Magazine article Sunset

Living Larger in the West

Magazine article Sunset

Living Larger in the West

Article excerpt

"When we started, the only thing I knew about him was what a liar he was," Andrew Hammond tells me.

We are standing along State Highway 70 at Beckwourth Pass. The pass is not dramatic: a dry saddle where California shades into Nevada. The man it is named for is another matter. Sometimes the writer chronicling the West finds it impossible to avoid hearty, backslapping cliches: Colorful! Larger than life! That is particularly the case with Jim Beckwourth.

James Pierson Beckwourth-his surname was spelled variously Beckwith, Beckworth, and Beckwourth, which hints at how hard it is to pin down anything about himwas a mountain man, an elastic job description that, in his case, included fur trapper, trailblazer, prospector, and Indian war chief. He was also two other things. As Andrew Hammond says, he was known as the greatest confabulator in the West. And he was part black, born a slave, which means that his passage through the West was freighted with more than the usual complexities.

As for Andrew Hammond, he is a retired aerospace engineer who has a precisely trimmed beard and speaks in precisely trimmed sentences. He seems an unlikely camp follower for someone like James Beckwourth. Yet Hammond and his wife, Joanne, have spent most of the last decade trying to separate Beckwourth legend from fact to make a forgotten figure live again.

Beckwourth was born in Virginia, the son of a slave and a white plantation owner. Granted his freedom by his white father, Beckwourth lit out for the Western wilderness. He took to it: 6 feet tall, with dark hair that coiled to his waist, he was one of those figures who swagger even when standing still. Jedediah Smith taught him the fur trade; the Crow Indians taught him battle skills, at which he proved so adept he became a Crow war chief. He also acquired a Crow wife, the first of many wives. In 1848 he arrived in gold-laden California. As he prospected the country north of Lake Tahoe, he discovered a gentle pass ideal for travelers heading to the goldfields. Civic boosters on the west side of the Sierra Nevada promised Beckwourth money if he would extend this new route west over the mountains to the gold camp at Bidwell's Bar. Beckwourth did so. He built his own ranch and trading post alongside the trail near Beckwourth Pass.

The four years at his ranch helped stain his reputation. He decided to write his autobiography, choosing as collaborator one Thomas Bonner, a former temperance crusader who had fallen noisily off the wagon. Beckwourth dictated, Bonner transcribed, both drank-each shot of rum increasing the number of enemies Beckwourth had slain and the number of Indian maidens who had found his charms irresistible. "Paint her up, Bonner!" Beckwourth would shout. The Life and Adventures of James P Beckwourth confirmed Beckwourth's legend as a champion prevaricator.

That is the life, and the trail, Andrew and Joanne Hammond have spent five years retracing. The approximate route of the Beckwourth Trail was known. But the Hammonds wanted to map it inch by inch. They tracked down emigrant diaries, examined old maps. They followed the trail by air, by truck, by foot.

"I was raised on a ranch in South Dakota," Andrew Hammond says as he steers his old truck west from Beckwourth Pass. "I did a lot of driving horses. You get a gut feeling. How would a wagon turn here? Where would they go? "

Beckwourth Pass was advertised truthfully as the lowest (5,228 feet) and easiest pass across the Sierra Nevada. But farther west Beckwourth's trail ventured into much rougher country. …

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