- Living with the Indians
- by James P. Beckwourth
Living in the wilderness, the mountain men adopted Indian dress and habits
and frequently married Indian women. One account of living with the Indians
comes from the autobiography of James P. Beckwourth, the son of a white
man and an African-American slave woman, Beckwourth's father had freed
him from slavery when he came of age and Beckwourth soon went west with
a fur-trading expedition. Beckwourth spent the next quarter century in
the Rocky Mountains, where he became a famous mountain man, trapper, guide,
translator, scout, and explorer.
Like other African-Americans of the early 19th century, Beckwourth found
freedom of movement and social and economic opportunity in the West. Through
the 1830s and 1840s, fugitive slaves from the South found refuge in or
near settlements of Mexicans, Indians, and Asian Americans. In the far
West, some blacks were Afro-Spaniards and slaves brought to colonial Mexico.
Afro-Spaniards often intermarried with the Indians. In 1794, 56% of Los
Angeles's population was part black.
Some of the most adventurous African Americans became fur trappers and
traders, exploring much of the Rocky Mountain area. Trapper Peter Ranne
was part of the first group of Americans to reach California. In 1825,
another African-American, Moses Harris was the first non-Indian to explore
the Great Salt Lake area. James P. Beckwourth and Edward Rose, along with
other mountain men, crisscrossed the far western states. Though some black
settlers migrated West and some participated in the Gold Rush, the largest
African-American migration occurred after slavery ended in 1865. Between
1870 and 1900 1,000 blacks homesteaded in Colorado, 4,000 in Nebraska,
40,000 in Kansas, and over 100,000 in Oklahoma. These newcomers sometimes
created all-black settlements and some became socially and economically
prominent. Barney L, Ford, for example, became one of Colorado's richest
In this selection, James P. Beckwourth, mountain man, tells of his experiences
with the Crow Indians.
About the Author
James P. Beckwourth (1798-1866), U.S. frontiersman, soldier, and
mountain man, was born in Virginia, the son of Sir Jennings Beckwith-a
minor Irish aristocrat and Revolutionary War major-and a mulatto slave
woman. Sir Jennings moved to Louisiana Territory and, by 1810, to St.
Louis. In St. Louis, Sir Jennings freed his slave son when he reached
In 1822, Beckwourth joined the rush to the Fever River lead mines, and
then went to New Orleans. In 1824, he joined General William Ashley's
supply expedition to fur trappers in the Rocky Mountains. Apparently Beckwourth
served as blacksmith, groom, and Ashley's servant. Beckwourth became a
trapper and a mountain man, wintering in 1825-1826 with the famous western
explorer Jedediah Smith. Smith was the first American citizen to travel
overland to California, cross the Great Basin, and journey up the California
coast to Oregon.
The facts of Beckwourth's life are difficult to separate from fictional
exaggerations. But it is known that he worked for various Rocky Mountain
Fur Company partners and then was adopted into a tribe of Crow Indians,
living with them for at least six years. In 1837, Beckwourth returned
to St. Louis for a few years, and then fought in Florida's Seminole War
with General Zachary Taylor. He later was a trader on the Santa Fe Trail,
a horse thief in California, a guide, a messenger, and a mail rider. After
1846, he ran a saloon in Santa Fe, joined California's Gold Rush, and
found a trail through the Sierra Nevada Mountains named Beckwourth Pass
in his honor. As immigrants poured into California, he housed them at
his ranch, trading post, and hotel for immigrants. In 1854, a New Englander
named Thomas D. Bonner was fascinated by Beckwourth's stories and interviewed
him, producing The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer,
Scout, Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation (1856), which reportedly
is full of exaggerations.
In 1858, Beckwourth went back to St. Louis, then to the Pike's Peak area,
seeking gold. He worked as a guide, a trapper, an interpreter. He died
in 1866 or 1867 while on a visit to the Crow Indians.
- Captain BridgerJim Bridger (1804-1881), famous fur trapper
and mountain man.
- entailbring about.
- CrowsPlains Indian people generally friendly to whites.
- Shi-ansCheyennes, a Plains Indian people.
- quailedshrank back in fear; cowered.
- patrimonyproperty from her father; that is, a dowry.
- connubialrelating to
Use the STUDY GUIDE below as a way to work through the selection and
improve your comprehension of the essay.
Answer the Questions to Consider in the book as a way to deepen
your interpretation of the selection.
1. Why did the Crows believe that Beckwourth was a member of their tribe
who had been kidnapped by the Cheyenne?
2. Why did Beckwourth let the Crows believe he was one of their people?
3. What attitude in general did Beckwourth seem to have toward the Indians?
The American West
Isabella Bird. A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (reprinted
1987). An adventurous Victorian Englishwoman's journeys in the Rockies,
as told in her vivid letters to her sister.
George Catlin. North American Indians (1841, 1989). Catlin's notes
on and paintings of the Plains Indians between 1786 and 1812, his attempt
to record their dying way of life.
Donald Dale Jackson. Gold Dust (1980). The fascinating story of
the California Gold Rush, 1840 to 1850, and of the people who went to
the West to strike it rich.
Helen Hunt Jackson. A Century of Dishonor (1881). An American
author's history of mistreatment of the Indians by the government and
white settlers in the West.
Lauren Katz. The Black West (1987). The struggles and experiences
of Black Americans who went to the West to take their chances at building
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The Journals of Lewis and Clark
(1981). A shortened version of the daily journals of the West's explorers,
written in 1804-1806.
Franklin Ng. The Asians in America (1998). A six-volume study
of the Asian experience in the United States.
Francis Parkman. The Oregon Trail (1950). A classic text in which
an articulate Harvard-educated lawyer records his adventures on the Oregon
Trail in the mid-1800s.
Joanne L. Stratton. Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier
(1981). Fascinating first-person accounts from 800 women pioneers who
settled in Kansas in the 1800s.
Earl H. Swanson. The Ancient Americas (1989). A survey of the
Indian cultures of North and South America from the pre-Columbian through
New World eras.
Jon Manchip White. Everyday Life of the North American Indian
(1979). An analysis of Indian civilizations with information on the daily
lives of medicine men, hunters, artists, and other tribal social groups.