The Wild West of Yester-Year

Jim Beckwourth
By Rachel Kovaciny

Jim Beckwourth was born into slavery with the name James Beckwith sometime between 1798 and 1800. His white father owned his black mother, but acknowledged their children as his and legally emancipated them when they became adults. In 1809, the Beckwiths moved from Virginia to St. Louis, Missouri. Jim attended school for several years before being apprenticed to a blacksmith. After being emancipated, Jim Beckwith went west. He changed the spelling of his last name to Beckwourth for unknown reasons. He joined the Rocky Mountain Fur Company as a trapper and guide and helped explore the Rocky Mountains with the company’s head, General William Ashley. Beckwourth became well known for his abilities as a trapper, frontiersman, and horseman. He became acquainted with and worked alongside other noted mountain men such as Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith.

In 1825, at a Mountain Man Rendezvous, another fur trapper started a rumor Beckwourth was the son of a Crow chief, but rival Cheyenne warriors had kidnapped him and sold him to white settlers. This may have been because Beckwourth had adopted Native clothing by that time, though that was not uncommon for frontiersmen. Less than a year later, Crow warriors captured Beckwourth. According to his own account, the tribe adopted him to replace a son who had been lost or killed.

Beckwourth married the daughter of a Crow chief, probably the first of many wives he had over the years. The fur companies often encouraged fur trappers to marry into a native tribe in the area where they were working. This helped keep relations between fur trappers and traders and the indigenous peoples harmonious or at least peaceful. Unlike many fur trappers who married into a native tribe for convenience, Beckwourth made a home with the Crow. He lived with them eight or nine years and rose in prominence until he became chief of the fierce “Dog Clan” band of warriors. 

During this time, he broke his ties to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. He continued trapping, but sold his furs to the rival American Fur Company instead. As a member of the Crow tribe, Beckwourth took part in raiding parties and the occasional fight with enemy tribes, especially the Blackfoot. They also occasionally raided white settlers.

In 1837, Beckwourth’s contract with the American Fur Company ended. He left his home among the Crow and returned to St. Louis, where he joined the US Army and took part in the war against the Seminole in Florida. After that, he traded with the Cheyenne in Colorado for a few years before starting his own trading post with some partners. Their post grew into what is now the city of Pueblo, Colorado.

During the Mexican-American War in the 1840s, Beckwourth again worked for the US Army, this time as a courier. In 1848, he went to California at the beginning of the Gold Rush. He opened a store in Sonoma, then sold it and moved to Sacramento, where he made a living as a gambler for a time. 

In 1850, he reportedly discovered the Beckwourth Pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a much lower and easier pass to California than the ones commonly used. He widened and improved a native trail that became known as Beckwourth Trail and introduced it to settlers and gold-seekers. It saved about 150 miles of travel and had gentler grades and easier passes, so it became very popular.

For the next few years, Beckwourth ranched in what is now Sierra Valley. He built a trading post and hotel that grew into what is now the small community of Beckwourth, California. In the winter of 1854-55, a travelling judged named Thomas Bonner stayed at his hotel. On long winter evenings, Beckwourth dictated his life story to Bonner, who took the story back east, promising Beckwourth half of the royalties if he could sell the book to a publisher.Harper and Brothers published The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth in 1856. Beckwourth never received the promised royalties, but has the distinction of being the first Black western explorer to share his life story with the world.  Although for many years people dismissed the book as being too exciting to be true, scholars now disagree. While Beckwourth exaggerated some of his exploits, outside sources have since confirmed he really did take part in and witness many of the historic events his book recounts. His autobiography is an important source of information about Native American life before much contact with white settlers, how the US government officials interacted with natives, and the effects of native warfare among the tribes.

In 1859, Beckwourth settled in Colorado again, keeping a store in Denver. They appointed him the US Agent for Indian Affairs for the region and he served as a scout for the 3rd Colorado Cavalry Regiment. While scouting with the Cavalry in 1866, Beckwourth suffered a series of headaches and nosebleeds. A Crow band in Montana took him in. He died of natural causes a few months later. The Crow honored him as a warrior by placing his body on a traditional burial platform at their burial ground near Laramie, Wyoming. In 1994, the US Postal Service issued a postage stamp honoring Jim Beckwourth as part of their Legends of the West series. I have collected postage stamps since the mid-1980s. As a young teen, I was so thrilled by the Legends of the West series I convinced my parents to take me to town so I could buy a full plate of those stamps with my own money. I still have them. Those stamps introduced me to many figures from western history I hadn’t heard of before, including Jim Beckwourth, Bill Pickett, Bill Tilghman, and Nellie Cashman. Little did I know I would one day be writing articles about them!