James “Jim” Beckwourth was born into slavery in Virginia as the son of an enslaved woman and her white owner, Jennings Beckwith, who was descended from Irish and English feudal nobility. His father acknowledged him as his son and apprenticed him to a blacksmith. In the early 1800s, Beckwith moved to Missouri, and freed Beckwourth by deed of manumission, acknowledgement of no further right to ownership of said individual, in the 1820s.
Beckwourth went on to attend school in Saint Louis for four years. In 1824, he joined with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company as a wrangler, or person that handles animals. He also developed a habit of and was well known for fighting with indigenous people that objected to the Company’s presence on their territory. During this time, he also developed his reputation as a teller of tall tales and wild stories, such as being the son of a Crow chief who was kidnapped by raiding Cheyennes.
For years, Beckwourth lived with a band of Crow natives, working, fighting and struggling alongside them, and learning their language. He married the daughter of a chief, and possibly might have had several other wives. He gained massive respect, and eventually became a chief (respected man) in his own right.
In 1837, Beckwourth returned to Saint Louis and enlisted as a soldier in the United States Army, serving in the Second Seminole War. After this adventure, he saw action in the Mexican-American War, stealing over a thousand Mexican horses and playing key roles in suppressing several revolts. He was also present for the California Gold Rush beginning in 1848, opening a store and becoming a professional gambler in Sacramento. He also discovered Beckwourth Pass, and established a ranch, hotel, and trading post in the Sierra Valley.
In 1859, Beckwourth had settled in Denver, Colorado, and was forced into service as a scout for what came to be known as the Sand Creek Massacre, during which the Third Colorado Volunteers massacred nearly 200 innocent Cheyenne men, women, and children who were even flying an American flag. Beckwourth died in 1866 as a result of extreme hypertension while leading a military column.