Biography The Early Years The Mountain Man Life with the Crow Farewell to the Rockies In the Everglades On the Santa Fe Trail The California Revolt The Mexican-American War The "Terrible Tragedy" The Forty-Niner The Last Years
Beckwourth In the Everglades
While briefly back in St. Louis in the fall of 1837, Beckwourth was introduced by William Sublette to General William Gaines, who was recruiting mountain men to serve as muleteers in the Seminole War1. in Florida. Sublette recommended that Jim engage. "Florida, he said, was a delightful country, and I should find a wide difference between the cold regions of the Rocky Mountains and the genial and salubrious South." 2
But it wasn't balmy climes that drew Beckwourth. Sublette said there was an opportunity there for renown.
The involvement of the Missouri troops in the Seminole War grew out of Senator Thomas Hart Benton's displeasure over the steady drain of resources. By 1837 over $12 million had already been spent with no apparent results. Senator Benton thought that the expertise of the mountain men in tracking and Indian-style warfare was just what was needed for victory. Richard Gentry of Columbia, Missouri was appointed "Colonel of Volunteers" and was directed to recruit 600 men and have them ready for duty by November, 1837.
Beckwourth recruited a number of other mountain men and was engaged as "Express Rider & Sub-Conducter of Muleteers" for the sum of $50/month. His account of his experiences in Florida is, for once, remarkably free of exaggeration.
The men and their horses boarded small boats bound for Tampa Bay on October 26, 1837, but they had no experience with boats, and simply drove their horses into the holds with no attempt to make them secure. The boats were overtaken by severe storms, and many of the horses were killed or maimed. Beckwourth's boat foundered on a reef, and the men and horses were stranded for twelve days before being rescued by a steamer.
Colonel Zachary Taylor (later General and President) ordered all the men now without horses and unwilling to proceed on foot to be dismissed without pay. Thus began a rivalry between the regular army and the Missouri Volunteers that was to last for years, and was even carried to the halls of Congress (by Senator Benton).
Beckwourth's description of the Battle of Okeechobee under Colonel Taylor, which took place on Christmas Day, 1837, jibes perfectly with the military records and other eyewitness accounts, right down to the dates and times and the number of killed and wounded. It was in this battle that Colonel Richard Gentry,3 much loved by the Missouri Volunteers, was killed.
Beckwourth stayed on in Florida for ten months, doing some scouting and carrying dispatches, but the war settled down into a routine that he found unendurable.
Now we had another long interval of inactivity, and I began to grow tired of Florida . . . . It seemed to me to be a country dear even at the price of the powder to blow the Indians out of it, and certainly a poor field to work in for renown. . . . I wanted excitement of some kind -- I was indifferent of what nature, even if it was no better than borrowing horses of the Black Feet. The Seminoles had no horses worth stealing, or I should certainly have exercised my talents for the benefit of the United States. 4
In the summer of 1838, Beckwourth found himself back in St. Louis, looking for a job.
1The Seminole War
The Seminole Indians were an offshoot of the Creeks, who had fled the Carolinas for what is now Georgia before the Revolutionary War. The Seminoles found a haven in Florida, which was then under Spanish rule. They lived comparatively unmolested until Southern planters began clamoring for the return of their slaves, many of whom had found refuge with the Seminoles, with whom they often intermarried.
A long series of treaties were made and broken, the Seminoles were often persecuted, and supposed slaves were unlawfullty kidnapped.
At one point the young Seminole Chief Osceola was arrested and his African-American wife was
carried off in chains. After his release he successfully plotted the assasination of General
Wiley Thompson at Fort King, also killing another man. The war was on, and lasted from 1835
2 T. D. Bonner, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, University of Nebaska Press Edition, 1972, p. 405.
3Colonel Richard Gentry
When Colonel Gentry began recruiting volunteers in Missouri, he soon had his quota, but few of the men had any money to buy equipment for themselves or their horses. They appealed to Gentry, who generously offered to endorse their notes. Unfortunately, Colonel Gentry was killed at the battle of Okeechobee, and the notes were presented as claims against his estate, leaving nothing for his wife and nine children.
Senator Benton, who was furious at Colonel Taylor for his treatment of the Missouri Volunteers
and for the reports Taylor had written which maligned the Volunteers, addressed Congress and
soon had a conciliatory letter from Secretary of War Poinsett. He also introduced a Bill in the
Senate to redress the debt owed Colonel Gentry's family. His notes were paid, and Mrs. Gentry
was appointed Postmaster, a position she held for thirty years. She was the first woman to be
appointed to a government position in the United States.
4 T. D. Bonner, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, University of Nebaska Press Edition, 1972, p. 417.
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