James Pierson Beckwourth.

The life and adventures of James P. Beckwourth, mountaineer, scout, pioneer, and chief of the Crow nation of Indians .. online

. (page 1 of 37)
Online LibraryJames Pierson BeckwourthThe life and adventures of James P. Beckwourth, mountaineer, scout, pioneer, and chief of the Crow nation of Indians .. → online text (page 1 of 37)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook






"Adventures are to the Adventurous."






Illustrated. Crown 8vo, $1*50.

- x. Adventures of a Younger Son. By E. J.


_ 2. Robert Drury's Journal in Madagascar.

3. Memoirs of the Extraordinary Military

Career of John Shipp.

4. The Adventures of Thomas Fellow, of

Penryn, Mariner.

5. The Buccaneers and Marooners of America.

6. The Log of a Jack Tar ; or, The Life of James

Choyce. With O'Brien's Captivity in France.

7. The Voyages and Adventures of Ferdinand

Mendez Pinto.

- 8. The Story of the Filibusters.

^ 9. A Master Mariner. The Life and Adventures
of Captain R. W. Eastwick.

10. Kolokotrones, Klepht and Warrior.

11. Hard Life in the Colonies.

12. The Escapes of Casanova and Latude from


13. The Adventures of a Blockade Runner; or,

Trade in Time of War.

14. Missing Friends. Being the Adventures of a

Danish Emigrant in Queensland (1871-1880).











HOUGH there has been for more than
thirty years a vast manufacture of cheap
romances of the " Scalp Hunter " and
"Bandits of the Plains" description, it
is still true that works setting forth the
frontier life of America by men who have
really experienced it, are actually rare, and this is specially
the case as regards real residence on familiar terms
among the Red Indians. This is to be regretted, because
every student of History will, in another generation, wonder
at this indifference as regards a state of society which is,
even by us, regarded as intensely interesting. The chief
reason for this is that those who were best qualified by
experience were in most cases the worst fitted as regards
education, to observe, or record, what they had lived
through. Young people very generally believe that the
mere fact of having seen much of the world, or the having
travelled, qualifies anybody to describe well, when, on the
contrary, a man who has not keenly cultivated the arts of
observation and writing, generally acquires nothing of
the kind. On the contrary, as we often see in sailors,
constant change makes him indifferent to everything save
mere personal interests. Like the stork who had travelled
every year of his life from Antwerp to Egypt or India, yet
could tell of nothing except where the best swamps and
pools were with the fattest frogs and largest worms, so


men who have travelled most can, very often, only tell us
where are the best restaurants and hotels.

James Beckwourth was a man who had really had a
very wild and varied life on the frontier, all of which might
have remained unknown had he not chanced upon Mr. T.
D. Bonner, who, as this work indicates, wrote English in a
straightforward manner, and knew how to elicit narratives
from his subject in a straightforward style. Beckwourth
had lived among Indians in the old "buffalo days" which
means, without exaggeration, that he had perhaps " held
his life in his hand," on an average about once a day
had really been recognized by the United States Govern-
ment as a man who was capable of influencing and
restraining the formidable tribe of Crow Indians, for which
very badly performed duty he was for a long time paid a
high salary, and finally he had, beyond all question, under-
gone hundreds of adventures as wild and characteristic as
any described in this book. I would here protest that so
far as I am concerned, the revising and editing this work
is by no means a piece of literary hack-work, since it
was my intention to write on this man thirty years ago.
Through personal channels I had often heard of him.
Mrs. General Ashley, so celebrated for her grace and
refinement of whom Beckwourth speaks so admiringly
was an intimate friend of my mother, and I have often
conversed about Beckwourth himself with Mr. Chouteau.
But it was to Mr. Eobert P. Hunt, of Saint Louis, who had
known Beckwourth well in his wildest life in the Plains,
that I was chiefly indebted for my knowledge and interest
in this strange semi-outlaw, and of him I will speak anon.

