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James Beckwourth

Summary

James Pierson Beckwourth
April 26, 1798 or 1800 – October 20–30, 1866-1867
Notable: Explorer
Nationality: American

Media

YouTube Video

Podcast Episode

Show Notes

James Pierson Beckwith was born to Sir Jennings Beckwith and a mixed-race enslaved woman in Virginia, most likely Frederick County. Beckwith’s mother likely named “Miss Kill” was enslaved by his father, a plantation owner and Revolutionary War veteran of English and Irish descent. The details beyond those facts are unclear. He is believed to have been born between 1798 and 1800. Beckwith was the third of his father’s 13 children, some or possibly all of whom were also his mother’s children.

At some point in the early 1800s, Jennings relocated his family and slaves to Missouri. Some sources claim that they first spent some time in the Louisiana territory while others claim they moved straight to Missouri. Either way, by 1809 Beckwith was settled in St. Louis where his father arranged for him to attend school for four years. During his childhood, Beckwith spent time hunting and fishing with his father as well as helping to clear land. Jennings arranged a blacksmith apprenticeship for Beckwith and freed him at 18 years old. This is one of two periods where it’s believed that Beckwith’s surname changed to “Beckwourth”.

Now free, Beckwourth left St. Louis and worked in the lead mines near the Fever (later Galena) River in Illinois before moving on to New Orleans via steamboat. The Rocky Mountain Fur Company was established in 1822 by General William Ashley and Andrew Henry and would become famous for its explorers and expeditions. Beckwourth returned to St. Louis and responded to one of the company’s ads in 1824, becoming one of “Ashley’s Hundred” on the Upper Missouri Expedition.

The expedition journeyed up the Missouri River with the men trapping along the way to its source in the Rocky Mountains. The journey was perilous due to the harsh environment and required excellent hunting and survival skills. Beckwourth survived and spent the next few years on trapping excursions along the Bear, Weber, and Green Rivers in Wyoming and Utah.

Back in 1822, a law had been passed that forbade providing alcohol to people who brought pelts to trading posts. Before the law, Native Americans brought pelts to trading posts and bartered them for alcohol and other items. Supposedly they misbehaved in towns after drinking and thus the law was created. Ashley and Henry created a business where they sent trappers out into the wilderness and company representatives would meet them at a specific location for an annual rendezvous where the pelts would be turned in for payment.

Far away from towns and settlements, the trappers would be provided with alcohol and food. With many of the men having been out in the wilderness and away from others, the rendezvous provided an opportunity for camaraderie. A tall and powerfully built man with dark skin, Beckwourth visually stood out among the White mountain men. But he also set himself apart as a master storyteller with deep knowledge of the western frontier.

Beckwourth was taken in by the Crow Native Americans and lived among them for about 12 years. He used the relationship to further facilitate trading with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. But Beckwourth also participated in various horse raids, battled with other indigenous nations, learned their language and customs, and took several of the women as wives.

In the 1830s, the company was sold to new owners and trapping became less lucrative as animal populations were decimated by over-trapping and fashion tastes changed. Seeking a change, Beckwourth briefly returned home to St. Louis before leaving again in search of adventures. In 1837, he journeyed to Florida where he served as a mule driver and messenger in the Second Seminole War.

A few years later, Beckwourth was back in the West. He partnered with others to create a much-needed trading post at what would become Pueblo, Colorado. Beckwourth headed further west during the gold rush helping to guide prospectors and pioneer wagon trains. Of particular note, Beckwourth found the lowest pass in the Sierra Nevada and crafted a trail from Pass to Marysville. Beckwourth used this route to more safely lead individuals and groups through the mountain range. In recognition, they officially became the Beckwourth Pass and the Beckwourth Trail.

Beckwourth operated various businesses in the Southwest and California. He met Thomas D. Bonner, a former journalist who helped him to write and publish his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth. It’s believed that Bonner might have changed the spelling of Beckwourth’s last name for the book’s publication. The book garnered attention but was also dismissed as a collection of tall tales. In the years since many of its stories have been verified.

Always on the move, Beckwourth continued going back and forth between St. Louis and the West. Unfortunately, he also used his knowledge of the land to help American forces, most notably in the Sand Creek Massacre. His siding with the Americans was viewed by some Native Americans as a betrayal.

At the end of his life, Beckwourth was living with a Native American woman at Fort Laramie. It’s unclear what exactly happened or when but James Beckwourth died mysteriously among the Crow people in 1866 or 1867. His death is believed to have been the result of an illness, hunting accident, or poison.

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