“To us, Beckwourth and Chivington are murderers,” says Chester Whiteman, member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Culture Program. “You don’t put up monuments for people like Timothy McVeigh, but that’s what they did.”
In this moment that is dedicated to expunging symbols of social injustice throughout the United States, how does history judge minor figures and those involved at the fringes of national tragedies those like James P. Beckwourth – the founder of El Pueblo Fort, and the guide for the Sand Creek massacre.
Born into slavery, Beckwourth was a prominent frontiersman throughout the American West, and was one of the founders of the El Pueblo Trading Post in 1842, the first American settlement in modern-day Pueblo.
The son of a slave and her English-Irish master, James Beckwourth was born in Frederick County, Virginia on April 26th, 1798. When Beckwourth was ten years old, his family moved to St. Louis, where despite having the legal status of a slave, Beckwourth was apprenticed to a blacksmith his father knew.
For his father, Sir Jennings Beckwith, blacksmithing would be a good trade for his son to provide for himself, but eventually James grew restless with life in St. Louis. In 1824, Beckwourth signed on with General William Ashley and his Rocky Mountain Fur Company, to venture west on trapping expeditions.
A few years and several appeals in open court later, Beckwourth was freed by his father when he was around 26 years old.
In his time with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, Beckwourth picked up many of the frontiersman skills he would use throughout the rest of his life. Additionally, through the years he spent with the Crow Nation on behalf of the trading company, Beckwourth gained a reputation for his dealings with indigenous peoples, reportedly even rising to the rank of “War Chief” due to his exploits with the Crow.
In 1837, Beckwourth left the fur trading business to participate in the Seminole War in Florida, where he fought against the Seminole people in territory disputes with the United States. However, unexcited by life in Florida, Beckwourth would eventually return to the west with one of the founders of Fort Vasquez, Louis Vasquez, as an “Indian trader,” where he had regular dealings with the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux peoples.
During the period between 1838 and 1844, Beckwourth acted as a prominent go-between for indigenous peoples and the United States government along the Santa Fe trail, as well as for Mexican traders on the Old Spanish Trail.
It was during this period, in 1842, that Beckwourth helped with the construction of the El Pueblo Trading Post in modern-day Pueblo.
In 1844, Beckwourth began to shift his operations to California, and the Gold Rush of 1848 only amplified that.
Through his expeditions in California, Beckwourth helped to establish several settlements and trails, including the town of Beckwourth and Beckwourth Pass. Throughout several trips between California and New Mexico, Beckwourth was also a witness to much of the Mexican-American war, including the Taos Revolt of 1847.
In 1859, after having settled in California’s Sierra Valley for some time, Beckwourth returned to spend his final years in Denver, Colorado, where he managed a general store and worked as an “Indian agent” for the U.S. government. During this time, he also acted as a scout for the U.S army on several occasions, until October of 1866 when he fell ill after an expedition to a Crow village.
On October 29th, 1866, James Beckwourth died of natural causes, and was buried according to Crow funerary traditions in the Crow Indian Settlement Burial Ground.
Although James Beckwourth is celebrated as an influential frontiersman, as well as a founder of various important establishments throughout the American West, his legacy does not come without its tarnishes..
In 1864, Beckwourth was conscripted for various scouting missions by Colonel John Chivington amidst rising tensions with several Plains peoples, and as a result of these expeditions played a crucial hand in the Sand Creek Massacre, which saw the execution of hundreds of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho.
According to witnesses as well as his own testimony, Beckwourth provided information on the camp at Sand Creek and ultimately acted as a guide for Chivington’s forces on the day of the massacre.
Although Beckwourth expressed immediate horror and regret at the atrocities of Sand Creek, there are those that say mere repentance was not enough.
In talks with Cheyenne chiefs and in official testimony following the Sand Creek massacre, Beckwourth claimed to have been threatened with his life by Chivington if he did not agree to the scouting expedition.
However, military reports prior to the massacre indicate Beckwourth as a willing agent of the government.
“The damage was done,” says Chester Whiteman of the Southern Cheyenne. “Anyone can apologize after the fact, but if he had a heart, Beckwourth would have taken Chivington’s forces somewhere else.”
For this reason, some of the Cheyenne put Beckwourth’s actions on par with those of the U.S. military, and would see monuments and commemorations to Beckwourth brought down.
In 2011, a memorial for James Beckwourth was erected outside of the El Pueblo History Museum in part as a commemoration for his contributions to the city of Pueblo. However, Deborah Espinosa, the director of the museum at that time, also wanted to acknowledge the messier aspects of Beckwourth’s history in her description of him.
“We just could not look at history from one perspective,” said Espinosa. “We didn’t want to cover up anything that was controversial about Beckwourth’s life, so we made sure to include a sentence explaining his involvement with the massacre.”
But for Chester Whiteman and the Cheyenne people, the consensus is that that is not enough.