Thursday, August 22, 2013

James Pierson Beckwourth

Jim Beckwourth c. 1855
James P. Beckwourth, from a daguerreotype c. 1855
Jim Beckwourth was an African American who played a major role in the early exploration and settlement of the American West. Although there were people of many races and nationalities on the frontier, Beckwourth was the only African American who recorded his life story, and his adventures took him from the everglades of Florida to the Pacific Ocean and from southern Canada to northern Mexico.

He dictated his autobiography to Thomas D. Bonner, an itinerant Justice of the Peace in the gold fields of California, in 1854-55. After Bonner "polished up" Beckwourth's rough narrative, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians was published by Harper and Brothers in 1856. The book apparently achieved a certain amount of popular success, for it was followed by an English edition in the same year, a second printing two years later, and a French translation in 1860.

Beckwourth's role in American history was often dismissed by historians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many were quite blatant in their prejudices, refusing to give any credence to a "mongrel of mixed blood." And many of his acquaintances considered the book something of a joke.

But Beckwourth was a man of his times, and for the early fur trappers of the Rockies, the ability to "spin a good yarn" was a skill valued almost as highly as marksmanship or woodsmanship. And while Beckwourth certainly had a tendency to exaggerate numbers or to occasionally make himself the hero of events that happened to other people, later historians have discovered that much of what Beckwourth related in his autobiography actually occurred.

Truth is often something much bigger than merely the accuracy of details. And to discover the truth of what life was like for the fur trappers of the 1820's, the Crow Indians of the 1830's, the pioneers of the Southwest in the 1840's, or the gold miners of California in the 1850's, you can find no better source than the life of Jim Beckwourth.

Beckwourth's Early Years

James Pierson Beckwourth was born in 1798 in Frederick County, Virginia to an African American slave mother and English father, Sir Jennings Beckwith. Although his father raised him as his own son, according to the law, Jim Beckwourth was still legally considered a slave. His father appeared in open court on three separate occasions (in 1824, 1825, and 1826) and "acknowledged the execution of a Deed of Emancipation from him to James, a mulatto boy."

St. Louis, Missouri c.1830
St. Louis, Missouri was the center of fur traffic in the early 1800's.
Beckwourth's family moved to Missouri in the early 1800's, and he was apprenticed to a blacksmith in St. Louis when he was a young man. But Beckwourth was unhappy as an apprentice, and after a dispute with his boss, he left home in 1822 on an expedition to the lead mines in the Fever River area.

After a brief sojourn to New Orleans, Beckwourth returned to his father's home, but was soon struck with wanderlust again, and in the summer of 1824 he signed on with General William Ashley for a trapping expedition to the Rocky Mountains.

Beckwourth the Mountain Man

Ad placed by William Ashley
Ads like this one placed by William Ashley enticed adventurous men into the Rockies.
For a number of years Beckwourth took part in a series of trapping expeditions with the American Fur Company and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company where he learned the frontiersman skills he would use for the rest of his life. He also met and worked with such well-known mountain men as Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, Jim Clyman and Edward Rose. He participated in the first Mountain Man Rendezvous at Henry's Fork on the Green River in 1825. The location of the rendezvous changed every year, and it quickly became the best-known social and business institution of the American mountain men.

If everything in Beckwourth's autobiography can be believed, he played a leading role in virtually every recorded event in the Rocky Mountains in the late 1820's. He seemed to have a bit of a problem with numbers. If 50 trappers were attacked by 50 Blackfeet, Beckwourth might report 10 trappers attacked by 500 Blackfeet. And, of course, it was always Beckwourth's skill and bravery that saved the day.

In spite of his tendency to exaggerate, however, many of Beckwourth's tales have been confirmed from other sources. It is clear that, at the very least, Beckwourth actually witnessed many of the incidents he described. In other cases, his role was confirmed by independent accounts from other mountain men.

During this period of his life, while operating a trading post with the Blackfeet, Beckwourth had the first of what was to become a long string of "affairs of the heart," although pragmatism seemed to be more of a driving force than his heart. His marriage to two Blackfoot women apparently lasted for the duration of the trading post -- about two weeks.

