James P. Beckwourth
Researcher: David Maiden
Birthplace: Frederick County, Virginia
He was as comfortable stretching the truth as he was exploring the plains, but if just half of Jim Beckwourth's tales of exploration and battle were true, then he lived an incredible life for someone who is largely unknown.
While most people have heard of his contemporaries, Kit Carson, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, historians theorize that Beckwourth's feats went largely dismissed due to two reasons; his inability to stick to the facts in his autobiography, and the fact he was the offspring of a white man and his African-American slave.
Beckwourth was born the third of thirteen children on April 6, 1798 to Sir Jennings Beckwith and his slave. As a young man, Beckwourth apprenticed as a Blacksmith, but after having a tiff with his boss he left on an expedition to New Orleans.
He returned home, but not for long as the urge to wander overtook him. Beckwourth spent the next several years participating in trapping expeditions, which were well chronicled in his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians.
The gist of Beckwourth's tales, if not the details, was usually substantiated by historical fact. If he was involved in a battle, he had a tendency to inflate the numbers of the enemy by tenfold or more, while emphasizing that all would have been lost if not for his bravery.
While Beckwourth's tales may be exaggerated, his story of being captured by a party of Crow warriors in 1828, and his subsequent existence with the Crow, remains the quintessential source of understanding what life with one of the most powerful tribes in American history must have been like.
His contemporaries acknowledge he had an ever-increasing role of leadership with the crow, rising to War Chief. The Crow were a fighting tribe during that time, and Beckwourth had to prove himself as a warrior or he would not have survived.
Beckwourth was a master shot who was as comfortable with a rifle as he was with a knife or tomahawk, which came in handy as he took many enemy scalps.
He had a knack for staying just one step ahead of some of the most important historic events of his lifetime. After leaving the Crow, Beckwourth fought in the Seminole War in 1842, and his participation in the California Revolution of 1846 put him in perfect position for the Great Gold Rush of 1849.
It was around this time that he discovered a way through the mountains, just a short distance from what is now Reno, Nevada. The "Beckwourth Pass" paved the way for thousands of pioneers and gold seekers to come to California, and was later used by Western Pacific Railway as a portal for mass transit to the West.
Beckwourth returned to Denver in 1866, where he died under suspicious circumstances. Like many of his accounts, the facts are sketchy, but it's rumored that he was honored at a Crow feast, where they tried to recruit him to lead them back to prominence. When he declined, the Crow poisoned him so they could retain his body and spirit.
Bibliographic Citation Format:
Author's last name, first name, middle initial. "Title of biography." SPECTRUM Home & School Magazine. [http://www.incwell.com/Spectrum.html] (date accessed). © K. B. Shaw