This Day In History: April 26

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James Beckwourth, one of only a handful of early mountain men to emerge from the system of slavery, is born in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

The exact year of Beckwourth’s birth is in dispute. Some historians suggest it may have been 1800 rather than 1798. The uncertainty arises both from Beckwourth’s notorious reputation for exaggerating and rewriting his own history, as well as the humble circumstances of his birth. The child of a white plantation owner and a Black woman who was likely enslaved, Beckwourth was born into a society that paid little notice to children born of Black mothers.

During his childhood, Beckwourth may have been enslaved. However, by the time he reached adulthood in St. Louis, Missouri, his master had apparently manumitted him and he was regarded as a free Black man. In 1824, he joined William Ashley’s third and most arduous fur-trapping expedition to the Rocky Mountains. Beckwourth received a crash course in the dangers of mountain life, just barely managing to avoid death by freezing or starvation. Despite the risks, Beckwourth enjoyed being a mountain man, and he spent the next several years as a free trapper.

Trapping in the Powder River country of Wyoming, Beckwourth began to forge a close alliance with the Crow Indians. Sometime between 1826-1828, he abandoned American society altogether and joined the Crow people. The Crow had long been friendly with trappers, and they apparently welcomed Beckwourth into their society. Beckwourth learned the Crow language, customs, and ways of living, and he married at least two Crow women and fathered several children. Beckwourth later claimed that he became a powerful chief among the Crow, though historians have questioned whether this was another of his exaggerations.

In the mid-1830s, Beckwourth left his adopted home with the Crow and joined the Missouri volunteer military force as a scout. He saw action in the Seminole War in Florida, fighting under General Zachary Taylor. Beckwourth left the army in 1840 and spent the next decade wandering around the West, occasionally making some quick cash by stealing horses. Eventually settling near Denver, Colorado, Beckwourth continued to work periodically as a civilian scout for military parties. In this capacity, Beckwourth had a role in the infamous Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, but how much Beckwourth knew about or participated in that inexcusable massacre of Native peoples is still disputed.

Not long after the Sand Creek Massacre, Beckwourth again abandoned Anglo-American society and returned to the Crow tribe. As with his birth, the details of Beckwourth’s death are uncertain. Some accounts say he died in 1866 among his adopted people, and they laid him to rest in Crow fashion on a tree platform; others indicate he may have died near Denver in 1867.