James P. Beckwourth Dec 7, 2008 11:05:59 GMT -5
Post by midmotrapper on Dec 7, 2008 11:05:59 GMT -5
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.
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 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.
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.