when he decided to dictate his memoirs. The book was published in New York City 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.[4] A translation appeared in France in 1860.[5]

The reliability of Beckworth's autobiography was called into question from the beginning; an editor of it quoted the observation "that some one said of him that some men are rarely worthy of belief, but that Jim was always Beckwourthy of un-belief."[6]: 7  "I knew Jim intimately and he was the biggest liar that ever lived." A review when it appeared called it "half fiction":

[P]arts of the tale smack of the "fish story." Mr. Beckwourth, or his narrator, has it all his own way, and we can fancy a lurking smile at the thought how glibly he puts together such a discordant mass of material brought out from the storehouse of memory, where there is no one at hand positively to contradict him.[7]

Elinor Wilson has defended Beckwourth's narration as a valuable source of social history, especially for life among the Crow, although not all its details are reliable or accurate.[1] 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[edit]

James was born in 1798 or 1800 into slavery in Frederick County, Virginia.[8] Of mixed race, he had an enslaved, African-American mother. His white father was their owner, Sir Jennings Beckwith, a descendant of English nobility. Little is known about Beckwourth's mother, but James was said to be third of her thirteen children.

Jennings Beckwith moved to Missouri around 1809, when James was young, taking his mother and all their children with him. Although Beckwith acknowledged and raised his mixed-race children as his own, he legally held them as owner. His father arranged to apprentice him to a blacksmith so that he could learn a good trade. At age 19, he was fired by the artisan after getting into an argument with him.[8] His father freed Beckworth by manumission, by deed of emancipation in court in 1824, 1825, and 1826.[8]


Fur trade and Crow Nation[edit]

In 1824 as a young man, Beckwourth joined General William Ashley's Rocky Mountain Fur Company. He worked as a wrangler during Ashley's expedition to explore the Rocky Mountains. In the following years, Beckwourth became known as a prominent trapper and mountain man. In July 1825, rendezvous, trapper and colleague Caleb Greenwood told the campfire story of Beckwourth's being the child of a Crow chief. He claimed Beckwourth had been stolen as a baby by raiding Cheyenne and sold to whites. This lore was widely believed, as Beckwourth had adopted Native American dress and was taken by some people as an Indian.

Beckwourth as Indian warrior, 1856

Later that year, Beckwourth claimed to have been captured by Crow while trapping in the border county between the territories of Crow, Cheyenne, and Blackfoot. According to his account, he was mistaken for 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.[9] Beckwourth married the daughter of a chief. (Marriages between Native Americans and fur trappers and traders 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 chieftaincy of the Crow Nation.[10] 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. He volunteered with the United States Army to fight in the Second Seminole War in Florida. In his book, he claims to have been a soldier and courier. According to historical records, he was a civilian wagon master in the baggage division.[11]

From 1838 to 1840, Beckwourth was an Indian trader to the Cheyenne, on the Arkansas River, working out of Fort Vasquez, Colorado, near Platteville. In 1840, he moved to Bent, St. Vrain & Company. Later that same year, Beckwourth became an independent trader. Together with other partners, he built a trading post in Colorado. It was the center of development of the community of Pueblo, Colorado.

In 1844, Beckwourth 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 1,800 stolen Mexican horses as spoils of war. In the war, he served as a courier with the U.S. 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 first opened a store at Sonoma. He soon sold and went to Sacramento, then a boomtown close to the mines, to live as a professional card player.

In 1850, Beckwourth was credited with discovering what came to be called Beckwourth Pass, a low-elevation pass through the Sierra Nevada mountain chain. In 1851, he improved what became the 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 through the gold fields of northern California, and on to 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 the making of the trail. However, 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 as Beckwourth Riverfront Park.)

Beckwourth began ranching in the Sierra. His ranch, trading post and hotel, in today's Sierra Valley, were the starting of the settlement of Beckwourth, California. In the winter of 1854/55, the itinerant judge 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.[4] According to the contract, Beckwourth was entitled to one half of the proceeds, but he never received any income from Bonner. The book provides historical information on how U.S. government officials used alcohol; how occupations affect those who work in the field; the historical relationship among diseases, wildlife, and the environment; as well as reports dealing with massacres and war.[12]

Government and Army service[edit]

In 1859, Beckwourth returned to Missouri briefly but settled later that year in Denver, Colorado Territory. He was a storekeeper working again for Louis Vasquez and was appointed as a local Indian agent. In 1864, Beckwourth was hired as a scout by Colonel John M. Chivington, commander of the 3rd Colorado Cavalry Regiment. He was to serve in a campaign against the Cheyenne and Apache, leading a frontier paramilitary volunteer militia formed to annihilate indigenous inhabitants in the territory for the American settlers. The Colorado Territory campaign resulted in the Sand Creek massacre, in which the hostile 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 as a safe place and were flying an American flag to show their peaceful intentions. Outraged by his association with the massacre, the Cheyenne banned Beckwourth from trading with them.

