The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth. By Thomas D. Bonner. Edited by Delmont R. Oswald. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972. Annotated. Index. Notes. 649 pages. $9.75.James P. Beckwourth, a mulatto born in Virginia, led an extraordinary life. Among his many careers he was a mountain man, a Crow Indian chief, a merchant, a participant in the Seminole Wars in Florida, a guide and carrier of dispatches in the Mexican War, and a gold miner. Californians remember him best as a horse thief who worked with Peg-leg Smith; as one of the Americans who fought against Governor Micheltorena in 1845; and as the popularizer of “Beckwith Pass,” located today along Alternate U.S. Highway 40 north of Reno.
On the western slope of the Sierras, below the pass that still bears his name, “Old Jim” founded the town of Beckwith in 1852. There he related his adventures to a newspaperman, Thomas Bonner, who published Life and Adventures in 1856. The book has been a popular one ever since, having gone through various reprintings and editions. At the same time, the book has won a reputation forunreliability.
In telling his story to Bonner, Beckwourth exaggerated his own importance in events, and could not resist stretching the truth and telling some tall tales. He once told a gullible listener, for example, that he had been Colonel William Travis’s black slave at the Alamo and escaped before the Mexicans launched their final attack. Thus, although the book is exciting to read, critical readers had never found it satisfying for they could not tell where the facts ended and the fiction began,
Now, thanks to the extensive notes provided by Delmont Oswald, a reasonably reliable edition of The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth is available. Oswald, who has also written a biography of Beckwourth, has laboriously checked many of “Old Jim’s” statements and found that Beckwourth told the truth more often than not. Puzzles still remain, and Oswald leaves some questions unanswered. Nonetheless, this should become the standard edition of Beckwourth’s autobiography for years to come. The University of Nebraska Press used ingenuity to make Oswald’s commentary match the type of the original 1856 edition, which is printed here in facsimile. Oswald has provided a good index and an epilogue which traces Beckwourth’s life from the time that he dictated his memoirs in 1853 to his death in 1866, Beckwourth continued to lead an extraordinarily vigorous life in his last years; he served as a guide for United States forces for example at the notorious San Creek massacre. It appears that when Jim Beckwourth died in the Crow country in 1856, he was laid to rest as a Crow Indian would be, atop a platform in a tree. A remarkable end of a remarkable life. DJW