James Beckwourth: The Explorer of the American West
James Beckwourth was a pioneering Black explorer who played a significant role in the mapping and settlement of the American West. He was born in Virginia in 1798. He was the son of a white plantation owner and an enslaved Black woman and legally was born a slave. His father took him to Louisiana Territory in 1810 and eventually to St. Louis where he eventually gained his freedom. In St. Louis, Beckwourth learned to be a blacksmith. In 1822 he decided to head West, so he joined an expedition headed for the lead mines.
Beckwourth's first taste of the West came in 1824, when he joined a fur trading expedition that took him as far as present-day Colorado. He quickly fell in love with the rugged wilderness and the nomadic lifestyle of the mountain men, and he spent the next several years trapping and trading in the Rockies.
In 1828 while trapping, Beckwourth was captured by the Crow Nation who thought he was the lost son of a Crow chief. As a result, the Crow allowed him into the nation. Beckwourth married the daughter of a chief. For the next six to eight years, he lived with a Crow band. He rose in their society to the level of War Chief. Beckwourth participated in raids by the Crow. The raids were usually against their enemy, the Blackfoot.
In 1832, Beckwourth joined the famous American explorer and mountain man, Jim Bridger, on an expedition to explore and map the region that is now Wyoming and Montana. Beckwourth proved to be a valuable member of the team, using his knowledge of the local Native American tribes to negotiate safe passage and his hunting and trapping skills to provide food for the group. The expedition was a success, and Beckwourth's name was included on the maps that were later published.
In 1833, Beckwourth was appointed as a scout and guide for the U.S. Army's expedition to the newly acquired Mexican territories of California and Nevada. He was one of the first non-Native Americans to explore the area, and his knowledge of the land and its inhabitants proved invaluable to the military.
Beckwourth's most significant contribution to the exploration of the West came in 1850, when he discovered and mapped Beckwourth Pass, a low elevation pass going through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The pass, which was later named Beckwourth Trail, provided a crucial link between California and the mining camps of Nevada and significantly reduced the time and difficulty of travel between the two territories.
Beckwourth’s life and recollections were chronicled by a wandering journalist named Thomas D. Bonner in 1856 a book entitled, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians. He then returned to Missouri but soon joined the flood of settlers bound for Colorado in 1859. He served, probably as a guide and interpreter for U.S. troops, in the Cheyenne War of 1864 before settling near Denver. Beckwourth died in a Crow village near the Big Horn River 1866.
His contributions to the American West will always be remembered and honored. Today, Beckwourth Pass is still in use and is a popular destination for hikers, campers, and outdoor enthusiasts.
Beckwourth’s legacy as a black explorer is a testament to the determination, resourcefulness, and courage that were required to survive and thrive in the harsh and unforgiving wilderness of the American West, and he will always be remembered and honored for the significant role he played in the mapping and helping to settle the American West.
Map Your Route!
- Printouts of Map Your Route Through the Jamrocks to the Ocean (attached)
- Markers or crayons
- Arrrgh Mighty Observation Journal (optional)
What can you spy with your explorer eye? There’s an ocean waiting on the other side of these Jamrocks. Are you brave enough to create a route to get Penelope there? The quest starts here, so Let’s Go!
- Print copies of Map Your Route Through the Jamrocks to the Ocean, one for each child.
- Have each child map 2 or 3 of their own unique routes for Penelope to get to the ocean, using a different color marker or crayon for each route. Encourage them to find, or better yet, create some paths that are not as obvious.
- Have each child share their routes with the group, explaining what type of terrain, wildlife, weather, etc. Penelope might encounter on her explorative adventure from the Jamrocks to the ocean. Ask them questions about food, shelter, protection, etc. along the way.
- Have the children discuss which routes might be most efficient and most likely to remain. Take into consideration the elements and cycles of nature.
Optional: Have the children write about or draw their Map Your Route Through the Jamrocks to the Ocean in their Arrrgh Mighty Observation Journals.
This activity is a fun and easy way for kids to learn a little about the important role explorers played in establishing paths that opened up travel across the United States – predecessors to modern day highways and interstates that allow us to travel by motor vehicle across the country.