Beckwourth's Life with the Crow

In about 1828, while on a trapping expedition with Jim Bridger, Beckwourth was captured by a party of Crow warriors. By Beckwourth's account, he was mistaken for the long lost son of Big Bowl, one of the tribal chieftans, and adopted into the tribe. Independent accounts make it seem more likely that his time with the Crow nation was prearranged with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company for the purposes of establishing trade.

Whatever the reason, Beckwourth spent the next six to eight years with the Crow, and gained considerable influence with the tribe. There are many documents from his contemporaries which confirm his position of leadership with the Crow. He apparently rose within their ranks to at least the level of War Chief, and by his own account was named head Chief of the Crow Nation upon the death of Arapooish (Rotten Belly).
Beckwourth's tales of his life with the Crow are largely unconfirmed, although some cases which were witnessed by other mountain men can be documentd from other sources. But in terms of getting an accurate account of what Crow society was like, his autobiography is unsurpassed.

Whether we believe all of Beckwourth's tales or not, no mountain man could have lived as a Crow for so long without distinguishing himself in battle. For the Crow, war was a way of life, and a man who was unskilled in war was a "nobody." It was not in Jim Beckwourth's nature (nor any other mountain man's) to remain a "nobody" for long. And Beckwourth's considerable influence with the Crow was (sometimes begrudgingly) acknowledged by his contemporaries and historians alike.

It is clear that Beckwourth's time with the Crow nation were his fondest memories. More than half of his autobiography is spent relating his experiences with them. Perhaps his wanderlust was satisfied for a time by his life with a nomadic tribe. Or maybe he discovered domestic bliss among the Crow. Beckwourth had as many as ten Crow wives at one time -- he had almost as many wives as he did names. By his own account, he was smitten by the young warrior woman, Pine Leaf.
Pine Leaf, the Crow heroine.
Pine Leaf, the Crow heroine
According to Beckwourth, Pine Leaf was captured from the Gros Ventre (Big Belly) tribe when she was about ten years old and raised as a Crow. She had a twin brother who was killed by the Blackfeet, and she swore that she would take no man as her husband until she killed one hundred enemy warriors with her own hands. Beckwourth admired her greatly:

"Whenever a war party started, Pine Leaf was the first to volunteer to accompany them. Her presence among them caused much amusement to the old veterans; but if she lacked physical strength, she always rode the fleetest horses and none of the warriors could outstrip her . . . . and when I engaged in the fiercest struggles, no one was more promptly at my side than the young heroine. She seemed incapable of fear; and when she arrived at womanhood, could fire a gun without flinching and use the Indian weapons with as great dexterity as the most accomplished warrior."*

Beckwourth wooed Pine Leaf relentlessly, but she always rebuffed him, saying she would marry him "when the pine-leaves turn yellow" or "when you find a red-headed Indian." But his perseverance finally paid off, and when Beckwourth returned to the Crow after a misadventure in which they thought him killed, Pine Leaf renounced the War Path and agreed to marry him.

But for Beckwourth, the pursuit always held more attraction than the goal, and five weeks later he left the Crow. He never saw Pine Leaf again.

Beckwourth Says "Farewell" to the Rockies

By the summer of 1836 a number of factors had combined to put an end to Beckwourth's career with the American Fur Company and the Crow nation.

In the east, changes in fashion had greatly decreased the demand for beaver pelts, and, in any case, after years of heavy trapping, the beaver were becoming scarce.

The incessant Crow wars were prejudicial to the interests of the American Fur Company. Beckwourth often belabored the Crow about "the superior delights of peace," but, "An old warrior despises the sight of a trap; hunting buffalo, even, does not afford him excitement enough. Nothing but war or a horse-raid is a business worth their attending to . . ."  The Company had trading posts with virtually all the tribes the Crow were at war with. Trade had declined considerably.

