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 and the "Terrible Tragedy"
One of Jim Beckwourth's most uncanny talents was the knack of showing up somewhere just in time to witness or participate in some historic event. His return to California was no exception, for he arrived in the late fall of 1848, just in time to beat the "rush-hour traffic" heading for the gold fields.
But first there was one other historic event to witness. Beckwourth was the first on the scene of one of the most infamous and brutal atrocities in early California history.
At the time the mail route in California consisted primarily of four legs: San Francisco to Monterey, Monterey to Dana's Ranch1 in Nipomo (a few miles north of what is now Santa Maria), Dana's Ranch to Pueblo de los Angeles, and from there to San Diego. Beckwourth, with his considerable experience carrying dispatches, signed on to handle the Monterey to Nipomo leg.
One of Beckwourth's favorite rest stops on the route was at the mission at San Miguel, owned by William Reed, for he had taken a liking to Reed's family. Arriving at dusk one day, he had a look around, but was surprised to find no one stirring. Investigating further, he stumbled over the murdered body of a man in the kitchen. He returned to his horse for his pistols, and, lighting a candle, commenced a search.
In going along a passage, I stumbled over the body of a woman; I entered a room, and found another, a murdered Indian woman, who had been a domestic. I was about to enter another room, but I was arrested by some sudden thought which urged me to search no further. It was an opportune admonition, for that very room contained the murderers of the family, who had heard my steps and were sitting at that moment with their pistols pointed at the door, ready to shoot the first person that entered. This they confessed subsequently.2
Beckwourth rode for help and returned with a posse of about fifteen men. "On again entering the house, we found eleven bodies all thrown together in one pile for the purpose of consuming them; for, on searching further, we found the murderers had set fire to the dwelling, but according to that Providence which exposes such wicked deeds, the fire had died out."3
The victims were Reed and his wife (who had just given birth), their infant and a two or three year old son , a midwife and her daughter of fifteen or sixteen and young grandson, Mrs. Reed's brother, an Indian shepherd and his grandson of four or five, and their cook. Reed had been shot in the head, and the rest of the victims had been killed with axes.
The murderers were captured near Santa Barbara and one of the men "turned state's evidence." They were tried and, as Jim put it "we shot them, including the state's evidence." Beckwourth's account puts their number at "two Americans, two Englishmen, and ten Irishmen," but other accounts say there were four, and that one drowned trying to escape capture. Perhaps Bonner misheard "and an Irishman" as "and ten Irishmen."
The Reed murders were much talked about and remembered in California, and with the exception of the number of killers, virtually every account matches Beckwourth's precisely, and many mention him by name. Perhaps the "guady liar" felt that in this case exaggeration was entirely unnecessary.
This is another instance where Bonner's sloppiness with names has led to considerable confusion, for he recorded it as Denny's ranch. There was a Denny's ranch in California at the time, but it was located a few miles northeast of Monterey, and was a well-known stop on the way to the Stanislaus mines. Since it was nowhere near where the rest of the story took place, many historians assumed that Beckwourth had heard the tale and appropriated it for his own.
But the proper pronunciation of Dana's name is with a short first "a," like "Denna." The records
show the mail route simply as "Monterey to Nipomo," but once the identity of the ranch is
known, a wide array of evidence turns up that confirms Beckwourth's role in the drama.
2T. D. Bonner, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, University of Nebaska Press Edition, 1972, p. 504.
3T. D. Bonner, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, University of Nebaska Press Edition, 1972, p. 504.
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