New Times / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 28, Issue 6
Blazing a trail in historyThe DANA Adobe keeps the memory of mountain man James P. Beckwourth alive by illuminating his footprints on the Central Coast
BY JOE PAYNE
American frontier history is filled with iconoclastic characters of independence and freedom. Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Jim Bowie, to name just a few, are all remembered and lauded as folk heroes and have come to symbolize the American dream.
One man, James B. Beckwourth (1798-1866), was dismissed for generations as a liar in regard to many of his exploits. Beckwourth might have taken some creative liberties with details, but scholars have verified the man’s remarkable story, which included time on the Central Coast at places like Mission San Miguel and the Dana Adobe in Nipomo. Ignored in the past mostly because of his race, modern history books are starting to include references to the freed slave who became a prolific explorer, Crow chief, trapper, and all-around mountain man who saw most of the western United States while it was still Mexico.
The Dana Adobe Nipomo Amigos (DANA) is a nonprofit that began in 1999 for the express purpose of restoring the Dana Adobe—Captain William Dana’s house and rancho—and creating an educational center that teaches about Nipomo’s cultural and ecological history. DANA’s lifeblood is its team of volunteer docents who lead tours and give presentations at the historic house, which is almost completely renovated.
One docent, Helen Daurio, took an interest in James P. Beckwourth when she learned he was a guest at the rancho during the Mexican-American War. Beckwourth was hired by the military as a courier, passing mail from Monterey to San Francisco and then to Nipomo, where he and a courier from San Diego would swap bags and then make their journeys all over again. Beckwourth was considered the best man for the job, Daurio explained.
“He was selected because of his courier experience in the Southwest, primarily in New Mexico [and] all the way down to Chihuahua,” she said. “He was an awesome rider and he knew Indians; he was one of them. As he would say, he could ‘play the fox’ when he needed to.”
A recent talk by Daurio at the Dana Adobe highlighted how exceptional Beckwourth’s story was. She began by describing how talented Beckwourth was at storytelling himself—he was a mountain man who was always ready with a tall tale.
“Pretend you are sitting at a campfire and the sun is setting, and the light is reflecting [on] the craggy mountain man faces, and a voice breaks out, ‘Hey Jim! Tell us how you got those gnarly legs!’” she said. “So, Jim clears his throat and begins to tell a tale about how he ran 90 miles away from Indians, or he may tell about the time he went ’round and around a mountain top so many times that the [legs of the] horses of the men who were chasing him … grew longer and longer on one side.”
Daurio continued to detail a life that was full of impossible exploits and strange happenings. Born to Jennings Beckwith (Beckwourth later altered his last name) and a slave Beckwith owned, James P. Beckwourth grew up in Virginia and the frontier of Missouri. His father freed him in his mid-20s; an already adept frontiersman, he took off into the wilderness that is now the western United States.
“He had some problems finding his way,” Daurio said. “He works in a mine for a while and is not sure about his direction, but because he lived on the edge of the wilderness for so long, he had acquired skills in hunting, and he perfects those [abilities] and ends up becoming a skilled hunter.”
A mountain man could sustain himself with hunting alone if good enough at it. Beckwourth would go on long hunts deep into the wilderness and then set up shop with his furs, trading for whatever he needed, and getting to know the various mountain men, settlers, and Native Americans.
“He would go and trap for furs and then open a store [and] sell his wares, and then get bored because he always had to be outdoors, always seeking that elusive fame,” Daurio said. “What Jim was always looking for was fame and renown, and he never got it. It just eluded him time and time again, until now I think.”
Beckwourth’s search for acceptance and renown found him a home among the Crow tribe. After being told that Beckwourth was really a Crow Indian who was kidnapped at birth, the tribe adopted him into the community. He never corrected the mistake and lived wholly as a Crow.
“One of the Crow women notices he has a mole on his eyelid and she says, ‘My son had a mole right where you have one; you are my son,’” Daurio said. “So, he was immediately embraced by this culture; he is given horses, supplies, wives; he begins to live with them, dress like them, and he participates in their battles.”
Beckwourth eventually climbed his way up the ranks of the Crow hierarchy to achieve the title of chief. Each time he ascended a level, he earned a new name, eventually being known as Chief Medicine Calf, a title of respect and renown.
“According to Jim—and I believe this to be true—he says that one of his missions was to try and improve the Crow quality of life by increasing their skills at trapping, discouraging war, and, most of all, discouraging alcohol,” Daurio said.
The Crow trappers, she explained, would accept meager payment for their furs, and most mountain men would pay them in alcohol, which had a destructive effect on the Native American population. Learning went both ways, though, as Beckwourth learned much from the Crow about survival skills, knowledge of the land, and language.
“When he is with the Crow he learns a lot of Native American dialects,” Daurio said, “and this is what’s going to help him throughout the rest of his career.”
Growing up speaking English, French, and Spanish, Beckwourth was able to pick up many different Native American tongues on his journeys across California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and into modern-day Mexico. As a result, he was always able to talk his way out of hostile encounters with Native Americans or frontiersmen.
