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 James Pierson Beckwourth, 1798-1866

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Beckwourth on the Santa Fe Trail

The American Fur Company had successfully won a major share of the fur trade on the upper Missouri, while further south Charles and William Bent had almost a monopoly along the Arkansas and clear down into Mexico. But there were still opportunities for independent traders, and so Beckwourth found himself in St. Louis without a job for only five days. Andrew Sublette and Louis Vasquez were trying their luck with the Indians of the Southwest, and they had need of men such as Jim.

Vasquez was an old friend of Beckwourth's and was glad of his services. And Jim longed to put the dullness of Florida and the rigors of city life behind him. Here at last was the chance for "excitement," for he would be dealing with Cheyennes, Arapaho and Sioux -- all traditional enemies of the Crow. They set out on the Santa Fe Trail for the fort Vasquez had established in 1835 on the Platte River in what is now Colorado.

Beckwourth was named "agent-in-charge," and he immediately set out to establish himself among the Cheyenne. Through a Crow interpreter, he put on a display of braggadocio for the astonished Indians, playing on their pride and respect for the brave deeds of enemy warriors.

I have killed a great Crow Chief, and am obliged to run away, or be killed by them. I have come to the Cheyennes, who are the bravest people in the mountains, as I do not wish to be killed by any of the inferior tribes. I have come here to be killed by the Cheyennes, cut up, and thrown out for their dogs to eat, so that they may say they have killed a great Crow Chief. 1

William Bent, who was trading in the same village, had just one comment for Beckwourth: "You are certainly bereft of your senses. The Indians will make sausage-meat of you."

But the braggadocio worked. (That and two ten gallon kegs of whiskey.) Thanks to Beckwourth's skill, Sublette and Vasquez had a successful fall and winter trade, and made enough to pay off their debts and outfit the next season's trade. But the following winter was disappointing, and they sold out in 1840. Once again, Beckwourth was out of work.

But not for long. The Bent brothers had triumphed once again, and Beckwourth soon found himself in their employ, dealing with the same tribes as before. His friendship with the Cheyenne was cemented and would last for many years. But he soon began to tire of the monotony of his life, and he set out with a companion over the rugged passes and down into Taos, New Mexico, where he formed a partnership with a friend and set out once again to trade with the Cheyenne, this time on his own account.

Their venture was successful enough that they were able to return to Taos and set up as merchants. Jim settled in for a bit to enjoy the fruits of his labors. He also married Luisa Sandoval. In true Beckwourth fashion, she gets very little attention in his memoirs.

In October, 1842, Beckwourth took his wife north to the Arkansas in what is now Colorado, where he built a trading post. They were soon joined by twenty or thirty settler families, and a thriving community was born. They happily named their little settlement "Pueblo."

But the Pueblans weren't popular in Bent country. Charles and William saw the newcomers as competition for their own great trading firm, and they wrote angrily to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, disparaging the "renegade Americans" and "Mexican traders" in Pueblo and begging for a military fort. Their entreaties came to naught, but Beckwourth had made powerful enemies of his old employers.

Meanwhile, sporadic tensions between Mexico and Texas had lessened the welcome that citizens of the United States received below the border. Now that Beckwourth was out of favor both with the Bents and the Mexicans, he was forced to look elsewhere.

He decided on California.

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1 T. D. Bonner, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, University of Nebaska Press Edition, 1972, p. 428.

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