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The Life and Adventures of James Beckwourth
Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians written from his own dictation by T. D. Bonner (1856)


Buried 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 domiciliated 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 participating 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-devotion 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 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’ labor in the winter of 1854-55. In prosecuting 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 enjoyed 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 was 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, from his autobiography, we have more interesting particulars 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 River. Discovering a pass in the mountains that neatly 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 mind: his autobiography every where displays it. His sagacity in determining what would please the Indians has never been surpassed; for on the most trying occasions, where hundreds of others would have fallen victims to circumstances, he escaped. His courage is of the highest order, and probably no man ever lived who has met with more personal adventure involving danger to life, though in this respect he is not an exception to all mountaineers and hunters who early engaged in the fur trade and faced the perils of an unknown wilderness.

The Life and Adventures of James Beckwourth (pdf)

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