The James P. Beckwourth Mountain Club was named after a famous biracial African American, James Pierson Beckwourth. He was a true legend of the West.
He was born in 1798 in Fredericksburg County, Virginia, to a white plantation owner and one of his African American female slaves. They moved to Missouri when Jim was about six years old, because they wanted to stay together, and it was easier at that time to do that there than it was in Virginia. Beckwourth was raised in Missouri. He was taught to read, as were all of his siblings. He was apprenticed to a blacksmith so he would have a trade. Around 23 years of age he was fortunate enough to meet General William Ashley, who founded the Rocky Mountain Fur Trading Company. Beckwourth joined the company as a hunter, and over his long fascinating life he was, among other things, a frontiersman and an exceptional explorer. In 1850 he discovered a pass over the Sierra Nevada Mountains that would lead pioneers into the Sacramento Valley of California.
He also saved the life of General Zachary Taylor, who later became President of the United States. Beckwourth was also war chief of the Crow Indian nation. He was adopted into the tribe and he pretty much lived with the Crow for many years. He spoke a multitude of Native American dialects as well as being fluent in English, Spanish and French. He was also one of the co-founders of the city of Pueblo, Colorado.
Our organization named itself in honor of Jim Beckwourth because of his contributions to the West and also because he was a real trailblazer and adventurous guy. We like to think that we honor some of that spirit of adventure and his legacy in our organization.
Childhood Experiences and Turning Points in Nature
I was born in Detroit, Michigan. My father’s side of the family was one of the original black families in Michigan. They founded the first Episcopal churches. My childhood was pretty unusual for African Americans at the time. My father was a doctor, and his father was a doctor and medical school professor, and education had gone on and been a tradition in my family for generations and generations. I guess you could say I had a very affluent childhood.
We had a house in Detroit where my father practiced medicine and proudly served inner city residents. He also had a home in Canada, across the river right on Lake Saint Clair. So I grew up canoeing, swimming and hunting in the summer. I fished and explored the woods around our home in Canada. My father had a boat and we got to water ski and do all of the traditional water sports. We would ice skate on the lake in the winter.
I grew up being a very athletic girl. I loved sports and the outdoors and being in the woods, immersed in nature. I loved being under the open night sky more than anything—it was good for the soul then, and it is good for the soul now.