I am also very much indebted, and hereby return my
most cordial thanks, to Horace Klephart, Esq., Librarian
of the Mercantile Library of Saint Louis, Missouri, for
kindly taking the pains to look up for me the two following
paragraphs which supply the principal data of Beckwourth's
life not given in Mr. Bonner's book, or which are subse-
quent to it as to time.


" James P. Beckwourth was born in Virginia of a negro
slave mother and an Irish overseer. He resided for a
time in the valley of the Sierra Nevada, but being im-
plicated in certain transactions which attracted the notice
of the vigilants, fled and went to Missouri. When the
migration to Colorado was at its height in 1859, he pro-
ceeded to Denver, and was taken into partnership with
Louis Vasquez and his nephew. Being tired of trade, he
went to live on a farm, and took a Mexican wife, but fell
out with her, and finally relapsed into his former mode of
savage life, dying about 1867 " (Montana Post, February
23, 1867).*

The following note is pencilled on the margin of the
copy of Bonner's " Life of Beckwourth," in the Mercantile
Library of Saint Louis :

" He now (1865 ?) lives three miles south of Denver City,
on Cherry Creek, Colorado ; has a ranch, and was in the
engagement against the Cheyennes at Sand Creek, Novem-
ber 29 (November 27, 1864), and is a noted old Her" (sic).

This last word brings us to a critical point in the
Beckwourthiana. It recalls the anecdote that some one
said of him that some men are rarely worthy of belief,
but that Jim was always Beckwourthy of un-belief. At the
same time we are told that this man who was so splendide
mendax was really in a fight with the Cheyennes, of which
it may be truly said that no lying whatever was necessary
to enable a participant to tell a perfectly true and thrilling

That Beckwourth had the very general frontier weakness
of spinning marvellous yarns, and that he seldom narrated
an adventure without making the utmost of it, even when
it was perfectly needless, is probably true. I once knew a

* Cited in C. H. Bancroft's " History of the Pacific States," vol. xx.
p. 352.


woman whose authentic adventures are matter of history,
and who had really led the most marvellous life in every
corner of the globe, yet whose imagination and love of
exciting astonishment were so great that I always dis-
counted fifty per cent, from her reminiscences. So it may
have been with the Crow chief. In relation to this weak-
ness, I find the following from an American newspaper :

" There was a camp of miners in California to whom
Beckwourth was well known, and when his life appeared
they commissioned one of their number, who was going to
San Francisco to obtain stores, to purchase the book. Not
being very careful, he got by mistake a copy of the Bible.
In the evening, after his return, the messenger was re-
quested to read aloud to the rest from the long-expected
work. Opening the volume at random, he hit upon and
read aloud the story of Samson and the foxes. Where-
upon one of the listeners cried : ' That'll do ! I'd know
that story for one of Jim Beckwourth's lies anywhere ! ' !

Against this cloudy reputation it may be remarked that
perhaps the most extraordinary, desperately daring, and
highly creditable adventure of his life, the account of
which I had from an eye-witness who was a truthful
gentleman, if such a man ever existed, and who had been
at the same university where I myself graduated is not
mentioned in Bonner's life. It was as follows :

" I do not think that Beckwourth was ever head chief
among the Crows, though I dare say he made himself out
to be such ; but that he was really a sub-chief is true, for
I myself was on the ground when they made him one and
a strange sight it was. Beckwourth was a very powerful
man he had been a blacksmith and he certainly was a
desperately brave fighter.

" A very large grizzly bear had been driven into a cave,


and Beckwourth asked of a great number of Crows who
were present whether any one of them would go in and
kill the creature. All declined, for it seemed to be certain
death. Then Beckwourth stripped himself naked, and
wrapping a Mexican blanket round his left arm, and
holding a strong sharp knife, entered the cave, and after a
desperate fight, killed the bear. I came up to the place in
time to see Beckwourth come out of the cave, all torn and
bleeding. He looked like the devil if ever man did. The
Crows were so much pleased at this that he was declared a
sub -chief on the spot."

