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JAMES BECKWOURTH

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.