Black Mountaineers

Occasionally, one learns something by stumbling across information previously unknown.  At other times, one learns by asking questions and then begins a process to find the answers.  That’s the way it was with me in these stories of black mountain men.  As a kid, I used to read stories about Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, John Fremont —but I never once heard of, or read a story about black pioneers and Indian fighters.  I stumbled across the story of Jim Beckwourth and then, by searching for additional information, I learned about Edward Rose.

Nez Coupe

Rose was born sometime between 1780-88.  As with so many people of his day, there is much we do not know about him.  What we do know is that his father was a white man, his mother was a mixed blood African-Cherokee.  He likely started his adult life on the Mississippi River.  That was a tough line of work, not to mention dangerous, and the river boat men were crude and treacherous fellows.  With that as an early influence, it comes as no surprise that Edward Rose became a robber, a brawler, and likely a murderer.  At some point in time, probably around 1802, Rose began living among the Crow Indians and remained with them long enough to learn their language and adopt their culture.  His scars from fighting earned him the Indian name Nez Coupe, or “Cut Nose.”

In 1807, Rose left the Crow to join the Missouri Fur Company.  He was hired as an interpreter for an expedition to the Bighorn River (Wyoming) under the explorer Manuel Lisa.  After gaining the confidence of Lisa, Rose was sent with George Drouillard [Note 1] to scout, establish relations with local Indians, and publicize Fort Raymond as a trading post.  Rose and Drouillard parted company at some point in the journey and Rose returned to the Crow to set up his winter camp.  While there, he traded Lisa’s goods for favors from the tribe.  When he returned to the Missouri Fur Company in 1808, Lisa confronted Rose about the misuse of his property (trade goods), and this led to a physical altercation.  One story is that it took fifteen men to keep Rose from killing Lisa.  Rose only remained in camp long enough to procure more trade goods and then he went back to the Crow.

If the Indians weren’t killing white settlers, they were killing each other.  During a conflict between the Crow and Hidatsa, Rose was a prominent warrior who, despite being shot three times by the Hidatsa enemy, carried his attack forward and killed five men.  He afterward became known among the Crow as “Five Scalps,” a man whom they revered as a fearless fighter.

In subsequent years, Rose was content to live among trappers or his Crow family.  In 1809, Rose worked for Andrew Henry (Lisa’s partner) at a trading post in present-day North Dakota.  While working for Henry, Rose repeated his behavior of trading good that didn’t belong to him for tribal favors, but there is no record of a confrontation between Henry and Rose.  Part of the reason for this could be that (a) Henry was a smart man, or (b) Rose was no one to trifle with, or a combination of the two.

In 1811, Rose joined the expedition of Wilson Hunt, who was trying to expand the fur trade of John Astor.  Unlike Lisa and Henry, Hunt never trusted Rose beyond tossing distance, his record of desertion and theft clearly established.  One of Hunt’s concerns was that Rose was trying to talk his fellow employees into stealing trade goods.  Rose was certainly capable of conspiring against his employer, and he was certainly not an honest man.  After an unsuccessful trade negotiation with a band of Crow at Crazy Woman Creek, one that had lasted several days, Hunt blamed Rose for the failure.  Hunt offered Rose a half-year’s pay, a horse, three beaver traps, and other goods to leave the expedition.

Edward Rose married an Omaha Indian woman and had two children with her.  But Rose’s problem among the Omaha was his drinking and they soon tired of his obnoxious behavior and sent him away.  Eventually, Rose returned to the Crow where he remained for over a decade.

In 1823, Rose joined the William Ashley expedition to the Rocky Mountains.  The expedition was abandoned after Rose initiated a fight with an Arikara band [Note 2] and Ashley ended up losing fifteen trappers.  At this point, Ashley might have decided to dispense with Rose’s services, but he later included Rose in an expedition with Jedidiah Smith to the establish what became the Bozeman Trail.

Edward Rose died in the winter of 1832-33 while accompanying Hugh Glass and Hilain Menard along the Yellowstone River.  While crossing the frozen river, Rose, Glass, and Menard were attacked by an overwhelming number of Arikara Indians.  All three men were killed —their livers probably consumed by the victors.

