James Pierson Beckwourth is the best known African-American mountain man. Although there were people of many races on the frontier, Beckwourth was the only black man to record his life story from that time. And what a life it was. Jim Beckwourth was an emancipated slave, a mountain man, a fur trader, a war chief of the Crow, an explorer, a trailblazer. He discovered a pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains which became the major emmigrant route to California. He and a partner established a trading post that became Pueblo, Colorado. Beckwourth attended the first mountain man rendezvous.
Beckwourth was born in 1798 in Virginia to an English father and a slave mother. He was one of 11 children to the same parents. His father went to court at least 3 times and "acknowledged the execution of a Deed of Emancipation from him to James, a mulatto boy." Beckwourth had a bad case of wanderlust, and after attempting several jobs as a blacksmith, signed on with General William Ashley for a trapping expedition to the Rocky Mountains. He became a full fledged mountain man in the next few years, and trapped with and was good friends with many well known men such as Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and Jedidiah Smith.
In 1828, Beckwourth began living with the Crow Indians. Beckwourth's account of the situation is that he was mistaken for a long-lost grandson of one of the chiefs. Other historians tend to think it started out as a trading relationship. Beckwourth was known to exaggerate. In any case, he rose to a position of leadership within the tribe, at least to the level of War Chief. Beckwourth's story is that he was actually named chief of the entire Crow Nation, but there are few believers of this. Beckwourth did enjoy his time with the Crow, and had as many as 10 marriages with Crow women. One of the most interesting is his account of his wooing and winning of the hand of Pine Leaf, a woman warrior. I will node this story by itself, as it's a pretty cool story. In any case, Beckwourth visited St. Louis in 1837 before returning to the Crow villages. Upon his return an outbreak of smallpox started, and he was widely accused of bringing the disease to the plains people. This ended his welcome among them for the time being.
Beckwourth's next adventures were as a message carrier during the Seminole war and as a trader among the Cheyenne in what is now Colorado. Never one to stay put, by 1844 he was trading in California and was there when word of the Mexican-American war was received, he headed home to Pueblo. On the way, he picked up a few horses. In his own words, he and five others: " collected eighteen hundred stray horses we found roaming the California ranchos and started with our utmost speed from Pueblo de Angeles. This was a fair capture and our morals justified it, for it was war-time." He wandered between Colorado, New Mexico, and California for the next few years. In the spring of 1850, he discovered what is now known as Beckwourth Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and immediately set about establishing a trail to Marysville. He worked on the trail in the summer and fall of 1850 and the spring of 1851, and in the late summer of that year led the first wagon train of settlers along the trail into Marysville. The Beckwourth Trail was used heavily until about 1855, when the railroad supplanted the wagon train as the preferred method of travelling to California.
In 1866, the United States Government asked Beckwourth to help in achieving peace with the Crow Indians. He went to the tribe, and according to some accounts was asked to be a chief among them once more. When he declined, according to some, the Crow served him a meal that was poisoned and he died instantly. The Crow wanted to keep his strong spirit among them one way or another. Other accounts have Beckwourth returning to Denver and dying later that year of unknown causes. I kind of like the poisoned food story myself.
Jim Beckwourth told his life story to J.D Bonner who released the tale in the book The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth. It's a great read, and very entertaining.