Despite a reputation for extravagant storytelling, one thing seems certain: frontiersman James Pierson Beckwourth, an intrepid trapper, trader and explorer, was one of a kind. Born in Virginia in 1798 and raised as a slave, Beckwourth later headed west to find adventure as a free man. He learned the hard lessons of the rugged wilderness trapping for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company with noted mountain men Jedediah Smith and James Clyman.
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Beckwourth’s bravery would earn him renown as one of the greatest war chiefs of the Crow Indian Nation. After several years of reckless, battle-scarred adventures with the Crow tribe, Beckwourth eventually abandoned them and joined a tough band of Ute warriors. He accompanied them on profitable horse-rustling forays against the sprawling Spanish rancheros in Mexican California.
Until the mid-1840s, most people who journeyed to California generally arrived by ship. Between 1841 and 1846, more and more Americans began making their way into the territory, but now they were coming overland. Wagon trains loaded with settlers and tools crossed the Sierra Nevada at Donner Pass before descending into the Sacramento Valley. Few American blacks had the opportunity to join this pre-Gold Rush migration due to slavery laws, poverty and racial prejudice. But after the United States’ victory in the Mexican-American War and the discovery of gold by James Marshall on Jan. 24, 1848, it became a wide-open rush to the California Mother lode. Among the throngs of gold seekers that jammed the overland trails in 1849 and 1850, there were American blacks hoping to find freedom and a better life in antislavery California. The majority of them on the trail during those years were not intrepid Argonauts traveling on their own, but often slaves forced to haul supplies or do other work for their white owners.
Beckwourth began his life as a plantation slave, but through luck, perseverance and bravery, he blazed a path for all westbound emigrants.
Jim Beckwourth, however, was a free black man with honed mountain-man skills who could wander at will in the newly emerging western frontier lands. The lure of the Gold Rush hooked his sense of adventure. When migration to California flooded the western trails, Beckwourth joined the frenzy. After the Mexican-American War, the crafty trapper set up a clothing business in a tattered tent at the mining camp of Sonora. In 1849, only a few stone huts and scattered tents dotted the slopes of the narrow Sierra foothill canyon. John Robb visited the new bonanza while Beckwourth was there. He wrote, “Sonora is surrounded by the richest diggings in the mines. It has its principal hotel, its bullring for Sunday amusements, French eating-houses, and stores containing luxuries of the costliest character. At night a string of a dozen monte [gambling] tables, all in a row, are in operation on the main street, under awnings in front of the stores.”
But the dozen gambling operations were not enough for the rough-and-ready miners; additional games were often set up on blankets laid in the dusty street.
After his initial success in the retail business, Beckwourth grew bored and wanderlust washed over him again. He realized that “inactivity fatigued him to death.” He sold his stock and headed north to Mormon Bar on the American River.
John Letts, the storekeeper there, had just opened his shutters when a lone horseman rode into camp. Letts described Beckwourth’s arrival: “About nine in the morning, I saw approaching a strange looking being, mounted on a gray horse, a poncho thrown over his shoulder, over which was slung a huge rifle, skins wrapped around his legs, a pair of Mexican spurs on, and a slouched hat which partially obscured his copper complexion. As he rode up, [local trader] Tracy recognized him as an old mountaineer he had seen in Santa Fe. After the recognition Tracy says, ‘Jim, whose horse is that?’ Beckwourth replied ‘How do I know whose horse it is? I stole him of course.’ ”
Beckwourth rarely panned for gold himself. He was one of the best card dealers in California, so he let the miners do the daytime digging while he got the gold dust at night.
Letts recalled, “Beckwourth often won several thousand dollars in one night, and the next day he would have every man drunk in town; what he could not spend in drink, he would give to the poor, or to his friends. Money was an encumbrance to which he would not submit.”
Beckwourth urged his horse on to the bustling mining camp of Murder’s Bar, where he settled for a while with his old friend Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, Sacajawea’s child from the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark Corps of Discovery expedition of 1804 to 1806.
In 1851, Beckwourth explored the Pit River Valley, north of Truckee, where he discovered the pass that now bears his name. Easier than the Donner, Roller and Carson passes, Beckwourth convinced investors in the town of Marysville to finance a wagon route because the traffic would enhance their business revenue. Once the road was established, Beckwourth traveled to the Truckee Meadows (in Reno, Nev.) to persuade emigrants on the California Trail to follow him north to his new route.
As luck would have it, the very night he led the first wagon train over Beckwourth Pass and into Marysville, the town burned down. His investors lost all their money and Beckwourth was never paid.
Undeterred, the following spring he claimed land on the western portion of his pass where he constructed a small hotel and store, hoping to cash in on future emigrants. But the flood of California-bound gold seekers slowly dwindled as other western gold and silver strikes attracted prospectors and adventurers. Beckwourth’s route was on the northern periphery of the gold region and never garnered the heavy wagon traffic with families that continued to use Carson Pass south of Lake Tahoe.
Beckwourth Pass gained much greater significance as a gateway to California in 1909 when the Western Pacific Railroad constructed a line up Feather River Canyon to Sierra Valley and then through the pass to Nevada.
James Beckwourth was one of an estimated thousand or so African-Americans who arrived in California between 1849 and 1851. By 1851, there were several hundred mining at Negro Bar, an area of rich diggings on the upper American River.
Beckwourth began his life as a plantation slave, but through luck, perseverance and bravery, he blazed a path for all westbound emigrants. Today there is a town, pass and trail that proudly bear his name.