James Beckwourth

c.1798–1866

James Beckwourth (c.1798–1866) was a famous Mountain Man — trapper, frontiersman, and guide — who is most well-known for being a successful black man in the first half of the 19th century and his reputation for exaggerating stories about his life.

James Beckwourth, Mountain Man, Portrait

James Beckwourth. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Who was James Beckwourth?

James Beckwourth, a black Mountain Man born around 1800, led a life of adventure and exploration in the American West. Born in Virginia, he was the son of Sir Jennings Beckwith and a mixed-race slave woman. He became known for his distinctive appearance, wearing buckskin attire and plaiting his hair in the style of Native American Indians. Beckwourth worked as a trader, trapper, and guide, often embellishing the stories about his exploits. He claimed to be a great Indian fighter and a Chief in the Crow Tribe. Beckwourth’s notable feats included his involvement in expeditions, such as General William Henry Ashley’s supply expedition, and his time living with the Crow Tribe. Later, he established the Beckwourth Pass at the eastern edge of Sierra Valley at present-day Chilcoot-Vinton, California. His accomplishments as a frontiersman and contributed to the opening of the American West, allowing America to fulfill its Manifest Destiny.

James Beckwourth Quick Facts

  • Full Name: His full name was James Pierson Beckwourth.
  • Date of Birth: James Beckwourth was born sometime between 1798–1800.
  • Parents: His father, Sir Jennings Beckwith, was a descendant of minor Irish aristocrats. His mother was a mulatto woman enslaved by Beckwick.
  • Birthplace: Beckworuth was born in Virginia, possibly in Frederick County.
  • Death: He died sometime between October 20–30, 1866.
  • Place of Death: He died somewhere in Crow Territory, which was made up of present-day Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota.
  • Nickname: Beckwourth’s nickname was “Bloody Arm.”

James Beckwourth Biography

James Beckwourth was a Mountain Man — trapper, frontiersman, and guide — who rose to prominence in the first half of the 19th century. Beckwourth was unique for his time because he was a black man. His mother was mulatto — mixed-race — slave, enslaved by Sir Jennings Beckwith — his father. Born around 1798, Beckwourth was manumitted — given his freedom — by his father upon reaching adulthood in Missouri.

Regarded as a free black man, Beckwourth was able to travel and find work, which led him to the Fever River lead mines in 1822, and later to New Orleans, before returning to the St. Louis area.

Beckwourth and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company

In March 1822, General William Henry Ashley and Andrew Henry started a fur trading company. Ashley placed an ad in a St. Louis newspaper that said he was looking for me to join a trapping expedition. The men who signed up are known as “Ashley’s Hundred.” The expedition — also known as the Upper Missouri Expedition — traveled up the Missouri River, trapping along its tributaries in the Rocky Mountains, and included famous Mountain Men such as Jim Bridger, Hugh Glass, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Jedediah Smith.

Two years later, Beckwourth joined Ashley’s company for an expedition to the Green River, serving as a groom, blacksmith, and servant. Beckwourth later gained recognition as a Mountain Man. He worked as a fur trapper for prominent fur trade companies, served as a guide for military expeditions, and operated trading posts. 

Ashley's Hundred, Newspaper Ad, 1822
William H. Ashley’s newspaper ad. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Beckwourth’s Adventures as a Mountain Man

His exploits included wintering with Jedediah Smith in Cache Valley, participating in the fight against the Blackfoot Indians, and being possibly one of the rescuers who saved Robert Campbell and his party from disaster. In 1825, he was adopted by the Crow Indians and resided among them for several years, forming relationships with women from various tribes.

During his time with the Crow, Beckwourth presented himself as an important chief and warrior, although it is believed that he exaggerated his accounts. His alliance with the Crow served both his personal interests and the trade connections of his employer, the American Fur Company.

In 1837, Beckwourth’s contract with the American Fur Company ended, and he joined a Missouri volunteer company to fight against Seminole Indians in Florida. He later became a trader on the Santa Fe Trail and settled in present-day Pueblo, Colorado, with a Hispanic woman named Louisa Sandoval.

James Beckwourth, Crow Indian Warrior, Illustration
This illustration depicts Beckwourth as a Crow Warrior. Image Source: The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, 1856, by T.D. Bonner, Archive.org.

