James Beckwourth and the Crow Indians

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About 1828, while on a trapping expedition with Jim Bridger, James Beckwourth was supposedly captured by a party of Crow warriors. By Beckwourth’s account, he was mistaken for the long lost son of Big Bowl, one of the tribal chieftans, and adopted into the tribe.

As we know, his real parents were an African American woman and an English Lord named Sir Jennings Beckworth.

Independent accounts make it seem more likely that his time with the Crow nation was prearranged with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company for the purposes of establishing trade.

Whatever the reason, Beckwourth spent the next six to nine years with the Crow, and gained considerable influence with the tribe. There are many documents from his contemporaries which confirm his position of leadership with the Crow. He apparently rose within their ranks to at least the level of War Chief, and by his own account was named head Chief of the Crow Nation upon the death of Arapooish (Rotten Belly).

In Crow society, in order to become a War Chief, one had to accomplish four things:

•Cout coup on an enemy (striking an enemy during the heat of battle, not to wound him, but as an act of humiliation for the enemy)
•Lead a successful raid, where either horses or goods were captured, or the enemy was defeated.
•Capture a horse picketed within a hostile camp.
•Take the enemy’s weapon away from him in hand-to-hand combat.

Among the Crow, the title “Chief” did not necessarily indicate a position of decision-making. In fact, their society was remarkably democratic, and leadership depended more on the ability to persuade than it did on titles. Decisions that affected the whole tribe were made by a tribal council, which was made up of many “chiefs,” elders, medicine men, and even women who were respected by the tribe. Any citizen of the tribe could attend a council meeting and state their viewpoint, then the final decision was made by consensus of the assembled group of people.

Beckwourth’s tales of his life with the Crow are largely unconfirmed, although some cases which were witnessed by other mountain men can be documentd from other sources. But in terms of getting an accurate account of what Crow society was like, his autobiography is unsurpassed.

Whether we believe all of Beckwourth’s tales or not, no mountain man could have lived as a Crow for so long without distinguishing himself in battle. For the Crow, war was a way of life, and a man who was unskilled in war was a “nobody.” It was not in Jim Beckwourth’s nature (nor any other mountain man’s) to remain a “nobody” for long. And Beckwourth’s considerable influence with the Crow was (sometimes begrudgingly) acknowledged by his contemporaries and historians alike.

It is clear that Beckwourth’s time with the Crow nation were his fondest memories. More than half of his autobiography is spent relating his experiences with them. Perhaps his wanderlust was satisfied for a time by his life with a nomadic tribe. Or maybe he discovered domestic bliss among the Crow.
Beckwourth had as many as ten Crow wives at one time — he had almost as many wives as he did names. By his own account, he was smitten by the young warrior woman, Pine Leaf.

According to Beckwourth, Pine Leaf was captured from the Gros Ventre (Big Belly) tribe when she was about ten years old and raised as a Crow. She had a twin brother who was killed by the Blackfeet, and she swore that she would take no man as her husband until she killed one hundred enemy warriors with her own hands. Beckwourth admired her greatly:

“Whenever a war party started, Pine Leaf was the first to volunteer to accompany them. Her presence among them caused much amusement to the old veterans; but if she lacked physical strength, she always rode the fleetest horses and none of the warriors could outstrip her . . . . and when I engaged in the fiercest struggles, no one was more promptly at my side than the young heroine. She seemed incapable of fear; and when she arrived at womanhood, could fire a gun without flinching and use the Indian weapons with as great dexterity as the most accomplished warrior.”

Beckwourth wooed Pine Leaf relentlessly, but she always rebuffed him, saying she would marry him “when the pine-leaves turn yellow” (they never do) or “when you find a red-headed Indian.” But his perseverance finally paid off, and when Beckwourth returned to the Crow after a misadventure in which they thought him killed, Pine Leaf renounced the War Path and agreed to marry him.

But for Beckwourth, the pursuit always held more attraction than the goal, and five weeks later he left the Crow, and his new bride. He never saw Pine Leaf again.