This same authority stated that Beckwourth was the
offspring, not of a negress, but of a quadroon and a planter.
I incline to believe this. If Beckwourth's mother had
been a negress, he could never have resembled an Indian
so much as to pass for one; while the education given
him and the care bestowed on him in youth, are more
likely to have come from an American planter than an
Irish overseer. It may be remarked here that among
the rough class of frontiersmen from whom biographical
items of one another may be derived, there is always a
cynical disposition to ridicule and make fun of, or to
detract from the reputation of, almost everybody. Ask
any one of them who has known Kit Carson, or Buffalo
Bill, or any other great man of the Plains, for information
as to them, and nine times out of ten he will demonstrate
to you that the man in question was a humbug, and
proceed to relate anecdotes to his discredit. For this
reason I incline to think that Beckwourth has been too
severely judged as regards veracity, since the strictest
judges must admit that there is nothing improbable in his
biography, or which might not have occurred to any bold
and intelligent man who was in the varied positions which,
according to the most authentic testimony of others, he
really occupied.

The same friend to whom I have alluded, who had


passed twenty-five years as hunter, trapper, and trader in
the West, narrated to me the following :

"I once, as I verily believe, saved Beckwourth's life. I
found him and his party nearly starved to death, and gave
them supplies food and ammunition and things which I
could ill afford. [Here certain details were added which I
do not now distinctly recall.]

" Well, it happened a long time after that I and my
party convoyed a large waggon train over the Plains.
After a while a party of Crow Indians began to ' run ' us
badly. They hovered about, trying to shoot and scalp our
stragglers and steal our cattle, and at last things became
intolerable. They were in such numbers that I feared lest
they might wipe us out.

" I soon observed, from their manner of attack, that
they were under command of a white man, and came to the
conclusion that it must be Beckwourth. I resolved on a
bold stroke. When the Indians had settled down one
evening, I took my best men and rode right into their
camp. As I expected, I found that Beckwourth was leader.
I said to him at once

'"Jim Beckwourth, you ' [the reader may fill this

hiatus with the choicest flowers of Western phraseology] ,
' what do you mean by acting in this manner ? The
United States Government pays you two thousand dollars
a year for acting as agent, and keeping your Indians
quiet, and you repay it by scalping and robbing the
travellers whom you are paid to* protect. Have you for-
gotten how I once saved your life the very last time we
met ? Now here I am, and our lives are in your hands,
but I tell you that by God I will shoot you dead this
instant if you dont call off your Indians, and make a
clear way. You know very well that if you kill me it will
be known far and wide, from here to Washington.'

" Then Beckwourth spoke me fair, and said that he did
not know it was I, and so on. And looking about, I saw a


white boy, a Mexican. He was the handsomest boy I ever
saw in my life. And I said

"'You have no business to take and keep white captives,
American or Mexican ; and that boy must go with me."

"And he made great demur, but finally consented. So
he called off his Indians, and we went peacefully over the

"And the Mexican boy?"

"I wished I had left him among the Indians. He turned
out to be the most infernal young scoundrel on the face of
the earth."

The reader may be perfectly assured of the truth of
every word of these reminiscences, and it is evident that
they correspond altogether to the manner and style of
adventure narrated by Beckwourth himself. Daily life on
the Plains consisted in those days of constant raiding
and being raided, robbing and " running," or in horse-
stealing, with not a little fighting. On the very first hour
on which I myself arrived at the most advanced surveyor's
station on the Kansas-Pacific Railway in 1866, an employe
came in, reporting that he had just escaped with his life
from a party of Apaches in war-paint, four miles distant.
And before another half-hour passed, there came in a Lieu-
tenant Hesselberger, who brought in a poor woman and
her two daughters, whom he had recently ransomed from
Indians at the risk of his life. They had seen husband
and father murdered before their eyes at their home in
Texas, their house being burned : after which they had
been subjected for six months to such infamous and
horrible brutalities that it was a marvel that they survived
the treatment. It is worth mentioning that Henry Stan-
ley, who has since become known as the great African
explorer, was on the spot, and wrote an account of the
'captivity of these poor creatures for the New York Herald.
Such were for a long time the daily events of my life. At
one time it was a buffalo hunt, another an adventure of


some curious sort among Indians. Altogether, when I
recall my own experiences and adventures on different
occasions in the West and on the frontier during and after
the War of the Rebellion, I cannot find that it was much
less interesting, varied, or striking than that of Beckwourth,
the one great difference being that it was less bloody, albeit
there was no lack of sanguinary occurrences in the guerilla
country at the time of the Battle of Murfreesboro, &c.,
about which place, and Nashville, I then passed the

