Living history: James Beckwourth, son of slavery, man of western mountains
By Eileen Hallet Stone
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Feb 14 2014 06:22PM
Looking at Utah’s majestic snow-covered mountains brings to mind early 19th-century mountain men — those rugged fur traders, guides, Indian fighters, trappers and explorers who challenged the great western frontier and risked life and limb for profit and adventure.
Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, Ettiene Provost, Kit Carson, and Peter Skene Ogden. And there was James Pierson Beckwourth, a black mountaineer and scout who either befriended or fought the Indians, and whose experiences epitomize all manner of western history, bloodshed, vengeance, legend and lore.
Beckwourth was born in Fredericksburg, Va., in 1798. One of 13 siblings, his mother was an enslaved African-American woman. His father, Sir Jennings Beckworth, was a white descendent of English nobility. He had served as a major in the Revolutionary War. Although he raised his children as his own, he legally owned them as master.
In 1806, the family moved to St. Louis. With a sizeable interracial population, it offered a semblance of equity. They settled on nearby land between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
"The whole region of country around was a howling wilderness," Beckwourth recounted in a rare autobiography dictated to friend, temperance reformer Thomas D. Bonner.
"The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckworth," published in 1856, was questioned for its veracity and simultaneously heralded as a firsthand historical account of the Far West. As the late Ogden-born American historian Bernard DeVoto said, "Jim was a mountain man and the obligation to lie gloriously was upon him."
Beckwourth hunted with his father, attended school for several years and added a "u" to his surname. Although apprenticed to become a blacksmith, the daring young man yearned for adventure. Freed by his father and emancipated in court in 1824, Beckwourth worked as a hunter to feed a party of 100 men heading upriver to open lead mines in Gelena, Ill.
Emboldened by his experience, he then joined Gen. William H. Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company and headed West.
Compensated $200 a year by Ashley’s company, Beckwourth worked alongside colleagues such as Bridger, Smith and William Sublette. He explored South Pass in southwestern Wyoming; traversed the Bear, Weber and Green rivers; trapped for beaver in Cache and Salt Lake valleys; and, in 1825, attended the first Mountain Man Rendezvous held at Henry’s Fork.
Described as being of medium height, Beckwourth was muscular and strong. For several years, he lived among the Crow and rose in stature. He married at least four different times.
In 1830, mountain men could trap 400-500 pounds of beaver pelts a year and earn up to $6 a pound. Within a decade, they had nearly decimated the beaver.
Beckwourth participated in the 1837 Seminole War. He was a courier for the U.S. Army during the 1847 Taos Revolt. In the Gold Rush days, he opened a store in Sonoma and was a professional card player in Sacramento.
In 1850, Beckwourth guided settlers through the Sierra Nevada along what became known as Beckwourth Path. He "expended $1,600 to improve" a Native American path into Marysville, Calif. Renamed the Beckwourth Trail, he "received no indemnification for [my] money and labor," he wrote, "as the town had burned to ashes."
In 1852, the mountain man semi-retired to Beckwourth Valley, located between California and Utah, and opened a hotel and trading post.
"Here is a valley 240 miles in circumference, containing some of the choicest land in the world," he wrote. "When the weary, toil-worn emigrant reaches this valley, he can lay himself down and taste refreshing repose. His cattle can graze around him in pasture up to their eyes."
Unable to settle down, Beckwourth returned to trapping. He scouted again for the U.S. Army. In 1866, he returned to the Crow Village — and there the former slave and heroic adventurer succumbed to an illness and died.
Eileen Hallet Stone, author of "Hidden History of Utah," a compilation of her Tribune columns, may be reached at email@example.com. Additional sources: Harold Felton’s James Beckwourth, "Negro Mountain Man" and John W. Ravage’s "Black Pioneers."