In addition, Beckwourth himself was becoming restless. He wasn't rich and famous enough. "I had encountered savage beasts and wild men . . . . And what had I to show for so much wasted energy, and such a catalogue of ruthless deeds?"

In July of 1836, still hoping to renew his contract with the American Fur Company, Beckwourth left the Crow and retured to St. Louis. He was lost and out of place. His father had long since left, and had died in Virginia in the previous year. And St. Louis was no longer the wild and primitive place Beckwourth had known growing up.

In the spring of 1837, still hoping to renew his contract with the American Fur Company, Beckwourth made one last visit to the Crow, and in so doing laid himself open to a malicious charge: he has been accused by several authors of deliberately bringing smallpox to the plains Indians.

Beckwourth made many friends among the mountain men, but he made his share of enemies, as well, and once the story was introduced, they quickly picked it up and made it part of the Beckwourth legend. In fact, there is nothing to support the story except the testimony of a few writers with a long history of maligning Beckwourth's character.

The story just doesn't fit what is known about Jim Beckwourth. He had a tremendous respect for all the plains tribes -- even those he considered his enemies. He wouldn't think twice about bashing in an enemy's skull in hand-to-hand combat -- that was an honorable death. But he would have considered the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children by disease as dastardly, cowardly and evil. And most other writers of the time attributed the plague of 1837 to other sources.

However it was introduced, smallpox swept the plains in the summer of 1837 and killed thousands. Inevitably, it affected the fur trade and may have influenced the American Fur Company's decision not to re-hire Jim Beckwourth.

Beckwourth In the Everglades

While briefly back in St. Louis in the fall of 1837, Beckwourth was introduced by William Sublette to General William Gaines, who was recruiting mountain men to serve as muleteers in the Seminole War. in Florida. Sublette recommended that Jim engage. "Florida, he said, was a delightful country, and I should find a wide difference between the cold regions of the Rocky Mountains and the genial and salubrious South." 
But it wasn't balmy climes that drew Beckwourth. Sublette said there was an opportunity there for renown.
The involvement of the Missouri troops in the Seminole War grew out of Senator Thomas Hart Benton's displeasure over the steady drain of resources. By 1837 over $12 million had already been spent with no apparent results. Senator Benton thought that the expertise of the mountain men in tracking and Indian-style warfare was just what was needed for victory. Richard Gentry of Columbia, Missouri was appointed "Colonel of Volunteers" and was directed to recruit 600 men and have them ready for duty by November, 1837.

Beckwourth recruited a number of other mountain men and was engaged as "Express Rider & Sub-Conducter of Muleteers" for the sum of $50/month. His account of his experiences in Florida is, for once, remarkably free of exaggeration.

The men and their horses boarded small boats bound for Tampa Bay on October 26, 1837, but they had no experience with boats, and simply drove their horses into the holds with no attempt to make them secure. The boats were overtaken by severe storms, and many of the horses were killed or maimed. Beckwourth's boat foundered on a reef, and the men and horses were stranded for twelve days before being rescued by a steamer.

Colonel Zachary Taylor (later General and President) ordered all the men now without horses and unwilling to proceed on foot to be dismissed without pay. Thus began a rivalry between the regular army and the Missouri Volunteers that was to last for years, and was even carried to the halls of Congress (by Senator Benton).

Beckwourth's description of the Battle of Okeechobee under Colonel Taylor, which took place on Christmas Day, 1837, jibes perfectly with the military records and other eyewitness accounts, right down to the dates and times and the number of killed and wounded. It was in this battle that Colonel Richard Gentry, much loved by the Missouri Volunteers, was killed.
Beckwourth stayed on in Florida for ten months, doing some scouting and carrying dispatches, but the war settled down into a routine that he found unendurable.

Now we had another long interval of inactivity, and I began to grow tired of Florida . . . . It seemed to me to be a country dear even at the price of the powder to blow the Indians out of it, and certainly a poor field to work in for renown. . . . I wanted excitement of some kind -- I was indifferent of what nature, even if it was no better than borrowing horses of the Black Feet. The Seminoles had no horses worth stealing, or I should certainly have exercised my talents for the benefit of the United States.
In the summer of 1838, Beckwourth found himself back in St. Louis, looking for a job.

