Friday, July 20, 2012

AVOID CANABALISM - Find a better way! - Jim Beckwourth

On the first day of our Long Ride to Sturgis we will pass over the Sierra Nevada Mountains at a place that has an interesting tale to tell.

As a young man my favorite memories are of driving in the mountains with my dad and brother on weekends and going hunting in the sierras near our home in Reno Nevada. 
 Often while on our adventure my dad would tell us stories of pioneers and mountain men who made discoveries along the ridges of the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains. 

One of my favorite stories and also one of the greatest modern day ironies is the path and planning of the Route I-80 which travels from Reno to Sacramento over Donner Pass the same route used by the Donner Party.

 Let me explain.........
Donner Party
We have all heard of the Donner Party, who essentially turned into cannibals in the high sierra mountains where they were snowed in and forced to eat each-other.  Just about everyone has heard the story and there have even been movies made of this event. This event happened because they made poor decisions to follow an arduous path over the mountains at 7000 feet above sea level, they got caught in the snow. Originally the thought was that the path would be a shorter and quicker way to get to the gold rush, boy were they wrong.
Jim Beckworth, Mountain Man - Explorer
The Irony is that just a few years after the Donner group decided to eat the kids for dinner, a mountain man named Jim Beckwourth discovered a pass in the mountains just a couple of miles north of the Donner path that was 2000 feet lower, has one minor grade to walk up and contains a smooth path into the sacramento valley where it hardly ever snows and there are plenty of deer and animals in the valley to hunt. Had the Donner Party taken this route we may well have never heard of their group or their story.  Today this road is called Beckwourth pass and it is along our route on the Long Ride to Sturgis. 

an even greater irony is that our modern society built a major interstate (I-80) over the same route that the donner party took, And the Rail companies built a train along the same route, a route that caused the death of many Chinese laborers. This same route gets closed multiple times per year causing delays and accidents, when they could have built the route a few miles to the north and avoided millions upon millions of dollars in expense, maintenance and other troubles. 

Why do we always have to do things the hard way????? 

Luckily for us bikers the Highway 89 and 49 contain some of the best back country motorcycle riding in the country so I can't be too angry that there isn't a major interstate there. 

Point B is where the donners got stuck

Point D is the lowest pass in the sierras, Beckwourths pass.

Here is some information on one of my favorite mountain men - James Beckwourth.

 The following is biographical information found at (
James Pierson Beckwourth (April 6, 1798, Fredericksburg, Virginia - October 29, 1866, Denver) (a.k.a. Jim Beckworth, James P. Beckwith) was born in Virginia in 1798 to Sir Jennings Beckwith, a descendant of Irish and English nobility, and an African-American mulatto woman about whom little is known.

James Beckworth enjoyed nature and adventure, and it was not long before he set out to explore the vast expanses of what would become that which kept the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans apart.

Places still bear his name. In 1824 he was living in Missouri when he joined Gen. William Ashley's expedition to explore the Rocky Mountains. Although his activities remain largely unknown during this time Beckwourth became known as a prominent Indian fighter and guide often hired by settlers to guide wagon trains through the Sierra Nevada. He later became a horse trader supplying migrants and others, and then later conducted a horse thief operation against the Spanish with fellow Mountain Men.

The company's largest raid took place in 1840 when Beckwourth, in cooperation with Native Americans led by Ute Chief Wakara, over Cajon Pass successfully raiding nearly all the ranches from San Gabriel to San Bernadino of over 1,200 horses. Despite several battles with Spanish posses, including a gunfight against a posse of 75 men led by Governor Jose Antonio Carrillo, at Resting Springs the gang managed to escape.

Beckwourth eventually began ranching, mostly with stolen horses, until he was chased out by vigilantes in 1855. Travelling to the Colorado Territory he became a scout for the Union Army and later lived in Denver as a storekeeper. In 1864 Beckwourth returned to the mountains acting as a guide for John M. Chivington during the Sand Creek Massacre.

Later in his life, Jim recounted his astonishing life to Thomas D. Bonner, who set the book The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation to type. As notable as are the adventures, Jim's linguistic and stylistic prowess also impresses as being beyond the normal scope of reportage. The lessons of the book have currency, and much can be learned that might help us understand the role of alcohol in the US Government, how occupations effect the occupied, our historical relationship to diseases, wildlife, and the environment...among other things, including massacres and war.

Beckwourth's death came at age 69, while guiding a military column to a Crow Tribe in Montana. Complaining of severe headaches and suffering nosebleeds (most probably a severe case of hypertension), Beckworth returned to the Crow village where he died on October 29, 1866. The founder of the "Rocky Mountain News", William Byers, used the news of the death of Beckworth to publish a circulation-boosting, baseless yarn stating that the Crow had poisoned Beckworth, a falsehood that is repeated to this day.

Beckwourth Pass, California

Beckwourth Pass, named in honor of James Beckwourth, is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Plumas County, California. California State Route 70 crosses the Sierras at an elevation of 1,591 m (5,221 ft.), making it one of the lowest crossings of the Sierra Nevadas in California. It is also the route that the Union Pacific Railroad (former Western Pacific Railroad) used to cross the Sierra's along their Feather River route. The pass is located east of Portola, California.

In 1851, Beckwourth, following an Indian trail, discovered a low elevation pass over the Sierra Nevada mountains into California. He improved what became known as the Beckwourth Trail through Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties. In August, 1851, he led the first intact wagon train into the burgeoning Gold Rush city of Marysville, California, named after Mary Murphy, a survivor of the Donner Party in the winter of 1846-47. Beckwourth demanded payment for improving the trail, claiming he had an agreement with the city and its merchants. When the city failed to pay him, he had no standing as a dark-skinned man in a California court to sue for damages. An estimated 10,000 people used the trail to enter Marysville in the following decade. In 1996, at the urging of promoters of Beckwourth Frontier Days, a living history festival, the city of Marysville's largest park was renamed Beckwourth Riverfront Park in recognition of the debt owed by the city and Beckwourth's significance to the growth of the city.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely informative piece thank you. I recently purchased a home on acreage near Beckwourth in the Sierra Valley and was surprised to hear its history. Especially since my children are probably the first residents of african-american descent that will be on the census since Beckwourth. Incidentally, I am of irish, english and swedish descent and love horses, ranches, mountains and hiking. I wonder if any of his horses contributed to the nearby mustang herds. I, like you wondered, why they didn't build the major highway through the Sierras over the Beckwourth pass-we get way less snow. It would also have been quite convenient to pick up friends and family at an Amtrak station minutes away....Unless they are hobos on Southern Pacific I am out of luck. Thank you for the information, Ellen