If a man like Beckwourth had been intelligent enough to
take an interest in folk-lore that is to say, in Indian
traditions, superstitions, and observances or a student of
nature in its varied forms, one can imagine what an ex-
traordinary book he might have written. As it was, only
the most startling incidents of battle and murder remained
in his memory. The nomadic Indians among whom he
lived are the most savage and brutal of their kind. The
Algonkin and other tribes of Canada, which include the
Chippewas, are of a different sort. They represent a
decayed civilization, so to speak that is, a state of society
which, though essentially savage, was, two centuries since,
strangely developed as regards social relations the ad-
ministration of justice, and the culture of myths. But the
" horse Indians " of the Plains, though they have, as
recent researches establish, much that is peculiar and
recondite in their cult, are still, on the whole, extremely
wild and rough. What may be deduced is that Beck-
wourth's narrative, making every allowance for exaggera-
tion and falsehood, reflects very truly the real spirit of life
as it was among those aborigines with whom he lived. The
anecdotes which I have here selected abundantly prove

My own honest opinion of the work is that it is true in
the main, simply because it was impossible for its hero to
have lived through the life which other sources prove that
he experienced, and not have met with quite as extraor-


dinary adventures as those which he describes. Life is,
even to this day, as exciting and full of peril in some parts
of America as is possible. I can remember on one occasion
to have met with a man who, in journeying from Western
Arkansas to Philadelphia, had been shot at twelve times on
the route. This was in 1866. But much more recently,
in this Langharn Hotel where I am now writing, the
following actually occurred :

There happened to be assembled in the smoking-room
half-a-dozen men from the Far West. Conversation turned
on wild adventure in and west of the Kocky Mountains,
and many thrilling tales were told, not as marvels, but as
matters of ordinary occurrence. There was present one
who took no part in the conversation. After the rest had
departed he remained smoking in silence. I remarked
that what we had heard was very interesting. He did not
seem to quite understand what I meant, and asked to what
I specially alluded. I said that such stones of Indian war-
fare were highly exciting. To which he replied

" Oh, yes ! Injuns are the devil that's a fact. The
last time I came over the Plains six months ago they
shot seven balls into me. There are four of 'em in me yet.
I went to-day to one of the best surgeons in London, and
he says there are three of 'em which he can never get

This was told in a matter-of-fact, common-place tone, as
if having bullets shot into one by Indians was no more
remarkable than an attack of the rheumatism might be.
Beckwourth's adventures are, in reality, nothing beyond
such experiences as this. Even he never had seven bullets
in him at once. This number recalls another anecdote.
One day in Western Kansas, a man who had shown me
some kindness, observing that I collected Indian arms, &c.,

' " Mr. Leland, I wish I had known you cared for such
things. The Indians killed a man right near here a little
while ago, and I pulled seven arrows out of his dead


body. I gave 'em all away. I wish now I had kept 'em
for you."

It may be remarked in this connection that there are
certain men who have a strange and mysterious gift of
getting on with and conciliating Indians. I myself am one
of these, and it is an hereditary endowment. There is a
legend in the family that rny great-grandfather more than a
century ago went into Canada to trade with the Indians,
and made such a favourable impression on them that they
took him captive, and kept him prisoner among them all
winter, merely to enjoy the pleasure of his company. In
the Canadian records I find that this Mr. Leland on one
occasion acted as interpreter in the French and Indian
tongues. It was once remarked of me by one who had
observed closely that among a number of white men
Indians picked me out at sight to confide in ; and it was
said that I might go among the wildest tribes safely. He
who said this had had great experience among them, spoke
several Indian tongues, and he declared that about one
white man in a hundred had the gift. Beckwourth was
one of these naturally " Indian white men," and I believe
that it was the real secret of his influence a fact worth
considering in reading this book.

