James Pierson Beckwourth was born April 26, 1798 or 1800, in Frederick County, Virginia to an African American slave mother and English father, Sir Jennings Beckwith. Although his father raised him as his own son, according to the law, Jim Beckwourth was still legally considered a slave. His father appeared in open court on three separate occasions (in 1824, 1825, and 1826) and “acknowledged the execution of a Deed of Emancipation from him to James, a mulatto boy.” Beckwourth’s father, mother and siblings moved to Missouri in the early 1800’s. The young Beckwourth, as he later came to spell his surname, attended school in St. Louis for four years. When and why James changed his name to Beckwourth is unknown. He was apprenticed to a blacksmith in St. Louis but was unhappy as an apprentice. He left home in 1822 on an expedition to the lead mines in the Fever River area. In the summer of 1824 he signed on with General William Ashley for a trapping expedition to the Rocky Mountains. For a number of years Beckwourth took part in a series of trapping expeditions with the American Fur Company and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company where he learned the frontiersman skills he would use for the rest of his life. He also met and worked with such well-known mountain men as Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, Jim Clyman and Edward Rose. He participated in the first Mountain Man Rendezvous at Henry’s Fork on the Green River in 1825. The location of the rendezvous changed every year, and it quickly became the best-known social and business institution of the American mountain men.
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 chieftains, and adopted into the tribe. 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 improved a Native American path to create what became known as the Beckwourth Trail through Plumas, Butte, and Yuba counties in 1850. In August 1851, he led the first intact wagon train into the burgeoning Gold Rush city of Marysville, CA. Between 1851 and 1854, 1,200 emigrants used the trail. The Beckwourth Trail was used during the California Gold Rush until about 1855, when the railroad supplanted the wagon train as the preferred method of traveling to California. Between 1895 and 1916, the pass was used by the Sierra Valley & Mohawk Railway narrow gauge. The abandoned right-of-way is still visible on the eastern slope of the pass.
Beckwourth dictated his autobiography to Thomas D. Bonner, an itinerant Justice of the Peace in the gold fields of California, in 1854-55. After Bonner “polished up” Beckwourth’s rough narrative, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians was published by Harper and Brothers in 1856. The book apparently achieved a certain amount of popular success, for it was followed by an English edition in the same year, a second printing two years later, and a French translation in 1860. In 1937, a bronze plaque was erected at Beckwourth Pass by the Native Daughters of the Golden West to commemorate the discover and the pioneers who passed along the trail. On August 8, 1939, Beckwourth Pass was designated as California Historical Landmark Number 336. Beckwourth Frontier Days was established to honor James P. Beckwourth, an unsung, genuine American hero who created a lower, safer passage across the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the mid-1800s. Beckwourth Pass, is located in Plumas County, CA, State Route 70 and crosses the Sierras at an elevation of 1,591 m (5,221 ft.), making it one of the lowest crossings of the Sierra Nevadas in California. In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 29 cent commemorative postage stamp honoring Jim Beckwourth. In 1996, the city of Marysville renamed its largest park Beckwourth Riverfront Park in recognition of Beckwourth’s significance to the growth of the city.