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Profiles in Manlitude -- James P. Beckwourth

Continuing the continuation of our ongoing odyssey to instruct the men of today on what real manliness is! Or was. 

You want a weird origin? Jim Beckwourth's dad was an Irish/English noble, and his mother was a woman that Sir Jennings Beckworth thought he owned. When the younger Beckwourth was in his mid-20s, Dad finally got around to manumitting his son from slavery.

Although trained as a blacksmith, the young man said, "Stuff that noise," and became a mountain man, first wrangling livestock, then trapping and generally carving his name into American geography. In short order, he developed a more Native American persona while simultaneously getting a reputation as an "Indian fighter," which was an occupation you could put on a tax return back then because LOL, humanity is terrible.

Beckwourth's life is teeming with legend, thanks to his biography's use of unreliable sources like Beckwourth, so it's hard to know what parts to believe. He let people think he was a kidnapped Crow Indian baby sold into slavery by a rival tribe, because that's less complicated or awkward than explaining your dad purchased your mom and took a quarter-century to free you.

It seems The Rocky Mountain Fur Company, whom he worked for, insinuated him within the tribe for diplomacy's sake, since they planned to steamroll anything with a pelt in Crow territory. Beckwourth married an Indian princess (high five!) and eventually became a chief. According to him, "it was unanimously declared that they had elected me First Counselor, and that conjointly with Long Hair, I was head chief of the nation." So there you go, Jim Beckwourth managed to score not one but two occupations even more manly than blacksmithing.

Keep in mind, this is a man whose nickname was "The Gaudy Liar," so take it with a pound of salt. What's not in doubt is that Beckwourth was an expert mountain man and an ace fighter. He was pretty well-loved among his coworkers, because he was a cheerful dude and a better orator than any of them. So permit him to make his tales a little taller, that they might be worthy of a guy decked in bling even though there were very few ladies to impress on the frontier.

Unfortunately, Beckwourth's reputation went from "good storyteller" among his friends to "D____d mongrel liar" among people he had never met, because, y'know: racism. More honest remembrances account him as a tracker on par with Kit Carson (who basically WAS the Old West, and a friend of Beckwourth's), and just as honest in his dealings. 

In the middle of this Dances with Wolves business, Beckwourth stopped selling unobtanium to Rocky Mountain Fur, dealing instead to its competitor, The American Fur Company. Ooh, burn. Eventually, he'd gone a little too native for their liking, and American Fur stopped trading with him. Being chief had gotten old by that point, so Beckwourth decided to forge trails and build trading posts no matter how much Mexico said, "Hey, that's our land."

Mexico's business was all messed up at that time, giving President Polk enough excuse to march some guys into disputed territory, and then claim the U.S. had been attacked on its own soil. This mock outrage was a transparent ploy, because even today visitors to Texas can expect at least one gun pointed at them. 

Bill Hicks called that one right.
Man, Bill Hicks called that one

Still, it gave America the necessary pretext to sweep all the way to the Pacific Ocean, which must have been a comfort to all the mothers of the 16 U.S. soldiers who died there.

Mountain Men like Beckwourth and Carson played a crucial part in the war, delivering messages across broad expanses through hostile Mexican and Native American territory, guiding troops to hot zones and sweeping in to save besieged American forces. Beckwourth personally joined the fray with 1,800 (count 'em!) Mexican horses he'd stolen, just so he wouldn't have to hear any more of this "tall tale" malarkey. But for some rebellion later on, America took the west in a walk.
So what's a mountain man/chief/blacksmith to do? If you're Jim Beckwourth, you go to California to become a professional gambler, because by God, you are a man! 

It wasn't long before he was back to his mountaineering ways, forging a trail through the Sierra Nevada range that was shorter than the Donner Pass and less prone to cannibalism. Bad luck and bad politics screwed him out of any payment, so he became a rancher. It's like the guy had a checklist of iconic Old West jobs he had to hit before he could die, but decided that tuberculosis-ridden gunslinger was for nancies. Having hit most of the rest of them, he then dictated his autobiography to Thomas Bonner, with the understanding they would split the proceeds 50-50. Bonner never gave him any money, probably because he felt he only had to pay for the half of the story that was true, or perhaps because he was 100% jerk.

Beckwourth was a pretty old guy now, and suffering from what was likely hypertension. He began scouting for the army -- unfortunately the governing colonel in charge used Beckwourth's work to walk up to some friendly Cheyenne and slaughter everyone, even babies. This was such a brutal attack that even 19th Century America stopped being itself long enough to be horrified at its actions. Trapping and scouting his way back to the Crow, Beckwourth went home, and died amid a nosebleed that wouldn't quit (not an unusual thing with him). But to hear The Rocky Mountain News tell it from their exclusive sources they made up, the Crow had poisoned their great chief rather than let him leave them.

And that's one distortion about Beckwourth's life that he didn't tell.

Illustration of Jim Beckwourth as a Native American

Brendan McGinley is the author of The Man's Book of the BBQ, and knows from manlitude. You can read Jim Beckwourth's autobiography free online, and Bonner won't get a penny.