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 James Pierson Beckwourth, 1798-1866

 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's Life with the Crow

In about 1828, while on a trapping expedition with Jim Bridger, Beckwourth was captured by a party of Crow warriors. By Beckwourth's account, he was mistaken for the long lost son of Big Bowl, one of the tribal chieftans, and adopted into the tribe. Independent accounts make it seem more likely that his time with the Crow nation was prearranged with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company for the purposes of establishing trade.

Whatever the reason, Beckwourth spent the next six to eight years with the Crow, and gained considerable influence with the tribe. There are many documents from his contemporaries which confirm his position of leadership with the Crow. He apparently rose within their ranks to at least the level of War Chief, and by his own account was named head Chief of the Crow Nation upon the death of Arapooish (Rotten Belly).

Beckwourth's tales of his life with the Crow are largely unconfirmed, although some cases which were witnessed by other mountain men can be documentd from other sources. But in terms of getting an accurate account of what Crow society was like, his autobiography is unsurpassed.

Whether we believe all of Beckwourth's tales or not, no mountain man could have lived as a Crow for so long without distinguishing himself in battle. For the Crow, war was a way of life, and a man who was unskilled in war was a "nobody." It was not in Jim Beckwourth's nature (nor any other mountain man's) to remain a "nobody" for long. And Beckwourth's considerable influence with the Crow was (sometimes begrudgingly) acknowledged by his contemporaries and historians alike.

It is clear that Beckwourth's time with the Crow nation were his fondest memories. More than half of his autobiography is spent relating his experiences with them. Perhaps his wanderlust was satisfied for a time by his life with a nomadic tribe. Or maybe he discovered domestic bliss among the Crow. Beckwourth had as many as ten Crow wives at one time -- he had almost as many wives as he did names. By his own account, he was smitten by the young warrior woman, Pine Leaf.

Pine Leaf, the Crow heroine.
Pine Leaf, the Crow heroine
According to Beckwourth, Pine Leaf was captured from the Gros Ventre (Big Belly) tribe when she was about ten years old and raised as a Crow. She had a twin brother who was killed by the Blackfeet, and she swore that she would take no man as her husband until she killed one hundred enemy warriors with her own hands. Beckwourth admired her greatly:

"Whenever a war party started, Pine Leaf was the first to volunteer to accompany them. Her presence among them caused much amusement to the old veterans; but if she lacked physical strength, she always rode the fleetest horses and none of the warriors could outstrip her . . . . and when I engaged in the fiercest struggles, no one was more promptly at my side than the young heroine. She seemed incapable of fear; and when she arrived at womanhood, could fire a gun without flinching and use the Indian weapons with as great dexterity as the most accomplished warrior."*

Beckwourth wooed Pine Leaf relentlessly, but she always rebuffed him, saying she would marry him "when the pine-leaves turn yellow" or "when you find a red-headed Indian." But his perseverance finally paid off, and when Beckwourth returned to the Crow after a misadventure in which they thought him killed, Pine Leaf renounced the War Path and agreed to marry him.

But for Beckwourth, the pursuit always held more attraction than the goal, and five weeks later he left the Crow. He never saw Pine Leaf again.

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The Crow Name
"Crow" was not this tribe's name for themselves and was never accepted by them. Apparently the term came into use among whites as a result of a (possibly malicious) mis-translation. They were known among their own people as the Absaroke, or Sparrowhawk people.

Crow Chiefs
Among the Crow, the title "Chief" did not necessarily indicate a position of decision-making. In fact, their society was remarkably democratic, and leadership depended more on the ability to persuade than it did on titles. The concept of Native American "kings" and "princesses" was largely a white man's fiction.

Among the Crow, a man could rise to the level of "Chieftancy" by accomplishing one of four feats:

  • striking an enemy, wounded or not,
  • leading a successful raid,
  • capturing a horse picketed within a hostile camp, or
  • snatching a bow or gun from an enemy in hand-to-hand combat.

Crow Naming Conventions
It was common practice to bestow a new name on a Crow warrior when he had performed a feat of daring or honor. Among the names Beckwourth accumulated were: Morning Star, the Antelope, Enemy of Horses, Bobtail Horse, Bloody Arm, and the Medicine Calf.

*T. D. Bonner, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, University of Nebaska Press Edition, 1972, p. 202.

Pine Leaf
Some historians have dismissed Pine Leaf as a figment of Beckwourth's imagination, but in 1856 Edwin T. Denig, in Five Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri, describes the exploits of Woman Chief, a Gros Ventre maid captured by the Crow at the age of ten. Denig describes Woman Chief's remarkable victories in war and horse stealing and states that her accomplishments were such that the tribe could no longer rule her out of the council.

Denig asserted that he knew the woman personally, that she was killed by the Gros Ventre in 1854, and that for twenty years she set a valued example in hunting and war. Denig's tale of Woman Chief and Beckwourth's narrative about Pine Leaf jive perfectly, as does the time frame.

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