Jim Beckwourth by Elinor Wilson
'Ours was the first of the covered wagons to break the trail through the Beckwourth Pass
into California. We were guided by the famous scout Jim Beckwourth
......He was rather dark and wore his hair in two long braids,
twisted with coloured cord that gave him a picturesque appearance.
He wore a leather coat and mocassins and rode a horse without a saddle.
And when Jim Beckwourth said he would like to have my mother's little girls
ride into California on his horse in front of him,
I was the happiest little girl in the world.'
' Ina Coolbrith, 1851 (page 135) '
'We crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains by way of Beckwourth's Pass, so named because old Jim Beckwourth was living there and claimed to have discovered the pass. We found him living in the valley leading to the pass. His nature was a hospitable and generous one, and he supplied the pressing necessities of starving emigrants, often without money- they agreeing to pay him later, which I regret to say, a number of them failed to do. This so impoverished him that he was compelled to give up his place and resume his wandering life.
'Granville Stuart, 1852 (page 149)'
Jim Beckwourth by Elinor Wilson
When you read of the achievements of this man it is difficult to understand why there has been no film made based on his life. Granted most westerns have been based on fictional or semi fictional characters. But Jim Beckwourth's life reads like a work of fiction, indeed it qualifies for the description, 'larger than life'. It is all here, carefully researched in Elinor Wilson's book: He was a fur trapper, trader, expedition and wagon train guide, war chief of the Crow Nation, hotelkeeper, dispatch carrier, army scout, storekeeper, prospector, and Indian agent for the Cheyenne. If you look carefully on a map you will even find a pass named after him in the Sierra Nevada, together with a nearby valley, town and mountain peak.
I knew most of this from William Katz's superb book, but my jaw dropped when I discovered, while reading Stan Hoig's 'Sand Creek Massacre', that he was there, too. Basically you could retell the whole story of the American West through this extraordinary man, whose life reads as if it was based on fact.
The simple reason for Jim Beckwourth's omission from History: he was black. The son of Sir Jennings Beckwith and his 'common law' wife, herself a woman of mixed race, his father preferred the 'society' of the forests. One obituary called him a 'Leatherstocking .......Much of his life had been spent wandering in the Far West on hunting excursions with the Indians'.
Jim Beckwourth was known in his lifetime as 'The Gaudy Liar'. In the 1830s mountain men met annually at 'The Rendezvous' in the foothills of the Rockies, to trade with native Americans and other traders from the east: New Orleans or St Louis. These gatherings encouraged all the backwoodsmen to drink to excess and embellish their escapades. However one contemporary, Colonel Henry Inman, put him in the same mould as Kit Carson and Daniel Boone. In a milieu where mutual admiration was in short supply these two famous frontiersmen recognized that Jim Beckwourth,too,'was an honest Indian trader'. (p8) So why was such a powerful and influential figure singled out as being a liar?
He was black.
He was not just omitted from History because he was black, he was deliberately discriminated against.
Elinor Wilson shows how he was dismissed as 'Nigger Jim' in the southern states and the famed Francis Parkman referred to him offensively in the contemporaneous 'The Oregon Trail' as a 'mongrel of French, American and Negro blood.' He could not be an important figure because he came from a subhuman race. When President Theodore Roosevelt wished to retrospectively cultivate a 'national character' upon which the conquest of the continent had depended he revered Carson, Boone and Cody, despite the latter's dubious credentials. I shan't ask why Jim did not receive a mention.
It is History, not Jim Beckwourth that is the Gaudy Liar. Those who present history as what happened in the past are unwittingly deluding themselves. History is only as good as the evidence to which it has access or which it chooses to access. Here is a classic example of how what happened, even a few generations ago, can be corrupted or ignored completely. This is a very important book.
However laudable the undertaking the execution falls short of expectations, partly I suspect because Elinor Wilson is so determined to prove that he was not a liar that she becomes bogged down in a mass of detail and partly because her overall understanding of the history of the period is insufficient to realize the significance of some of the content. At times it is difficult to discriminate between the significant details and the peripheral. Gold nuggets like the quotes at the top of this page are lost in the morass. What seven pages about Thomas Bonner's struggle with alcoholism and his flirtation with temperance are doing in this book was beyond me, for example, whereas the astonishing link of Jim Beckwourth to being employed by Colonel Carrington at Fort Philkearny, where the so called Fetterman Massacre took place is just mentioned in passing. While Bonner is clearly the most important source for the book, this does not justify such a digression, indeed the work could be seen as an examination of his biography of Jim as an historical source rather than a biography in its own right. The book is very fully researched and is packed with lengthy quotes, perhaps too lengthy at times, for the contemporary sources are not always an easy read.
Uncertainty in dealing with the historical period is a major flaw. In particular Elinor Wilson's reference to the 'so called'(sic) massacre at Sand Creek is unacceptable (page 101), especially from one so steeped in the necessity to support argument with evidence. I would speculate that she has mistakenly copied this from an apologist for the outrage. Indeed the implication of this is at variance with the general tenor of the book, although curiously Wilson chooses to put Sand Creek Massacre in parentheses later (page 174). It is difficult to comprehend why she should do this.
One is left feeling that this book is just the beginning and that the story and meaning behind this remarkable man's life are still there to be explored. Perhaps his life was so extraordinary and unbelievable that even the author could not truly believe the evidence which was shouting at her, and, in the end was driven to caution by the reputation 'Nigger Jim' had attracted from some quarters during his life. The words extraordinary, remarkable and exceptional do not seem to adequately express his qualities. Instead of questioning why he should have stood back and watched a teenage boy of mixed race be gunned down in cold blood by a horde of murdering thugs at Sand Creek and then reaching the obvious conclusion that it would have been suicide to intervene (for a white skinned person, never mind a black, I would add), the emphasis should have been on why he was driven to seek out the Cheyenne to try to make his peace. Instead we are told in a rather dispassionate way that he was 'conscience ridden' and that 'Jim's death was the proper stuff of legend building'. For me there needed to be more made of Jim Beckwourth as a person. His generosity, honesty and integrity shine through the haze of a mass of information. I selected the above quotes as examples.
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© Chris Smallbone October 2008