Beckwourth During the Mexican-American War

Beckwourth’s travels continued as he ventured to California, where he engaged in various activities during the time of the Mexican-American War. He conspired against Governor Manuel Micheltorena and allegedly became a horse thief. After the American conquest of California, he served as a guide, messenger, and mail rider for the American forces. He ran a saloon in Santa Fe after the American occupation of New Mexico in 1846.

The California Gold Rush

The California Gold Rush in 1848 drew Beckwourth to the Sierra mining camps, where he formed a company to establish a wagon road through the Sierra mountains. He operated a ranch, trading post, and hotel for immigrants at Beckwourth Pass, and his hospitality and captivating stories made him a memorable host.

Beckwourth’s Biography

In 1854, a biography titled “The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation” was published by Thomas D. Bonner. For the publication of the book, Bonner changed the spelling of his last name to “Beckwourth.”

Beckwourth’s Later Years and Legacy

Beckwourth continued his journey, moving to St. Louis in 1858 and later traveling to Colorado to supply and keep a store for his friend Louis Vasquez. He worked as a guide and interpreter for various expeditions and military operations, including the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, although his role in the incident is unclear.

Beckwourth eventually settled at Fort Laramie, living with an Indian woman. He is believed to have died during a hunting trip while visiting the Crow Indians in 1866 or possibly near Denver in 1867. According to various accounts and people, including Jim Bridger, Beckwourth was poisoned by the Crow.

While Beckwourth’s published accounts were initially seen as exaggerated, many details of his story have been verified by later research and scholarship. There is no doubt he interacted with notable figures of the Fur Trade Era and the Crow Indians.

Jim Beckwourth Facts — His Life and Career

Early Life of Jim Beckwourth

  • James Beckwourth, also known as Jim Beckwourth, was a mixed-race mountain man born around 1800.
  • He was born in Virginia, likely in Frederick County, around 1800.
  • Beckwourth’s father, Sir Jennings Beckwith, was of Irish descent and his mother was a mulatto woman enslaved to Beckwith.

Beckwith Moves to St. Louis

  • In 1810, Beckwourth’s father moved to Louisiana Territory and eventually settled in St. Louis.
  • It is believed that his father migrated west to provide better opportunities for his mixed-race son.
  • When Beckwourth reached adulthood, his father manumitted him, freeing him from slavery.

Beckwourth’s Early Career

  • He was considered a free black man, able to move freely and find work.
  • In 1822, Beckwourth joined the gold rush to the Fever River lead mines.
  • He traveled to New Orleans where he likely worked on riverboats and steamboats, before returning to the St. Louis area.

William H. Ashley and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company

  • In the fall of 1824, Beckwourth joined General William Ashley’s supply expedition to fur trappers in the Rocky Mountains.
  • The expedition played an important role in the first Rocky Mountain Rendezvous in the summer of 1825.
  • It is believed Beckwourth primarily served as a combination of groom, blacksmith, and body servant for General Ashley.
  • He did venture into fur trapping himself and gained a reputation as a Mountain Man.
  • He also contracted with the American Fur Company, which was owned by John Jacob Astor. In 1837, his contract with the American Fur Company was not renewed.
  • He continued to work with different partners of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company until 1828.
William Henry Ashley, Illustration
This illustration depicts General William Henry Ashley.

Adopted by the Crow

  • Sometime between 1825 and 1828, he was apparently adopted into a Crow Indian tribe.
  • Some accounts say he lived with the tribe for six years, but others say it was as long as a decade.
  • Caleb Greenwood, a fellow trapper, played a role in this adoption by convincing Chief Big Bowl that Beckwourth was his long-lost son. According to the story, the chief’s son had been captured by the Cheyenne as a child and subsequently sold to white settlers.
  • Beckwourth went along with it and embraced his identity as the chief’s long-lost son.

Beckwourth’s Life with the Crow

  • He lived with the Crow tribe for at least six years, joining in their culture and way of life.
  • According to his account, he portrayed himself as an important chief and skilled warrior and participated in numerous raids against other tribes.
  • It is believed his alliance with them served a strategic purpose and was primarily to obtain furs for his new employer, Kenneth McKenzie of the American Fur Company
  • Regardless of his intentions, he adopted aspects of Native American Indian culture, including wearing braids, moccasins, and clothes.
  • Beckwourth is said to have had as many as 18 wives from various tribes, including the Blackfoot, Snake, and Crow.

