Jim Beckwourth

Jim Beckwourth (ca. 1800-1866) son of a wealthy Virginian landowner and his slave. Freed from slavery as a young man, Beckwourth is known for his tall tale adventures of Indian battles, fur trading and scoutng in the U.S. Army.

Jim Beckwourth was born near Fredericksburg, Virginia sometime around the year 1800. His father was Sir Jennings Beckwith, the scion of a prominent Virginia family. His mother has commonly been known as "Miss Kill, " although it is not clear whether that was her real name or not. She was one of the Beckwith's slaves. Beckwourth's father moved to Missouri in 1806 and took Jim and his mother with him. They settled on a large farm where the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers meet near the town of St. Charles. Jim's father sent him to school in St. Louis from about 1810 until 1814. He was then apprenticed to a blacksmith in St. Charles. Beckwourth fought with the blacksmith and returned to his father's farm. He was set free on his nineteenth birthday, but it appears that he remained on his father's farm for a while after that. At some point he adopted his own version of the family name.

Although he may have made an earlier trip west, the first definite knowledge we have is that he joined William Henry Ashley's trapping and trading expedition to the Far West in 1824. At one point in that journey, Beckwourth was sent ahead to buy horses from the Pawnee tribe. Not finding them and without sufficient food, he made a desperate trip back to a trading post and would have starved to death if he had not been found by a friendly band of Native Americans. Beckwourth later wrote an account of the journey that casts himself in a favorable light and plays up his own role in the expedition. This tendency to exaggerate has led many later writers to discount the truth of his accounts, but quite often there seems to be a core of reality about them. The most famous incident is one in which Beckwourth claims to have saved Ashley from drowning, although it was later shown that it could not have happened the way he described. However, a similar incident did occur, and Beckwourth seems to be very familiar with it.

Beckwourth continued to trap and worked for William Sublette who was one of the buyers of Ashley's fur trading business. In 1827 he "married" a woman from the Blackfoot tribe. In 1829 he found himself unable to pay a debt, so he took refuge among his friends of the Crow tribe, where he married again. Beckwourth says he married eight women while staying with the Crow. He soon led a successful raiding party against another tribe and was made a chief of the Crow. In later years, Beckwourth led the Crow in a great battle against their Blackfoot enemies in which he claimed that all the Blackfoot were killed and the Crow lost thirty or forty warriors. During this time Beckwourth continued to trap and sold his furs to the American Fur Company of St. Louis. In 1837, however, he was dropped from the Company's books and decided to look elsewhere for a livelihood.

Beckwourth found employment as a scout and mule driver for the U.S. Army in its war against the Seminole tribe of Florida. He took part in the Battle of Okeechobee that was fought on December 25, 1837, but after the war settled into routine, Beckwourth became bored and returned to Missouri and the fur trade. He was offered employment by Andrew Sublette, the younger brother of William. He took a trading party down the Santa Fe trail to Taos, New Mexico, where he married a local Mexican woman. In October 1842, Beckwourth and his bride headed north to what is now Colorado and opened a trading post on the Arkansas River that eventually grew into the city of Pueblo.

In 1843 Beckwourth left Pueblo with a trading party of 15 and headed for California, then a part of Mexico. They arrived in Los Angeles in January 1844. When the local residents rebelled against the Mexican officials, Beckwourth joined their side in the "Battle" of Cahuenga in 1845. He then left California for New Mexico and traded along the Santa Fe Trail until August 1848. He was hired as a guide by an official of the U.S. War Department, and their party traveled to Los Angeles, where they arrived on October 25, 1848. From there they went north to Monterey, the capital of California at the time. He took on a job as a courier to a ranch near the present-day city of Santa Maria, north of Los Angeles. On his way there he came upon the massacre of the Reed family who were living in the old Mission of San Miguel and led the posse that apprehended the murderers.

When gold was discovered in northern California, Beckwourth joined the California Gold Rush. He did not actively pan for gold but gambled and traded horses and made his living among the prospectors. In the spring of 1850 he traveled to the remote mining areas of the Sierra Nevada in the region of the present-day Lassen Volcanic National Park. One day he saw what looked like a low pass to the west. At the end of April he led three men to this pass, which was subsequently named Beckwourth Pass. It is just to the west of the California-Nevada border about 30 miles north of Reno. Beckwourth immediately saw that it could be a major entrance from the east into the goldmining region, and he and his companions spent the summer and fall of 1850 opening a road through the pass. During the spring of 1851 he actively promoted his "New Emigrant Route" and got capital from the merchants of Marysville, California to develop it. Beckwourth guided the first wagon train through the Pass in late July or early August 1851. When it arrived in Marysville in September 1851, there was so much celebration that the town almost burned down.

At about that time Beckwourth met T. D. Bonner. Bonner was the former president of the New Hampshire Temperance Society who had been forced to emigrate to California when he started drinking again. He became a justice of the peace in Butte County, California where Beckwourth met him. In the spring of 1852, Beckwourth had decided to settle in the "pleasant valley" that lay to the west of Beckwourth Pass. There he built a house and hotel for the travelers coming through the Pass. It developed into one of the main entry points for pioneers coming to California. In October 1854 Bonner came to live in Beckwourth's hotel, and he contracted to write Beckwourth's "autobiography." By June of 1855 Bonner was back east and had signed a contract with Harper and Brothers in New York to publish it. When it came out in 1856 its tall tales and exciting adventures made it a bestseller, and Beckwourth became an instant celebrity.

Beckwourth stayed at his ranch (now Beckwourth, California) until November 1858. He then headed back east to Missouri, and the St. Louis and Kansas City newspapers recorded the visit of the famous mountain man. He moved to Denver, Colorado, where he married once again and settled down as the manager of a general store. He and his wife had a daughter who died in infancy. After her death, the marriage broke up, and Beckwourth moved in with a Crow woman. He became involved in various scrapes with the law, including a charge of manslaughter from which he was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. He then joined the U.S. Army as a scout and took part in several actions against the Cheyenne tribe. In September 1866 he went to visit a Crow village on a mission for the Army. He died there, sometime around September 25, 1866.