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James Pierson Beckwourth
PROMINENT TRAPPER & INDIAN FIGHTER 1798-1866
James Pierson Beckwourth (a.k.a. Jim Beckworth, James P. Beckwith) was born in Virginia in 1798 to Sir Jennings Beckwith, a descendant of Irish and English nobility and an African American woman. His family moved to Missouri around 1809 where he attended school in St. Louis, learned blacksmithing during his teenage years, joined Gen. William Ashley’s fur trapping company as a wrangler, and went on his first expedition of the Rocky Mountains. Over the years, Beckwourth became known as a prominent trapper and Indian fighter.
Well known for telling of his adventures, one night around the campfire a colleague Caleb Greenwood told a story of Beckwourth being the child of a Crow chief, stolen as a baby and sold to whites. This lore was widely believed and when he got caught by Crow Indians while trapping in dangerous border country he ran with it. Going so far as to marry the daughter of a chief, for the next eight or nine years he lived with the Crow and rose from a warrior to chief to leader of the Dog Clan.
He still went trapping but traded on the Arkansas River working out of Fort Vasquez and Platteville, Colorado, then established himself as an independent trader, building a trading post at Pueblo with others in Colorado. From 1844 he traded on the Old Spanish Trail between the Arkansas River and Mexican California. When the Mexican- American War began in 1846, he returned to the United States, bringing 1800 stolen Mexican horses as spoils of war.
The Gold Rush saw him back in California, opening a store at Sonoma and playing cards in Sacramento. In 1850, he discovered Beckwourth Pass, the lowest mountain pass through the Sierra Nevada. In the following year, he established Beckwourth Trail, a road through the mountains. The road cut out about 150 miles and dangerous passes like Donner Pass for settlers and gold seekers. The city of Marysville was supposed to fund this road but he never received payment. He could not sue for damages as a non-white. An estimated 10,000 people used the trail to enter Marysville in the following decade.
Beckwourth began ranching in the Sierra and his ranch, trading post, and hotel became Beckwourth, California. In the winter of 1854/1855, Thomas D. Bonner stayed in the hotel, and “The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth” came out in 1856 from Harper & Brothers in New York. Beckwourth was entitled to half of the proceeds, but never got anything from Bonner. He returned to Missouri in 1859 and later settled in Denver, Colorado where he was a storekeeper and local agent for Indian affairs.
The army employed him as a scout in Fort Laramie and Fort Phil Kearny in 1866. While guiding a military column in Montana, he complained of severe headaches and nosebleeds (probably hypertension). He died on October 29, 1866, at the age of 78.
“In 1996, the city of Marysville renamed their largest park Beckwourth Riverfront Park in recognition of the debt owed by the city and Beckwourth’s significance to the areas growth.”
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