This was a skill Beckwourth needed, as he was a prolific horse thief. He happened to be in Mexican territory when the Mexican-American War broke out, and saw fit to bring more than 1,000 horses back with him for the American military.
“There has been argument over [whether] he understood what he was doing in the rebellion, and he knew what he was doing,” Daurio said. “This guy was well educated, he quoted Shakespeare. He was also ready to take advantage of any time he could steal horses.”
Beckwourth’s abilities didn’t remain secret to those in high power with the United States military. He was hired in various ways by the military, though he never enlisted. He made an excellent courier, slipping unnoticed through vast stretches of hostile wilderness.
“They needed to get messages from Monterey to San Diego, and who was better to do it than Jim?” Daurio said.
Beckwourth spent months as the Central Coast courier, leaving Monterey on a Monday and eventually arriving in Nipomo on the following Sunday.
“At the same time a guy leaves from San Diego, stops in L.A. and Santa Barbara, and then is here,” Daurio said. “They swap satchels here and then they ride back so the military has clear communications of what is going on in the war.”
Beckwourth and Capt. Dana were close to the same age, though from vastly different backgrounds. At the time of their meeting, Dana was established with his house, shop, and a large family.
“There were small boys of 8, 10, or 11 when Jim was here,” Daurio said, “and how big their eyes must have been when they saw Jim riding down from the north; they would have seen him from the cupola.”
Beckwourth was a renowned storyteller, but also a prolific lover. He had at least 11 wives, including several during his time with the Crow.
“I wonder, was he able to charm Maria Josepha Dana like he did the other women? He must have had a word or two in Spanish, of course,” Daurio said. “The Captain, who was very much in the political scene of the area, I’m sure they maybe had a glass or two of the Captain’s brandy and talked about what was happening up north, who was on the move.”
Jim also spent much time at the Mission San Miguel, which was owned by a ranchero at the time. He had the unfortunate luck of being the first responder to the infamous San Miguel Mission Massacre. Eleven people were killed, including the Reed family and their servants, all for the small sack of gold Reed was too willing to gloat about in front of his traveling guests, a pack of outlaws looking for easy profit. Beckwourth arrived at San Miguel by night and discovered the massacre.
“That was in 1848, and when that happened, I think for Jim, it must have resonated early experience,” Daurio said. “When he was 9 years old, his dad gave him a job; he was charged with taking corn to the mill. So, he takes the corn—and it’s his first manly job, so he wants to show off—and he stops by at his friend’s house. As he rides up to his friend’s yard, he sees bodies—they had been massacred.”
“He said that that memory was one always fresh in his mind,” she continued. “Throughout his life, that was one of those horrible events that shaped and molded his thinking, and again, it resonated with the San Miguel Massacre and the Sand Creek Massacre.”
Several years after his experiences on the Central Coast as a courier, Beckwourth was hired again by the military as a guide and scout for a mission into Cheyenne and Arapaho territory. Little did Beckwourth know he was leading the American troops to Sand Creek, the site of a friendly Cheyenne encampment numbering more than 100 people—all of whom were massacred by American troops.
“Jim had been a guide for that army contingent and was witness to what happened, and so he was asked to testify on what he saw,” Daurio said. “His testimony helped set the record straight, and that [killing Indians] was something the U.S. wouldn’t be party to.”
Beckwourth was known in his time, though obviously discriminated against because of his ethnicity and infatuation with Native American life. He met up with a writer named Thomas D. Bonner who wrote the book The Life and Adventure of James P. Beckwourth. Beckwourth himself never received a penny of profits he was promised to receive, but his book did get sold and read extensively on the East Coast and in Europe.
When testifying before Congress about the Sand Creek Massacre, Beckwourth was already an old man in his 60s. It was one of the last things he did. His book was panned as nothing but lies, causing his testimony to be doubted. However, what he reported was incontrovertible to the harsh reality of the situation.
History is a trail blazed by individuals. Most walk the road well trod, but some march to the beat of their own drum and make a new path. The Dana Adobe Nipomo Amigos is all too aware that before Nipomo was a city, it was a path through the wild, with a lone rancho standing by the road.
“We are still talking about these things because it is important to understand where we came from,” DANA Executive Director Marina Washburn said. “I think we are all seeking that, to better connect.”
The Dana Adobe offers many regular opportunities to connect with local history, both of the Dana Adobe and the native Chumash as well. Regular tours, presentations, talks, and even concerts are held at the historic location, all aimed at keeping the memory of people like James P. Beckwourth alive.
“What we offer, and will continue to offer here at the rancho, is educational programs and activities that continue to be available and accessible to the community,” Washburn said. “Not just the building, but the heritage park and the education center.”
The Dana Adobe is a living piece of rancho California history. Before there was a Nipomo, or Santa Maria, or San Luis Obispo, there was the rancho, where people like Henry Tefft, John C. Fremont, and James P. Beckwourth stood.
“It’s all part of the community we live in,” Washburn said. “It’s the stories of how these streets got named and how the town grew, and the people who left their footprints here in the same place that we are leaving our own footprints now.”
Contact Arts Editor Joe Payne at firstname.lastname@example.org.