Bloody Arm Beckwourth

James P. Beckwourth became “Bloody Arm” because of his skill in knife fighting, although most people called him Jim.  He was born James Pierson Beckwith (later changed to Beckwourth) in Frederick County, Virginia.  His father was Jennings Beckwith, an Irish/English immigrant whose ancestors were minor nobility —who was also his master.  Jim was born into slavery around 1798.  His mother, a Negro slave, had thirteen children with Jennings.  Jim Beckwith was her last child.

In 1809, Jennings moved to Missouri taking with him his enslaved wife and all their mixed-race children.  Jim attended school in St. Louis for several years.  It was about this time that he began to spell his last name Beckwourth.  No one knows why.  Jennings did acknowledge his children and tried to do his best for them.  He wanted Jim to learn a trade, so apprenticed him to a blacksmith.  Jim must have been a typical teenager —one who liked to argue with his elders, thought he knew everything.  It was a behavior that got him fired from his apprenticeship.

Jennings freed Jim from slavery in 1824.  In that same year, Jim joined up with William Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company.  Initially, he worked as a wrangler, perhaps owing to his working knowledge of smithing.  In later years, he earned a good reputation as a trapper, mountaineer, and Indian fighter.  He also had a reputation for telling tall tales, which among the mountain men, is what they did at night while sitting around a camp fire.  In the Marines, we have a different term for this.

“Rendezvous” was an annual gathering of mountain men held at various locations between 1825-40.  Fur trading companies hosted it —a place where trappers could sell their furs and hides, purchase supplies, drink whiskey, and rent a white woman.  The annual locations were pre-announced, usually held in the spring and summer.  It was at one such gathering that a trapper by the name of Caleb Greenwood began telling stories about Jim Beckwourth.  Greenwood claimed that Jim was the child of a Crow Indian chief, who had been kidnapped by Cheyenne warriors and sold to a white family.  It was a story easily believed because the dark-skinned Jim Beckwourth always wore Indian attire.

In the 1850s, Beckwourth claimed to have been captured by the Crow Indians while trapping alone in the borderlands of the Crow, Cheyenne, and Blackfoot nations.  In this account, Jim was mistaken for the lost son of a Crow chief and on this basis, he was adopted into the tribe.  It could be a true account, but there are conflicting theories.  Some historians argue that Beckwourth was planted in a Crow village by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to advance trade with the Crow nation, which is also plausible.  Jim lived among the Crow for more than a decade, taking for his wife the daughter of a tribal chief.  Since plural marriages were common among the Indians, he may also have had several Indian wives.  In time, Beckwourth became a war chief of the dog clan [Note 3].

Jim started a ranch in the Sierra Valley.  It later became the small town of Beckwourth, California.  In 2010, the town had a population of 340.  It was there between 1854-55 that Jim told his life story to Judge Thomas Bonner.  In 1859, Jim made a short visit to St. Louis, but soon returned to the west, settling in the Colorado territory near Denver.  In Colorado, Beckwourth operated a small store and served as a local Indian agent.

In 1864, Jim was hired as a scout in the 3rd Colorado Cavalry Regiment under Colonel John Chivington.  Chivington led a 700-man expeditionary force against the Cheyenne, Apache, and Arapaho in a campaign designed to eliminate Indians deemed hostile to white settlers.  In that year alone, Indians initiated 34 separate assaults against white settlers.  In total, ninety-six whites were killed (men, women, and children), twenty-one received serious wounds, and eight were taken as captives.  Beyond this, the Indians helped themselves to around three-hundred head of cattle.  Cheyenne mounted twelve attacks against wagon trains and stagecoaches, and nine separate ranches were raided by independent war parties.  While Cheyenne Dog Soldiers [Note 4] conduct most of these attacks, American leaders made no distinction between Cheyenne bands.

