Biography The Early Years The Mountain Man Life with the Crow Farewell to the Rockies In the Everglades On the Santa Fe Trail The California Revolt The Mexican-American War The "Terrible Tragedy" The Forty-Niner The Last Years
Beckwourth Says "Farewell" to the Rockies
By the summer of 1836 a number of factors had combined to put an end to Beckwourth's career with the American Fur Company and the Crow nation.
In the east, changes in fashion had greatly decreased the demand for beaver pelts, and, in any case, after years of heavy trapping, the beaver were becoming scarce.
The incessant Crow wars were prejudicial to the interests of the American Fur Company. Beckwourth often belabored the Crow about "the superior delights of peace,"1 but, "An old warrior despises the sight of a trap; hunting buffalo, even, does not afford him excitement enough. Nothing but war or a horse-raid is a business worth their attending to . . ." 2 The Company had trading posts with virtually all the tribes the Crow were at war with. Trade had declined considerably.
In addition, Beckwourth himself was becoming restless. He wasn't rich and famous enough. "I had encountered savage beasts and wild men . . . . And what had I to show for so much wasted energy, and such a catalogue of ruthless deeds?"3
In July of 1836, still hoping to renew his contract with the American Fur Company, Beckwourth left the Crow and retured to St. Louis. He was lost and out of place. His father had long since left, and had died in Virginia in the previous year. And St. Louis was no longer the wild and primitive place Beckwourth had known growing up.
In the spring of 1837, still hoping to renew his contract with the American Fur Company, Beckwourth made one last visit to the Crow, and in so doing laid himself open to a malicious charge: he has been accused by several authors of deliberately bringing smallpox to the plains Indians.
Beckwourth made many friends among the mountain men, but he made his share of enemies, as well, and once the story was introduced, they quickly picked it up and made it part of the Beckwourth legend. In fact, there is nothing to support the story except the testimony of a few writers with a long history of maligning Beckwourth's character.
The story just doesn't fit what is known about Jim Beckwourth. He had a tremendous respect for all the plains tribes -- even those he considered his enemies. He wouldn't think twice about bashing in an enemy's skull in hand-to-hand combat -- that was an honorable death. But he would have considered the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children by disease as dastardly, cowardly and evil. And most other writers of the time attributed the plague of 1837 to other sources.
However it was introduced, smallpox swept the plains in the summer of 1837 and killed thousands. Inevitably, it affected the fur trade and may have influenced the American Fur Company's decision not to re-hire Jim Beckwourth.
The fall of 1837 found him still adrift.
1 T. D. Bonner, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, University of Nebaska Press Edition, 1972, p. 364.
2 T. D. Bonner, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, University of Nebaska Press Edition, 1972, p. 368.
3 T. D. Bonner, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, University of Nebaska Press Edition, 1972, p. 371.
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