The Fight in the Willows

  • In 1828, he was present during the “Fight in the Willows” between the Blackfoot tribe and a group of trappers, led by Robert Campbell, on their way to the 1828 Rocky Mountain Rendezvous.
  • It is believed Beckwourth was one of two men who made a daring charge through the Indian lines to call for help from a rescue party. His actions likely saved the lives of the trappers.

Second Seminole War

  • Beckwourth traveled to Florida, took on the role of a muleteer, and accompanied a Missouri volunteer company in the Second Seminole War.
  • He fought in the Battle of Lake Okeechobee (December 25, 1837), but soon after returned to Missouri.

Sante Fe Trail, Taos, and Pueblo

  • He then became a trader on the Santa Fe Trail, working for Andrew Sublette and Louis Vasquez.
  • Following his time on the Santa Fe Trail, Beckwourth served as a wagon loader at Bent’s Fort and worked as a trader in Taos.
  • In 1842, Beckwourth and a group of traders established a settlement at the present-day site of Pueblo, Colorado.

Mexican-American War

  • Two years after settling in Pueblo, Colorado, Beckwourth traveled to California.
  • During his time there, he allegedly conspired against Governor Manuel Micheltorena and gained a reputation as a horse thief.
  • Following the American conquest of California, Beckwourth served as a guide and messenger for the American forces and worked as a mail rider in the Monterey area.

New Mexico

  • At some point, Beckwourth returned to New Mexico, as mentioned by Lewis Garrard, the author of “Wah-To-Yah and the Taos Trail.”
  • Garrard stated that Beckwourth was running a saloon in Santa Fe shortly after the American occupation of the province in 1846.

California Gold Rush, Sierra Nevada, and the Beckwourth Pass

  • The discovery of gold in California in 1848 attracted James Beckwourth to the Sierra mining camps.
  • Like many others caught up in the excitement, Beckwourth became involved in the pursuit of new and improved routes through the challenging Sierra Nevada mountains.
  • In 1851, he formed a company with the aim of establishing a wagon road or trail from Bidwell’s Bar through the mountains.
  • Beckwourth’s route proved to be reasonably successful, and for a few years, he operated a ranch, trading post, and hotel for immigrants at the summit of Beckwourth Pass, which the trail ran through.
  • Travelers who visited his establishment consistently praised Beckwourth as an impressive host who captivated them with his fascinating stories.

Bonner’s Biography of Beckwourth

  • In 1854, Thomas D. Bonner, originally from New England and a former justice of the peace in the gold region of California, conducted an interview with Beckwourth at his Sierra hotel.
  • Following the interview, Bonner published a book about Beckwourth’s life, titled “The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation.” The book was published in 1856.
  • As part of the publication process, Bonner made a change to the spelling of Beckwourth’s name. He modified it from “Beckwith” to the currently accepted spelling of “Beckwourth.”

St. Louis and Colorado

  • In 1858, James Beckwourth traveled east to St. Louis.
  • However, when he learned about the discovery of gold in the Pikes Peak Region, he changed his plans and headed to Colorado.
  • In Colorado, Beckwourth took on the role of a supplier and storekeeper for his old friend Louis Vasquez.

The Sand Creek Massacre

  • Later, he served as a guide for E. L. Berthoud of the Second Colorado Infantry.
  • Beckwourth attempted to engage in trapping on the Green River but was unsuccessful.
  • He then joined the Colorado troops, likely as a guide and interpreter.
  • The Colorado troops were involved in the infamous attack on the Cheyenne camp at Sand Creek in 1864.
  • Beckwourth’s specific involvement in the Sand Creek Massacre is a matter of dispute and remains unclear.

Later Years and Death

  • After his involvement with the Colorado troops, James Beckwourth found employment with the army at Fort Laramie.
  • However, his life came to an end during a hunting trip while visiting the Crow Indians in 1866.
  • There are some sources that suggest Beckwourth may have been poisoned by the Crow tribe. This suspicion arose due to his alleged role in bringing smallpox to the tribe in 1837, possibly intentionally.
  • Others believe Beckwourth may have died near Denver in 1867.
  • The exact circumstances and location of his death remain uncertain and have led to varying accounts from different sources.