One can see the problem easily enough: starving, resentful Indians on the one side, and people hoping to survive Indian depredations on the other.  The Indian strategy was to make war in the spring, summer, and fall —and then sue for peace in the winter.  War would recommence in the spring.  This behavior led white leaders to conclude that the Indians were not trustworthy, which was, of course, true.  At a peace conference with territorial governor John Evans (1814-1897) [Note 5], Evans informed the Indians that peace was no longer possible.  Some have suggested that Evans only called the conference to lure Cheyenne leaders into the open where Colonel Chivington could more easily kill them.

Jim Beckwourth led Chivington’s force to Big Sandy Creek [Note 6].  Outraged by Jim’s participation in the Sand Creek massacre, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians refused to trade with him from that time on.

Beckwourth was well into his sixties at the time of Red Cloud’s War (1866-68) but the army hired him as a scout in the area of Fort Laramie and Fort Kearney.  While guiding a military column into Montana, Beckwourth began to complain of severe headaches and suffered numerous nose bleeds.  These were symptoms that today could be associated with any of 80 medical conditions.  Jim returned to a Crow village near Laramie, where he died of natural causes.  He was given a traditional Indian (raised platform) burial.

Sources:

  1. 1.Bonner, T. D.  The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians (with illustrations), Written from his own dictation.  New York: Harper Bros. (archived) 1856.
  2. 2.Gowans, F. R.  Rocky Mountain Rendezvous: A History of the Fur Trade 1825-1840.  Gibbs-Smith Publishing, 2005.
  3. 3.Hewett, E. L.  Campfire and Trail.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
  4. 4.Moore, S. W.  Sweet Freedom’s Plains: African Americans on the Overland Trails: 1841-1869.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.
  5. 5.Sides, H.  Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West.  New York: Random House, 2006.
  6. 6.Wilson, E.  Jim Beckwourth —Black Mountain Man, War Chief of the Crow.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.

Endnotes:

[1] George Drouillard (1773-1810) was a scout, hunter, and cartographer who participated in the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-06).  Blackfeet Indians killed him in 1810 while he was trapping beaver.

[2] The Arikara Indians were a particularly nasty bunch of savages, and if any of the Indian tribes in the Yellowstone area needed a nap, it would have been these guys.  Since around the early 1700s, the Arikara managed to alienate just about every other tribe in the neighborhood.

[3] There are several clans associated with the Crow (also Apsáalooke) Nation, none of which makes any sense to a non-Indian.  According to the Little Big Horn College, there are twelve modern clans (none of which are called Dog).

[4] The dog soldiers were a militaristic band of the Cheyenne developing around 1830.  Few whites survived the violence of dog soldier attacks.

[5] Evans was a physician responsible for several hospitals and medical associations, a railroad promoter, and politician.  Evanston, Illinois, Evanston, Wyoming, Evans, Colorado, and Mount Evans in Colorado are named in his honor.  He was one of the founders of Northwestern University and the University of Denver.  President Lincoln supported Evan’s order in 1864 to shoot on sight any Indian in the Colorado territory —deemed appropriate in the defense of white settlements because most of the U. S. Army was then engaged in the Civil War.

[6] The Sand Creek massacre resulted in the killing of Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers.  Historians know what happened, and when, but estimates of dead (ranging from 70 to 500 people) appears imprecise.  The impact of Chivington’s assault, however, was that many previously peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho joined the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers and Indian attacks against white settlements increased.

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Indians, Cheyenne, History, Indian Territory, Mountain Men, Pioneers. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Black Mountaineers

  1. Andy says:

    This one completely captured my attention from the first word to the last. Rose was the sort who could be useful but equally dangerous. Today, his ancestors might not qualify him as a Black man. Whether he was thought to be Black in his day really isn’t important.

    Beckwourth was a much different sort than Rose. He was as dangerous as Rose but tad bit more trustworthy. It might have been comforting on the long nights on the trail to believe that your throat wouldn’t be cut as you slept.

    The lives of these two were as fascinating as those of kit Carson, Bridget, and other better known mountain men. Good work on this one.

    Liked by 2 people

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