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All-American Birthday of the Month: Mountain Man James Beckwourth

James Beckwourth When I had the idea to acknowledge birthdays of early trappers and explorers of the American West, I quickly found that very few of them had recorded birth dates. Most were born in log cabins to frontier parents, who were more worried about survival than traveling back East to find a courthouse. A unique exception is the birth of James Beckwourth, which was recorded in Virginia on April 26, 1798. Beckwourth was born a slave, which likely made registering his birth the same as registering property. What makes his birth into slavery unusual is his white master was also his father, Sir Jennings Beckwith, a nobleman of Irish and English descent. His mother was a slave of African descent. (James later changed his last name to Beckwourth.)

Beckwourth’s father eventually executed a deed of emancipation for his son; and the family moved to Missouri in the early 1800s, where James apprenticed under a blacksmith. In 1824 the young Beckwourth joined one of the first beaver trapping expeditions, led by General William Ashley of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. He was present at the first mountain man rendezvous at Henry’s Fork, Green River in 1825. If there’s one thing about Beckwourth’s life that’s for certain, once he got a taste of freedom and adventure—he couldn’t get enough it.

Beckwourth continued to roam the West during the fur trade, and at some point, was accepted by the Crow Indians, with whom he lived for 6 – 8 years. With the Crow, he distinguished himself as a fearless warrior. All I can say is, any outsider who distinguished themself in combat with the Crow Indians had to have been a badass SOB.

At the end of the fur trade, Beckwourth joined the US Army to fight in the second Seminole War in Florida, serving under General Zachary Taylor. After that adventure, he moved back to the American West to trade with the Indians, and later helped establish a trading post at the present-day site of Pueblo, Colorado. In the 1840s, Beckwourth rode out to California where he practiced “horse trading”, which he had learned from the Crow. During the gold rush he gambled professionally, and is credited for discovering Beckwourth Pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After California, he again ended up in Colorado Territory, where he frequently hired out as a scout for the US Army. Throughout his travels he reportedly had several wives of various races and ethnicities and fathered several children. In his late 60s, Beckwourth returned to a Crow village in Wyoming, where he lay down and died.

No doubt, James Beckwourth deserves credit for making the most out of what was handed to him. Born into slavery, he ended up knowing freedom like few others. He chose where he roamed and what he did. Only in free society such as America could a nobleman raise a son with a slave woman, who would become James Beckwourth.

God Bless America,

Joe Cavanaugh

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