Lessons in Black History – James Beckwourth

james_beckwourthJames Beckwourth—The exploration of the American west is largely credited to white explorers and mountain men who have become the stuff of school-yard lore. But one of the most crucial explorers of the western territories was former slave James Beckwourth. Born sometime between 1798 and 1800, Beckwourth was the son of a slave mother and her owner, Jennings Beckwith. Raised by his father as more of a son than a slave, Beckwourth was granted his freedom in the mid 1820s. In 1824 Beckwourth went to work for a fur-trading company owned by William Asher, who brought the young Beckworth along on an expedition to explore the Rocky Mountains. Beckwourth quickly earned a reputation as an exceptional explorer, trapper and fighter. He spent a significant amount of time with the Crow Indians, married the daughter of a chief, and became a revered warrior and leader. Perhaps his most historically significant accomplishment was the “discovery” of Beckworth Pass, a low-elevation path cutting through the Sierra Nevada Mountains from what is now Nevada into California. This trail, which was already known to Indians, made the migration into Northern California significantly less dangerous. Beckwourth’s life and adventures were recounted by him to author Thomas Bonner, who penned The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation. Much of Beckwourth’s personal narrative was discounted by both contemporary readers and historians as being mostly tall tales and legend. But in time his recollections were given more credit, and especially appreciated for his insights into the Crow nation, and the lifestyle of the day. In the 1951 film Tomahawk, white actor Jack Oakie played Sol Beckworth, a character modeled after James Beckwourth. When we talk about how Hollywood distorts history and the truth to serve a narrative of racial superiority, the case of James Beckwourth stands out as a prime example. Compare the real Beckwourth (below left), with how Hollywood portrayed him with actor Oakie (below right). Not only has the real life person been turned into a white man, his persona has been softened and diminished by turning him into a comedic figure.

beckwourth oakie

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