Western pioneer (1798-1866)
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 1820s, the Crow Indians of the 1830s, the pioneers of the
Southwest in the 1840's, or the gold miners in California in the 1850s, you can find no
better source than the life of Jim Beckwourth.
Revised: July 18, 2013.