All things considered and all due allowance being made,
this Life of Beckwourth still remains, beyond all question,
an extremely interesting record of a most interesting state
of society, manners, and customs of classes of people who
are very rapidly passing away. In this work a kind of life
every whit as daring, desperate, and marvellous as that
recorded in the Norse sagas, and, indeed, far more abound-
ing in fighting and murder, is brought before us with much
real skill, and yet in the simplest and most direct language.
In this latter respect it deserves great commendation. I
myself can testify that, having read it when it first
appeared, more than thirty years after I still retained its
leading incidents in my mind as I have done with those of
very few other books. And as it combines the two great


requisites of valuable information and that of deep interest
for readers of all classes and ages, I cordially commend it
to the public, hoping that all may find it as attractive as I
have done.


September 25, 1891.


UEIED amid the sublime passes of the Sierra
Nevada are old men, who, when children,
strayed away from our crowded settlements,
and, gradually moving farther and farther
from civilization, have in time become domi-
ciliated among the wild beasts and wilder
savages have lived scores of years whetting
their intellects in the constant struggle for self-preservation ;
whose only pleasurable excitement was found in facing danger ;
whose only repose was to recuperate, preparatory to partici-
pating in new and thrilling adventures. Such men, whose
simple tale would pale the imaginative creations of our most
popular fictionists, sink into their obscure graves unnoticed
and unknown. Indian warriors, whose bravery and self-devo-
tion find no parallels in the preserved traditions of all history,
end their career on the " war-path," sing in triumph their
death-song, and become silent, leaving no impression on the
intellectual world.

Among the many men who have distinguished themselves as
mountaineers, traders, chiefs of the great Indian nations, and
as early pioneers in the settlement of our Pacific coast, is
James P. Beckwourth, whose varied and startling personal
adventures would have found no record but for the accident of
meeting with a wanderer in the mountains of California, who
became interested in the man, and, patiently listening to his
story, proceeded, as it fell from his lips, to put it upon paper.
This autobiography was thus produced, and was the result



of some months' labour in the winter of 1854-55. In prosecu-
ting the task, the author has in no instance departed from the
story of the narrator, but it was taken down literally as it was
from day to day related. Beckwourth kept no journal, and, of
course, relied upon his memory alone ; consequently dates are
often wanting, which it was impossible to give with accuracy
when recurring to events transpiring in the course of very
many years. Beckwourth is personally known to thousands
of people " living on both sides of the mountains," and also,
from his service under the United States government, has en-
joyed the acquaintance of many officers of the United States
Army, who have been stationed in Florida, Mexico, and
California. In his long residence with the Indians he adopted
their habits, and in every respect conformed to their ways :
the consequence was, from his great courage and superior
mental endowments, he rose rapidly in their estimation, and
finally became their chief. As an Indian, therefore, he speaks
of their customs, and describes their characteristics ; and
probably, in his autobiography, we have more interesting par-
ticulars than were ever before given of the aborigines.

Beckwourth, after ten thousand adventures, finally became
involved in the stream that set toward the Pacific, and, almost
unconsciously, he established a home in one of the pleasant
valleys that border on Feather Eiver. Discovering a pass in
the mountains that greatly facilitated emigrants in reaching
California, his house became a stopping-place for the weary
and dispirited among them, and no doubt the associations thus
presented have done much to efface his natural disposition to
wander and seek excitement among the Indian tribes.

In person he is of medium height, of strong muscular power,
quick of apprehension, and, for a man of his years, very active.
From his neck is suspended a perforated bullet, with a large
oblong bead each side of it, secured by a thread of sinew ; this
amulet is just as he wore it while chief among the Crows.
With the exception of this, he has now assumed the usual
costume of civilized life, and, in his occasional visits to San
Francisco, vies with many prominent residents in the dress and
manners of the refined gentleman.

It is unnecessary to speak of the natural superiority of his

Online LibraryJames Pierson BeckwourthThe life and adventures of James P. Beckwourth, mountaineer, scout, pioneer, and chief of the Crow nation of Indians .. → online text (page 1 of 37)