Beckwourth on the Santa Fe Trail

The American Fur Company had successfully won a major share of the fur trade on the upper Missouri, while further south Charles and William Bent had almost a monopoly along the Arkansas and clear down into Mexico. But there were still opportunities for independent traders, and so Beckwourth found himself in St. Louis without a job for only five days. Andrew Sublette and Louis Vasquez were trying their luck with the Indians of the Southwest, and they had need of men such as Jim.

Vasquez was an old friend of Beckwourth's and was glad of his services. And Jim longed to put the dullness of Florida and the rigors of city life behind him. Here at last was the chance for "excitement," for he would be dealing with Cheyennes, Arapaho and Sioux -- all traditional enemies of the Crow. They set out on the Santa Fe Trail for the fort Vasquez had established in 1835 on the Platte River in what is now Colorado.
Beckwourth was named "agent-in-charge," and he immediately set out to establish himself among the Cheyenne. Through a Crow interpreter, he put on a display of braggadocio for the astonished Indians, playing on their pride and respect for the brave deeds of enemy warriors.

I have killed a great Crow Chief, and am obliged to run away, or be killed by them. I have come to the Cheyennes, who are the bravest people in the mountains, as I do not wish to be killed by any of the inferior tribes. I have come here to be killed by the Cheyennes, cut up, and thrown out for their dogs to eat, so that they may say they have killed a great Crow Chief.
William Bent, who was trading in the same village, had just one comment for Beckwourth: "You are certainly bereft of your senses. The Indians will make sausage-meat of you."

But the braggadocio worked. (That and two ten gallon kegs of whiskey.) Thanks to Beckwourth's skill, Sublette and Vasquez had a successful fall and winter trade, and made enough to pay off their debts and outfit the next season's trade. But the following winter was disappointing, and they sold out in 1840. Once again, Beckwourth was out of work.

But not for long. The Bent brothers had triumphed once again, and Beckwourth soon found himself in their employ, dealing with the same tribes as before. His friendship with the Cheyenne was cemented and would last for many years. But he soon began to tire of the monotony of his life, and he set out with a companion over the rugged passes and down into Taos, New Mexico, where he formed a partnership with a friend and set out once again to trade with the Cheyenne, this time on his own account.

Their venture was successful enough that they were able to return to Taos and set up as merchants. Jim settled in for a bit to enjoy the fruits of his labors. He also married Luisa Sandoval. In true Beckwourth fashion, she gets very little attention in his memoirs.

In October, 1842, Beckwourth took his wife north to the Arkansas in what is now Colorado, where he built a trading post. They were soon joined by twenty or thirty settler families, and a thriving community was born. They happily named their little settlement "Pueblo."

But the Pueblans weren't popular in Bent country. Charles and William saw the newcomers as competition for their own great trading firm, and they wrote angrily to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, disparaging the "renegade Americans" and "Mexican traders" in Pueblo and begging for a military fort. Their entreaties came to naught, but Beckwourth had made powerful enemies of his old employers.

Meanwhile, sporadic tensions between Mexico and Texas had lessened the welcome that citizens of the United States received below the border. Now that Beckwourth was out of favor both with the Bents and the Mexicans, he was forced to look elsewhere.

Beckwourth and the California Revolt

Beckwourth and twelve others arrived in Pueblo de Angeles in January, 1844, and he proceeded to indulge his "new passion for trade."

With his usual talent for finding "excitement," Beckwourth soon found himself embroiled in the 1845 revolt of the American settlers in California against Mexican control.

In his autobiography he indulged another of his talents -- he got thenames all wrong. Governor Micheltorena becomes "Torrejon," while Rowland, one of the leaders recruiting insurgents, becomes "Roland." Other key leaders aren't even mentioned. And, of course, he becomes the leader and hero of every encounter. But on the essential facts of the battle of Cahuenga, he is substantiated by other accounts.