James Beckwourth Significance

James Beckworth is important to United States history for the role he played in helping to explore and open the American West to thousands of settlers. Although many of his achievements are embellished, the fact remains that he played an important role in helping the United States fulfill its Manifest Destiny. Doing so as a black man, prior to the Civil War and the end of slavery, makes his achievements even more impressive.

James Beckwourth APUSH Terms and Definitions

These terms and definitions for the AP US History (APUSH) Exam are related to James Beckwourth. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Fur Trade Era — The Fur Trade Era refers to a period in American history, from the late 18th century to the mid-19th century when the fur trade industry flourished in North America. It involved the exchange of fur pelts, particularly beaver pelts, between Native American Indian trappers and European and American fur traders.

William Henry Ashley — William Henry Ashley was an American fur trader and politician who played a significant role in the fur trade industry during the early 19th century. He co-founded the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and organized the annual Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, which became a crucial gathering for fur trappers and traders.

Rocky Mountain Fur Company — The Rocky Mountain Fur Company was a prominent fur trading company established in 1822 by William Henry Ashley and Andrew Henry. It operated in the western territories of the United States, primarily focusing on the lucrative fur resources of the Rocky Mountains. The company played a key role in expanding the fur trade in the region.

Rocky Mountain Rendezvous — The Rocky Mountain Rendezvous was an annual gathering held by fur traders and trappers in the early 19th century. Organized by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, led by William Henry Ashley, the rendezvous served as a meeting point for trappers, Native American Indians, and fur traders to exchange goods, negotiate prices, and engage in social activities.

John Jacob Astor — John Jacob Astor was a prominent American businessman and investor who played a significant role in the fur trade industry during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He founded the American Fur Company, which became one of the largest and most influential fur trading enterprises in the United States. Astor’s ventures contributed to the expansion of the fur trade and the development of the American West.

Crow Tribe — The Crow Tribe, also known as the Apsáalooke, is a Native American Indian Tribe that historically inhabited the Great Plains region of North America. They are recognized as one of the original tribes of the Northern Plains and have a rich cultural heritage. The Crow people are known for their nomadic lifestyle, buffalo hunting skills, and distinct language and traditions. They played a significant role in the Fur Trade Era, engaging in trading activities with European and American fur traders. Today, the Crow Tribe maintains Sovereign Nation status and continues to preserve its cultural identity and traditions.

Second Seminole War — The Second Seminole War took place from 1835 to 1842 in Florida between the United States and the Seminole People, along with other Native American Indian tribes. The war was the result of the U.S. efforts to remove the Seminole from their ancestral lands and relocate them to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. Led by Seminole leaders such as Osceola, the Seminole resisted removal and fought fiercely against U.S. forces. The war was marked by guerilla warfare tactics used by the Seminole, which prolonged the conflict and resulted in significant casualties on both sides. Ultimately, the war ended inconclusively, and a significant number of Seminole people managed to remain in Florida, while others were forcibly removed. The Second Seminole War is considered one of the longest and costliest conflicts fought against Native American Indian tribes in U.S. history.

Sand Creek Massacre — The Sand Creek Massacre, also known as the Chivington Massacre, occurred on November 29, 1864, in southeastern Colorado Territory. It was a brutal attack carried out by the Colorado Territory militia led by Colonel John M. Chivington against a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho Native American Indians. Despite the Indians having peaceful relations with the U.S. government and displaying white surrender flags, the militia attacked the village, resulting in the killing and mutilation of around 200 men, women, and children. The massacre was met with outrage and condemnation, particularly for its brutality and violation of treaties. It increased tensions between the tribes and the U.S. during the Indian Wars of the 19th century and Westward Expansion.

James Beckwourth Video

This video from Exploring the American Frontier covers the exploits of James Beckwourth and his important contributions to American expansion.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title James Beckwourth
  • Date c.1798–1866
  • Author
  • Keywords James Beckwourth, Fur Trade Era, American Fur Company, Rocky Mountain Fur Company, Crow Tribe, Ashley's Hundred, William Henry Ashley, Andrew Henry, Jim Bridger, John Jacob Astor
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 16, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 25, 2024

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