Well into his 60s by then, Beckwourth returned to trapping. In 1866, during Red Cloud's War, the U.S. Army employed him as a scout at Fort Laramie and Fort Phil Kearny.


While guiding a military column to a Crow band in Montana, Beckwourth complained of severe headaches and suffered nosebleeds, most probably the result of a severe case of hypertension. He returned to the Crow village, where he died in 1867 of natural causes. William Byers, a personal friend and the founder of the Rocky Mountain News, claimed the Crow had poisoned Beckwourth. He said the tribe felt they could no longer trust him because of his involvement in the Sand Creek massacre. Byers had no supporting evidence, and his claim was speculation. Beckwourth's body was placed on an elevated platform in the traditional funerary custom of the Crow Tribe at the Crow Indian Settlement Burial Ground, Laramie, Albany County, Wyoming.

In popular culture[edit]

  • Leigh Brackett, Follow the Free Wind, New York: Doubleday, 1963 (novel based on Beckwourth's life)
  • Matt Braun, Bloody Hand, New York: St Martin's Press, 1996, ISBN 0-312-95839-0. (novel about Beckwourth's life with the Crow)
  • In the 2021 film The Harder They Fall directed by Jeymes Samuel, his role was played by actor RJ Cyler.[13]


  • Beckwourth Pass, named in honor of Beckwourth, is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Plumas County, California. This pass and route was used by the Western Pacific Railroad to cross the Sierra along their Feather River route. The pass is located east of Portola, California. State Route 70 crosses the Sierra at this pass at an elevation of 1,591 m (5,221 ft); it is one of the lowest crossings of the Sierra Nevada in California.
  • In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 29-cent commemorative postage stamp honoring Beckwourth as part of the set Legends of the West.[14]
  • In 1996, the city of Marysville, California renamed its largest park as Beckwourth Riverfront Park to commemorate his contributions to development of the city. For a few years, the "Beckwourth Frontier Days" were celebrated annually in October and were the only living history festival in northern California.
  • What is now West 5th Ave. in Denver, Colorado, was named Beckwourth Street (sometimes Beckwith) after James Beckwourth.[15]
  • In 2011 a memorial commemorating Beckwourth's role in the founding of Pueblo, Colorado, was erected in that city.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Wilson, Elinor (1972). Jim Beckwourth – Black Mountain Man, War Chief of the Crows. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-1555-6.
  2. ^ "A Temperance Address". The Pittsfield Sun (Pittsfield, Massachusetts). 16 Dec 1841. p. 3 – via newspapers.com.
  3. ^ "Five dollars". The Pittsfield Sun (Pittsfield, Massachusetts). 10 August 1865. p. 3 – via newspapers.com.
  4. ^ a b Beckwourth, James P. (1856). Bonner, Thomas D. (ed.). The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians. With Illustrations. Written from His Own Dictation. New York: Harper & Brothers.
  5. ^ Noblet, Pierre (1860). Beckwourth le Chasseur. Scènes de la vie sauvage en Amérique traduit de l'anglo-américain par Noblet. Paris. Retrieved 3 August 2014.
  6. ^ Beckwourth, James P. (1892). Bonner, T. D. (ed.). The life and adventures of James P. Beckwourth, mountaineer, scout, and pioneer, and chief of the Crow Nation of Indians. Written from his own dictation by T. D. Bonner. Preface to the new English edition, by Charles Godfrey Leland. London: T. Fisher Unwin.
  7. ^ "The Review". The National Era (Washington, DC). 21 Aug 1856. p. 1 – via newspapers.com.
  8. ^ a b c "Beckworth's Early Years". Retrieved August 25, 2021.
  9. ^ "Biography", James Beckwourth Website, accessed 6 Oct 2009
  10. ^ The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, 1865, page 263
  11. ^ Elinor Wilson: Jim Beckwourth – Black Mountain Man, War Chief of the Crows. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman and London, 1972, ISBN 0-8061-1555-6, p. 86/87
  12. ^ Bernard DeVoto (1943). The Year of Decision: 1846. Boston: Little, Brown. p. 65.
  13. ^ https://www.imdb.com/title/tt10696784/
  14. ^ Jim Beckwourth U.S. Stamp Gallery.
  15. ^ Goodstein, Phil (1994). Denver Streets: Names, Numbers, Locations, Logic. Denver: New Social Publications. p. 36. ISBN 9780962216930.
  16. ^ Bonham, Nick (22 May 2011). "Memorial pays tribute to Pueblo founder". The Pueblo Chieftain. Gannet Publications. Retrieved 25 March 2021.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]