Then came the news that war had broken out between the United States and Mexico. Beckwourth headed home for Pueblo. But not alone. Along with five others, he

collected eighteen hundred stray horses we found roaming the California ranchos and started with our utmost speed from Pueblo de Angeles. This was a fair capture and our morals justified it, for it was war-time.

Beckwourth and the Mexican-American War

Back in Pueblo, Beckwourth found that things had changed. Luisa had remarried. He claimed her new husband deceived her with a forged document expressing his desire to be free. Luisa was remorseful, Jim claimed, and offered herself back to him. But he didn't pursue the matter, preferring instead to "enjoy once more the sweets of single blessedness."

Beckwourth headed for Santa Fe where, with a partner, he established a successful hotel. While his partner handled the day-to-day operation of the hotel, Beckwourth carried dispatches for the army. And it was to Beckwourth's hotel that Charles Towne brought the news that there had been an insurrection at Taos and all the Americans living there, including his old boss Charles Bent, had been massacred.

The mountain men, friends and employees of Charles and William Bent gathered, anxious for revenge. Beckwourth left the hotel to look after itself and accompanied his friends. He witnessed the defeat of the Indian and Mexican rebels and saw the hangings that brought final revenge for the murders committed in Taos on January 19, 1847.

He lingered on in the southwest for another year or so, then settled his affairs and headed for California once more.

Beckwourth and the "Terrible Tragedy"

One of Jim Beckwourth's most uncanny talents was the knack of showing up somewhere just in time to witness or participate in some historic event. His return to California was no exception, for he arrived in the late fall of 1848, just in time to beat the "rush-hour traffic" heading for the gold fields.

But first there was one other historic event to witness. Beckwourth was the first on the scene of one of the most infamous and brutal atrocities in early California history.

At the time the mail route in California consisted primarily of four legs: San Francisco to Monterey, Monterey to Dana's Ranch in Nipomo (a few miles north of what is now Santa Maria), Dana's Ranch to Pueblo de los Angeles, and from there to San Diego. Beckwourth, with his considerable experience carrying dispatches, signed on to handle the Monterey to Nipomo leg.

One of Beckwourth's favorite rest stops on the route was at the mission at San Miguel, owned by William Reed, for he had taken a liking to Reed's family. Arriving at dusk one day, he had a look around, but was surprised to find no one stirring. Investigating further, he stumbled over the murdered body of a man in the kitchen. He returned to his horse for his pistols, and, lighting a candle, commenced a search.

In going along a passage, I stumbled over the body of a woman; I entered a room, and found another, a murdered Indian woman, who had been a domestic. I was about to enter another room, but I was arrested by some sudden thought which urged me to search no further. It was an opportune admonition, for that very room contained the murderers of the family, who had heard my steps and were sitting at that moment with their pistols pointed at the door, ready to shoot the first person that entered. This they confessed subsequently
Beckwourth rode for help and returned with a posse of about fifteen men. "On again entering the house, we found eleven bodies all thrown together in one pile for the purpose of consuming them; for, on searching further, we found the murderers had set fire to the dwelling, but according to that Providence which exposes such wicked deeds, the fire had died out."

The victims were Reed and his wife (who had just given birth), their infant and a two or three year old son , a midwife and her daughter of fifteen or sixteen and young grandson, Mrs. Reed's brother, an Indian shepherd and his grandson of four or five, and their cook. Reed had been shot in the head, and the rest of the victims had been killed with axes.

The murderers were captured near Santa Barbara and one of the men "turned state's evidence." They were tried and, as Jim put it "we shot them, including the state's evidence." Beckwourth's account puts their number at "two Americans, two Englishmen, and ten Irishmen," but other accounts say there were four, and that one drowned trying to escape capture. Perhaps Bonner misheard "and an Irishman" as "and ten Irishmen."

The Reed murders were much talked about and remembered in California, and with the exception of the number of killers, virtually every account matches Beckwourth's precisely, and many mention him by name. Perhaps the "guady liar" felt that in this case exaggeration was entirely unnecessary.

No comments:

Post a Comment