James Beckwourth


The Life of James Beckwourth (1798/1800-1866)

James Beckwourth was born into slavery in Virginia but moved to Missouri with his enslaver-father’s family as a child. After his father liberated him, he joined the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1824 to explore territories in the Northern Plains and Rocky Mountains, trap beaver, and trade with local indigenous nations. In 1826, he joined a band of the River Crow Indians (Absáalooke Nation) and lived among them as a warrior and trader for thirteen years.

Later, Beckwourth lived in different locations as an Indian trader on the Plains and as an innkeeper in the Rocky Mountains. Beckwourth Pass, a passage through the Rocky Mountains he first discovered, is named after him. Despite his earlier life among the Crow, Beckwourth also served the United States forces in the Indian Wars, against the Seminoles in Florida in 1837 and against different Plains Indian nations in 1864.

The Narrative of James Beckwourth

Beckwourth’s The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth (1856) is one of few autobiographies about African American life in the 19th-century American West. During that period, a series of free Blacks and fugitives from slavery moved west in search of economic opportunities and freedom from racialized social restraints. On the Great Plains and in the Rocky Mountains, they frequently served as negotiators on exploration or trade expeditions or worked as trappers and fur traders.

Although he was literate, Beckwourth asked journalist, con man, and justice of the peace Thomas Bonner to pen his memoir. The book became an immediate success. It narrates Beckwourth’s life until the early 1850s, focusing particularly on his time as a trapper, trader, and Crow warrior in the 1820s and 1830s. It also integrates passages of ethnographic observation about different indigenous nations, thereby establishing Beckwourth as an expert on Plains Indian cultures toward his mostly white readers. 

An important aspect of Beckwourth’s self-portrayal in his autobiography was his experience as a Crow warrior. To render his joining the tribe comprehensible to his audience, he presents his induction into Crow society in the form of a captivity narrative, a popular text type many of his readers knew. Beckwourth lived freely among the Crows, identified as one of them, and validates their culture in his book. However, he simultaneously stresses his unbroken identification with Anglo-American culture in his memoir. Thereby, he establishes himself there as an (implicitly white) American mountain man, a status usually unattainable for an African American. 


Primary Sources

There are several editions of Beckwourth’s narrative. A scholarly edition is this one:

    • Beckwourth, James P. The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, as Told to Thomas D. Bonner. 1856. Ed. Delmont R. Oswald. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1981.

An online edition accessible for free is this one:

    • Beckwourth, James P. The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians. 1856. New Edition, London, 1892. San Francisco: Internet Archive, 2007. Beckwourth_Narrative

Selected Research Literature

    • Browder, Laura. Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
    • Hoxie, Frederick E. Parading through History: The Making of the Crow Nation, 1805-1935. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
    • Krupat, Arnold. “American Autobiography: The Western Tradition.” The Georgia Review 35.2 (Summer 1981): 307-317.
    • Lape, Noreen Grover. West of the Border: The Multicultural Literature of the Western American Frontiers. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2000.
    • Madera, Judith. Black Atlas: Geography and Flows in Nineteenth-Century African American Literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.
    • Oswald, Delmont R. Introduction and Epilogue. The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, as Told to Thomas D. Bonner. 1856. Ed. Delmont R. Oswald. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1981. vii-xiii, 603-628.
    • Taylor, Quintard. In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528–1990. New York: Norton, 1998.
    • Wilson, Elinor. Jim Beckwourth: Black Mountain Man and War Chief of the Crows. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 4th printing, 1988.




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