Monday, April 7, 2008

James Beckwourth

James Pierson Beckwourth (April 6, 1798 or 1800, Frederick County, Virginia - October 29, 1866, Denver) (a.k.a. Jim Beckworth, James P. Beckwith)

James Pierson Beckwourth was born in Virginia in 1798 to Sir Jennings Beckwith, a descendant of Irish and English nobility, and an African-American mulatto woman about whom little is known.

His life is best known from the book The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth from 1856, which was rejected by early historians of the Old West as being ridiculous campfire lore, but has been rehabilitated since as not reliable in details, but a valuable source of social history. The civil rights movement discovered Beckwourth as an early afro-american pioneer and he is subsequently named a role model in children's literature and textbooks.

In the American west

Beckwourth spent his life in fur trapping and Western exploration. With his family he moved around 1809 to Missouri. He attended school in St. Louis for four years and learned at a blacksmith's in the city till age 19. In 1824, while living in Missouri, he joined Gen. William Ashley's fur trapping company as a wrangler on his expedition to explore the Rocky Mountains. In the following years Beckwourth became known as a prominent trapper and Indian fighter. He was well known for telling lore about his adventures about fighting Indians and hunting. But not only did he entertain his listeners, on the 1826 rendezvous trapper colleague Caleb Greenwood told the campfire story of Beckwourth being the child of a Crow chief, who has been stolen as a baby by raiding Cheyennes and sold to the whites. This lore was widely believed, as Beckwourth looked and acted native for years.

Beckwourth as Indian warrior, illustration of the first editionLater that year he got caught by Crow Indians while trapping in the dangerous border county between the areas of Crow, Cheyennes and Blackfoots. They recognised him and as they knew the story of his Crow ancestry he was admitted to the nation and immediately married to the daughter of a chief. For the next eight to nine years he lived with the Crows, rising in their hierarchy, becoming a warrior, a chief, a leader of the Dog clan and finally according to his own record the highest ranking war chief of the Crow Nation. He still went trapping, but did not sell his furs and that of his nation to his former partners of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company but made business with the competing American Fur Company. And he participated in the raids by his new people. They mostly stole horses from neighboring nations and the occasional white party. Sometimes these raids escalated to warfare, most often with the Blackfoots.

In 1837, when the American Fur Company did not want to renew his contract, he returned to St. Louis and volunteered for the Second Seminole War in Florida. In his own book he claims to have been a soldier and courier, but according to preserved records he was a civilian wagon master in the baggage. From 1838 he was an Indian trader on the Arkansas River, working out of Fort Vasquez, Colorado, near Platteville, Colorado with the Cheyennes. 1840 he moved to the Bent & St. Vrain Company and later the same year he established himself as an independent trader, building the trading post Pueblo together with others. From it the city Pueblo, Colorado developed.

From 1844 he traded on the Old Spanish Trail between the Arkansas River and Mexican California. With the beginning of the Mexican-American war in 1846 he returned to the United States, not without stealing around 1800 Mexican horses and bringing them as spoils of war. In the war he was a courier with the US Army and participated in suppressing the Taos Revolt, where his former employer Charles Bent as interims governor of New Mexico was slain.

1848 saw him back in California, in the Gold Rush he opened a store at Sonoma, he sold quickly, going to Sacramento living as a professional card player. In 1850 he discovered Beckwourth Pass, the lowest mountain pass through the Sierra Nevada and in the following year he established Beckwourth Trail, a road through the mountains. It began near Pyramid Lake and the Truckee Meadows east of the mountains, climbed to his pass and on a ridge between two forks of Feather River down to the gold fields of northern California at Marysville. The road should spare the settlers and gold seekers about 150 miles and several steep slopes, such as Donner Pass. It was supposed to be paid by the business communities of the gold towns in California, but when Beckwourth tried to collect his payment in 1851, Marysville suffered from two huge fires and was unable to pay.

Beckwourth eventually began ranching in the Sierra. His ranch, trading post and hotel in today's Sierra Valley later became Beckwourth, California. In the winter of 54/55 Thomas D. Bonner a corrupt Justice of the peace stayed in the hotel, where Beckwourth told him the story of his life. Bonner took it down, edited it the following year and offered the book to Harper & Brothers in New York, where The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth came out in 1856. According to the contract, Beckwourth was entitled to one half of the proceeds, but never got anything from Bonner. His stay in California can be traced until 1858, he returned to Missouri in 1859 and settled later that year in Denver, Colorado. He lived as store keeper and was appointed local agent for Indian affairs by the city council. In 1864 Beckwourth was forced by John M. Chivington of the Third Colorado Volunteers to act as a scout for a campaign against the Cheyenne and Arapaho, that led to the Sand Creek Massacre.

The Cheyennes interdicted him from further business with them as a result of the massacre, and he returned to trapping, well in his 60s. He was employed by the army as a scout in Fort Laramie and Fort Phil Kearny in 1866. While guiding a military column to a Crow Tribe in Montana, he complained of severe headaches and suffering nosebleeds (most probably a severe case of hypertension). Beckworth returned to the Crow village where he died on October 29, 1866. The founder of the "Rocky Mountain News", William Byers, used the death of Beckworth to publish a circulation-boosting, baseless yarn stating that the Crow had poisoned Beckworth. The falsehood is repeated to this day.

Beckwourth and his book

Later in his life, Beckwourth recounted an astonishing life history to Thomas D. Bonner, who produced the book The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation. Beckwourth's language and style were as notable as the reported adventures. Some material in the book provide historical information on the role of alcohol in the US Government, how occupations effect the occupied, our historical relationship to diseases, wildlife, and the environment, as well as reports dealing with massacres and war.

Beckwourth Pass, California

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 Union Pacific Railroad (former Western Pacific Railroad) used to cross the Sierra's along their Feather River route. The pass is located east of Portola, California.

In 1851, Beckwourth, following an Indian trail, discovered a low elevation pass over the Sierra Nevada mountains into California. He improved 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, named after Mary Murphy, a survivor of the Donner Party in the winter of 1846-47. Beckwourth demanded payment for improving the trail, claiming he had an agreement with the city and its merchants. When the city failed to pay him, he had no standing as a dark-skinned man in a California court to sue for damages. An estimated 10,000 people used the trail to enter Marysville in the following decade. In 1996, at the urging of promoters of Beckwourth Frontier Days, a living history festival, the city of Marysville's largest park was renamed Beckwourth Riverfront Park in recognition of the debt owed by the city and Beckwourth's significance to the growth of the city.