Who Was Jim Beckwourth? A Life as Big as America
How do you take the measure of a man? It usually begins with facts documented and witnessed by credible sources. But on the vast American frontier, witnesses were often in short supply and the line between fact and fiction was often, let’s say, “fuzzy.” In the days before TV, cell phones or the Internet, enough people were eager to hear anything resembling a good story to even care if it was true or not.
What we think we know about Jim Beckwourth could fill a book, and has. What we don’t know is likely even more compelling. He was a mountain man who explored the west with Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Peter Lassen and Kit Carson, a fur trader who lived much of his life with the Crow Nation, and an explorer who opened the “Beckwourth Pass” over the Sierras between Reno and Marysville for would-be gold miners. Some called him “Bloody Arm,” for his skill in battle. Not bad for an emancipated black mountain man in the mid-1800s. Netflix recently announced a new revisionist western The Harder They Fall with CJ Cyler playing Beckwourth.
The Jim Beckwourth Museum outside of Portola stands as a testimony to a man we will never fully understand. Earlier this year California Department of Fish & Wildlife reported California’s newest wolf pack has established itself in southern Plumas County, and is named the Beckwourth pack. We know that during his lifetime he wandered from Florida to California, from Canada to Mexico.
Jim (James Pierson) Beckwourth was born into slavery in Virginia around 1800, the son of Sir Jennings Beckwith and an African-American slave woman he “owned.” Very little is known of his mother, but Jim was said to be the third of thirteen children they had together. It’s likely Jim’s relationship with his father was atypical for a slave, since his father arranged for his Deed of Emancipation (freedom from slavery) and apprenticship with a St. Louis blacksmith. Beckwourth would have had to carry that document with him for the rest of his life to prove he was indeed a free man. He went on to become one of the first non-Natives to carve out a life in the American West.
In 1824 Beckwourth joined the Rocky Mountain Fur Company’s expedition to explore the Rocky Mountains as a wrangler. A year later trapper and friend Caleb Greenwood told the “campfire story” that Beckwourth was the stolen son of a Crow chief who was sold to white men. Like a lot of yarns in those days, the story was widely believed, especially since Beckwourth elected to dress as a Native American and live off and on with the Crow Nation. At various times he was known to have one or more Crow wives. Over the years he rose in their ranks from warrior to “chief” (respected man). He fought with the Crow Nation against rival tribes and various parties of whites. The Crow people considered him a great warrior.
In 1837 Beckwourth returned to St. Louis and volunteered to fight with the United States Army in the Second Seminole War in Florida. While he claimed to be a soldier and courier with the army, historical records indicate he was a civilian wagon master. A year later he turned up in Colorado where he made his living as a trader between there and California (then under Mexican control). When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, Beckwourth returned to the United States with 1,800 stolen Mexican horses.
By the start of the California gold rush, Beckwourth moved to California where he opened a store in Sonoma, which he eventually sold before moving to Sacramento to make his living as a professional card player.
Around 1850 Beckwourth “discovered” an old Native American trail through the Sierra Nevadas that was much shorter and less steep than going over Donner Pass to the California gold fields. According to Beckwourth, California gold towns were supposed to fund his improvements to the trail, but when he tried to collect the city of Marysville was unable to pay him. (In recognition of his contributions to the development of Marysville, the city renamed its largest park Beckwourth Riverfront Park in 1996.)
Beckwourth built his first of three cabins close to today’s Jim Beckwourth Museum just east of Portola off of Hwy. 70, but the first two were destined to burn. The cabin served as ranch headquarters, trading post and hotel. During the winter of 1854-55 itinerant (and impoverished) Justice of the Peace Thomas D. Bonner stayed in Beckwourth’s hotel/cabin/trading post where Beckwourth dictated his life story to him. Bonner offered his manuscript for publication and The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth came out in 1856.
For a time the book was a sensation, but critics claimed some of the narration was simply unbelievable. Later critics saw his story as fantastic, yet they came to believe it was a generally accurate account of an incredible life. Like a lot of larger-than-life individuals, Beckwourth had a reputation for exaggeration, especially regarding his own exploits.
Eventually Beckwourth returned to Colorado where he worked as a storekeeper and Indian agent. He may have played a role in the 1864 Sand Creek massacre against the Cheyenne Apache where as many as several hundred friendly Natives were exterminated.
Details of Beckwourth’s death are incomplete and sketchy at best. Beckwourth was guiding a military column up to the Crow band in Montana, but complained of headaches and nosebleeds on the way. He ended up returning to his Crow village in Colorado where he died in 1867 under questionable circumstances. Some say he died of natural causes. Others say he may have been poisoned by one of his former Native wives. The Crow may also have turned against him because of the Sand Creek massacre.
The mists of time can cloud our understanding of facts versus fiction. What sort of a man was James P. Beckwourth really? Was he a world-class adventurer, a horse thief, an incorrigible liar, a killer, or all of the above?
Maybe all that can be said of him is, having been born into slavery, he was a black man who cut a wide path across the American West. Fact or fiction, he was a larger-than-life persona. The Jim Beckwourth Museum (Portola) is temporarily closed, but was mercifully spared from burning in the Dixie fire. When it reopens, it just might be worth a visit.