James P. Beckwourth was a master teller of tall tales about his life and adventures. But when it comes to his exploits, even after all the grand hyperbole is stripped away, there exists the fascinating story of a brave mountain man who contributed much to Western history. As one historian wrote, “If Beckwourth elaborated on the truth when it touched on his own talents and powers, he did so very much in the frontier tradition initiated by Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, and still continued today by American hunters and fishermen.”
Beckwourth’s abilities equaled or exceeded the most famous of Western mountain men: Jim Bridger, James Clyman, Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick and Caleb Greenwood, to name a few. Beckwourth’s achievements are even more extraordinary considering that he was raised as a slave.
Born in Fredericksburg, Va., in 1798, James was the third of 13 children sired by Sir Jennings Beckwith, scion of a prominent family. He later changed his name to Beckwourth. His mother Catherine was a slave. To avoid being ostracized for their mixed-race relationship, Sir Jennings moved his family to land near St. Louis, Mo. There Jennings and Catherine were able to live together as husband and wife, a relationship often dangerous in slave states.
Although Beckwourth was technically a slave and he worked the fields, his father treated him otherwise, giving him considerable freedom to come and go and getting him work as a blacksmith apprentice. When Beckwourth left Missouri for the mountainous West, Sir Jennings made certain that his son went as a free man. On three separate occasions, Jennings appeared in open court and acknowledged the execution of a Deed of Emancipation from him to James, a mulatto boy.
By 1824, Beckwourth was a strong 26-year-old man when he set out on his first great Western adventure. He joined the Rocky Mountain Fur Company owned by Col. William H. Ashley, Lt. Governor of Missouri. The trappers involved in this expedition read like a “Who’s Who” of the early mountain men. Jedediah Smith was there, as well as Jim Bridger, James Clyman and “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick. Beckwourth was well suited to the making of a Western legend: “He stood six feet tall, was muscular and strong, quick and lithe. His long black hair reached his waist; his eyes were very dark and could flash in anger. His vitality was remarkable, his judgment excellent, and his knowledge of Indian ways superb.”
Beckwourth blazed a trail through the Feather River country north of Truckee and discovered the lowest elevation pass over the Sierra Nevada.
During the expedition, Beckwourth became close friends with experienced mountain man Moses “Black” Harris. Despite his moniker, Harris was not a black man; he had suffered a powder flashback from his rifle that scarred his face to a dark pigment. Harris tutored Beckwourth in the skills and lore necessary to survive the harsh Indian country near the Rocky Mountains. Beckwourth became an expert with the gun, bowie knife and tomahawk. After a year hunting and trapping, flush with plenty of close calls, Ashley’s expedition returned to the Missouri River. Ashley made a fortune from the furs and gave his men a $300 bonus. Like most of the trappers, Beckwourth took his money and used some of it on a rip-roaring drinking spree.
In October 1825, Beckwourth and Moses Harris were on another trapping expedition when severe weather and food shortages plagued their journey and most of their horses and pack mules died. To get more supplies, Harris volunteered to hike 300 miles into Pawnee Indian country to bargain for replacements.
Jedediah Smith was leader of this trapping outfit. When he asked who would accompany Harris, Beckwourth was the only one to step forward. The two men were issued 25-lb. backpacks of food and trade goods, plus their guns and ammunition. Both men survived the trek and Beckwourth learned more about Indian lore and how to live off the land.
The following year, Ashley sold his fur-trading company to Jedediah Smith. Ashley had been a mentor to Beckwourth and their parting was bittersweet. Beckwourth recalled the general’s last words to him: “I like brave men, but I fear you are reckless in your bravery. Caution is always commendable, and especially it is necessary in encounters with Indians. I wish you to be careful of yourself, and pay attention to your health, for, with the powerful constitution you possess, you have many valuable years before you.”
In 1828, Beckwourth was captured by Crow Indians. Tribal leaders were impressed by their captive and Beckwourth married the daughter of the chief. Ultimately, he took two wives and had children by both of them.
During the constant intertribal warfare, Beckwourth led a full-scale attack against the enemy Blackfeet Indians. One eyewitness described the event: “He threw off his trapper’s frock of buckskin and stripped himself naked, like the Indians themselves. He left his rifle on the ground, took in his hand a small light hatchet and ran over the prairie to the right, concealed by a hollow from the eyes of the Blackfeet. Then climbing the rocks, he gained the top of the precipice. Fifty young Crow warriors followed Beckwourth. The convulsive struggle was frightful; not a Blackfoot made his escape.” As a result of his fierce combat and strong leadership in the tribe, Beckwourth was proclaimed a chief.
In 1843, Beckwourth helped build the settlement of Pueblo, Colo. While on their second expedition to map the West, Captain John C. Frémont and frontier scout Kit Carson visited Beckwourth in Pueblo. Later in that journey, Frémont would get credit for discovering Pyramid Lake and Lake Tahoe. Beckwourth went to California in 1844 where he took advantage of the increasing tension between the U.S. and Mexico to raid some Spanish rancheros. After the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, Beckwourth joined a band of volunteers fighting Mexican forces.
In 1850, Beckwourth blazed a trail through the Feather River country north of Truckee and discovered the lowest elevation pass over the Sierra Nevada. The Beckwourth Trail was popular with 49ers heading to upper California gold mines.
The following year, 10-year-old Josephine D. Smith, niece of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, became the first white girl to cross Beckwourth Pass. She rode safely with the rugged trapper, sharing his saddle horse. Josephine wrote: “He was one of the most beautiful creatures who ever lived.”
Josephine later took the name Ina Donna Coolbrith and became the first California Poet Laureate. Read more of Beckwourth’s adventures in the next issue or at TheTahoeWeekly.com.