Born a slave, freed by his master/father when he was 26 years old. Mighty nice of his father to release his son from slavery, huh? By all accounts though, the father was good to the son, taught him to hunt and fish, found an apprenticeship for him, and was genuinely a father to him.
The year he received his emancipation papers, In 1824, Beckwourth joined up with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and headed with an expedition to explore the Rocky Mountains.
A story told by a trapper, in 1825, told of Beckwourth being born to the Crow Indians then stolen by the Cheyennes. Thus began a life so full of tall tales—many of them told by Beckwourth himself—that it’s long been hard to separate fact from fiction. A truth that applies to almost all mountain men as they often had their legend doctored up by the press and by dime novels celebrating them.
That same year, Beckwourth claimed to be captured by the Crow. Another version of this story is he was mistaken as the kidnapped son of a Crow chief and taken into their tribe.
Beckwourth embraced this lore by dressing as a Crow and he soon married the daughter of a Crow chief. By his own account he had four wives. He remained with the tribe for about ten years and rose to the position of Chief, a very powerful and respected man.
And then he went back east and joined the army and took part in the Seminole War, that lasted about five or six years. Then he went to California, then part of Mexico for a few years until a war broke out and he returned to the United States and went back to work for the Army.
James Beckwourth, Crow Chief
And then the California Gold Rush began. Did Beckwourth go and dig for gold? Nope. He opened a store. It was always said that the store owners were the ones who really got rich most reliably in a gold rush.
During the gold rush years Beckwourth worked as a Store keeper, professional gambler, rancher, hotel keeper, and (YAY!) author
One long winter a judge named Thomas Bonner stayed in a hotel in the town near where Beckwourth was ranching, in a town that became Beckwourth, California. During those cold evenings, Beckwourth told Bonner his life story.
It was published in 1854 as The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians. Many believe the book is little more than tall tales but there is a look at those days and Beckwourths adventures in it. And the book helped etch Jame Beckwourth in history. The book is still available for sale today on Amazon and I’ve got a ecopy! $0.99!
A particularly interesting fact about this book…though there were many books about mountain men, this is the only one in existence narrated by the mountain man himself. All the books about Kit Carson and John C Fremont and others were written by others while the men the books were about had no idea the book was even published.
Beckwourth Trail, note Reno as the right. This pass is the current route of California State Highway 70, and a branch of the Union Pacific Railround
Also during this time the lifelong adventurer did his most well remembered pathfinding. In 1850, Beckwourth discovered what came to be called Beckwourth Pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountain chain. And this discovery is what brought Beckwourth to my attention and set me to researching him. My upcoming series, High Sierra Sweethearts, takes place along this pass.
Beckwourth didn’t just discover a way through those rugged mountains. In 1851, he improved a Native American trail that began near Pyramid Lake and the Truckee Meadows east of the mountains, climbed to the Beckwourth Pass, went along a ridge between two forks of Feather River, and passed down to the gold fields of northern California. The trail spared the settlers and gold seekers, about 150 miles and several steep grades and dangerous passes—including it bypassed the Donner Pass (whew!). This was about four years after the tragedy of the Donner Party
James Beckwourth died at near age 70, while leading a military party to the Crow Tribe in Montana. A tough, adventurous pathfinder to the end.
He has been immortalized with a Postage Stamp and also makes an appearance, slightly altered, in the TV Miniseries Cenntenial and the movie Revenant includes a fictionalize mountain man in the image of James Beckwourth.