James Pierson Beckwourth (c. 1805 – 1866)

James Beckwourth, The Live and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856), author portrait
Public domain image

If any man of any color attained the ranks of legendary in the American West, it was James Beckwourth (also: Beckwith, Beckwoth). If any attest to his fame is necessary, one only needs to read the description under the accompanying lithograph and note that even in France, his fame preceded him. Beckwourth was born in Virginia.  Coming to St. Louis, Missouri in the mid-1800’s as the mulatto slave of his blacksmith father (who, according to the laws of the time actually owned his own son), the young man quickly set out to explore the West as a mountain man. For at least two decades he roamed the mountains and plains of the West and Northwest as part of the French fur trade, colleague of men like Jim Bridger and Kit Carson.

According to his autobiography, he spent most of his adult life with Apaches, Crows and Sacs, who gave him the appellation Dark Sky. During these years he states that he fought in the Mexican War, led the Crows in battles against Blackfeet Indians, helped arranged a peace treaty with the Apaches, and hunted elk, buffalo and bear all the while as he traveled from Kansas to California. Near Lake Tahoe he discovered a mountain pass that bears his name to this day.

James Beckwourth With Knife (public domain)
James Beckwourth With Knife (public domain)

At the apex of his career he was named A Chief of All Chiefs by the Crow Nation. He married at different times to four women: two Native Americans, a Latina, and an African American woman. By 1860 he moved to the young town of Denver, Colorado Territory where he owned a saloon where he drew patrons with his gregarious tall tales about a riotous life spent among Indians and the mountains. Records of his death are unclear. One has him returning to the Crows, who begged him to again become their leader. In this account he refused and committed ritual suicide so that he might die among his people. Others say that he passed on peacefully as an old man in Denver.