James P. Beckwourth

Enslaved African to Crow Chief

James P. Beckwourth, born to a mixed-race couple in 1798, ended up becoming the Chief of the Crows.

About a decade before his death, James Pierson Beckwourth recounted the events of his life to Thomas Bonner, which was published in 1856 as The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation. Although historians have criticized the account for Beckwourth’s embellishments—especially his role in certain events—the account reveals incredible details of the African American Chief. 

James P. Beckwourth had one of the most exciting lives among mountain men. Born on April 26, 1798, near Fredericksburg, Virginia, the son of Irish aristocrat Sir Jennings Beckwith and his mulatto servant, Miss Kill. In total, Miss Kill bore a dozen more children by Beckwith. Beckwith moved his family to St. Louis in 1809, where he could raise his mixed-race progeny as family.  

When the family moved to St. Louis in 1809, Beckwith apprenticed James as a blacksmith with George Casner and John Sutton. Beckwith manumitted his son when Beckwourth turned 18. After a few years mining lead on the Galena River, James returned to St. Louis and joined the Ashley-Smith fur trapping enterprise in 1824. He attended the first Rocky Mountain Rendezvous on Henry’s Fork of the Green River on July 1, 1825. He was one of the first black men to enter and trap in the soon-to-be Utah Territory.

Perhaps his most intriguing adventure was his journey to become a chief of the Crow Nation. On their way from the Rocky Mountains to the Yellowstone River, Beckwourth and his fur-trapping companion, Jim Bridger, left their trapping group to set out on their own for a few days. Beckwourth and Bridger split up at a river’s fork, planning to meet up after a few hours. Beckwourth followed the stream when suddenly he found himself surrounded by Crows. He had a long history of escaping from Indians intent to do him harm, but this time he knew he could not escape and pleaded for mercy. The Crows took Beckwourth to their chief Big Bowl, who mistook Beckwourth for his long-lost son, calling him a “great warrior.” This may have been a ritualistic adoption commonplace to replace loved ones lost in warfare. Beckwourth had taken part in many altercations with other tribes such as the Blackfeet and Cheyenne, enemies of the Crows. When Big Bowl heard about a warrior who had slain so many of his enemies, he adopted him. The people of the village celebrated and gave abundant gifts to Beckwourth, including a wife. 

While his mountaineer friends believed him dead, Beckwourth started a new life as a member of the Crows. He participated in many battles against enemy tribes, mostly with Blackfeet and Cheyenne warriors. Beckwourth’s strength and courage in battle continued to impress the Crows and he lived up to his reputation as a great warrior. In one battle, the Chief Arapooash died, and the tribe unanimously elected Beckwourth as one of their leaders.

Beckwourth helped found a trading post in Pueblo, Colorado, supplied miners in the California gold rush, and piloted a wagon road through the Sierra-Nevadas in 1850. He supplied miners in the Colorado gold rush of 1859. He was present at the tragic massacre of Black Kettle’s peaceful Cheyenne village at Sand Creek on November 29, 1864. He worked as an army scout. Some accounts report he died on October 29, 1866, but the details are unverifiable.


Beckwourth in His Regalia.
Beckwourth in His Regalia. Source: "James P. Beckwourth (ca. 1860)." 1860. Via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_P._Beckwourth_(ca._1860).jpg
Beckwourth Pass
Beckwourth Pass Source: Moabdave. "Featherriverroutetowardsbeckwourthpass." October 8, 2011. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Featherriverroutetowardsbeckwourthpass.jpg
A Photo of James Beckwourth
A Photo of James Beckwourth Source: "James Beckwourth." 1856. Via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_Beckwourth.jpg
A Drawing of Beckwourth
A Drawing of Beckwourth Source: "Beckwourth citizen." 1856. Via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beckwourth_citizen.jpg



Marcus Anderson, Brigham Young University, “James P. Beckwourth,” Intermountain Histories, accessed July 20, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/748.