James Beckwourth: Legendary Mountain Man
Nine-year-old James Pierson Beckwourth was riding tall on his horse, partly because he felt so proud and partly because he was sitting on a sack of corn. His father had asked him to take the corn to the mill, two miles away. James was thrilled to be considered man enough for such a job. He was thrilled about riding a horse. He was pleased about going into town. And he was excited at the prospect of visiting friends who lived along the way.
His father had placed the sack of corn on top of a gentle horse and perched Young Jim, as they called him, on top of the sack. While he rode, Jim thought about the happy times he’d spent playing with his friends, all members of the same large neighbor family – eight children in all, ranging in age from one to fourteen.
Spying the fence that separated his friends’ house from the road, Jim joyfully rode up to it, only to discover a horrifying scene. All eight children and their parents lay in their yard and doorway, dead. Somehow Jim found enough courage to check their bodies. They were still warm. The killers couldn’t be far off.
He raced home, losing the sack of corn along the way, and told his father what had happened. The adults gathered a search part to find the Native Americans who they believed committed the murders. Two days later, the group returned carrying eighteen Native American scalps. It was young Jim’s first encounter with the brutality of the wars between the white settlers and the Native Americans during the 1800s.
The life of James Beckwourth was one filled with adventure, drama, loss, and regret. Born to parents who were a black slave woman and her owner, Beckwourth was emancipated and headed out into the American West to make his fortune. Once there, Beckwourth met legendary mountain men, fought and was befriended by Native Americans, involved himself in warfare, hunted buffalo, and was part of an overblown but memorable biographical writing project. In this illustrated biography author Ann S. Manheimer does a fine job of detailing the life of this colorful figure in the history of the American West. In describing this fascinating man's life the author does a fine job of outlining Beckwourth's strengths and weaknesses. For example, Beckwourth is positively defined in terms of his evenhandedness in his work with the Plains Indians. Conversely, Beckwourth is also presented as a man whose impulsive decision-making left some of his closest friends and relatives embittered or broken. Thus, because of the fair and balanced way in which this biography is constructed, it is a book that will assist readers in understanding this multi-faceted personality.
Consistent with the series title, this biography portrays Jim Beckwourth as a literal and figurative Trailblazer. Born in Virginia in 1798, Beckwourth was the son of a white plantation owner and a black slave. He and his siblings were treated as sons and daughters. In 1805, the entire family moved to St. Louis, and eventually Beckwourth headed into the mountains to trap, trade, guide, interpret, and forge trails through the wilderness. Years later, he discovered a pass over the Sierra Nevadas and established a hotel/trading post in the foothills below. There he collaborated with author T.D. Bonner to write his autobiography. Thus many details (tall tales, conversations, etc.) exist about this unconventional man. Although he considered himself a free American, at times Beckwourth lived among Native Americans, even becoming an Absaroke (Crow) chief and marrying Crow women. Traveling between the white and Native American worlds, he observed constancy, affection, intolerance, and violence in both. During the Civil War, he was forced to accompany an army regiment to Sand Creek where a group of peaceful Cheyennes and Arapahos were camped. He witnessed the massacre and later testified (text included) against the colonel who was responsible.
The book is very readable, with anecdotal information about this anomalous mountain man who seized any opportunity that passed his way and turned it into adventure—often dangerous. Beckwourth followed his individual moral compass but was generally a general, principled man—in that regard, a Trailblazer as well.