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Ten barechested men on shore pulled a sixty-foot keelboat on the Fever River. A line passed through

their hands to the bow where it was attached to a longer line running up to the top of an eighteen-foot-

high mast near the boat’s center.

The crew heaved on the cordelle in a rhythm synchronized with the bars of a work ditty sung by the

French Creoles from Louisiana and Canada on the expedition of eight boats. Sprays of fresh river water

washed away the salty sweat rolling down their faces, arms and legs in time with the rise and fall of the


“Dans mon chemin j’ai recontre

Trois cavalieres bien montees

L’on, ton, laridon danee

L’on, ton, laridon, dai

Trois cavalieres bien montees

L’une a cheval, l’autre a pied

L’on, ton, laridon danee

L’on, ton, laridon, dai.”

The song ran through Jim’s head while the work taxed the muscles in his thighs. He felt nothing his first

day on the journey but today, the upper part of his legs hurt, especially, when he stopped and moved

forward again. Yet even the trodden pain could not deter his heart from soaring. The total surrender of

his body to this exhausting travail freed him from the worries of St. Louis. He pulled with a zest deep

within. He was happy on stolen time. The country and its unexplored neighboring regions lay at his

feet. He had accepted the challenge of leaving home and seeing the world. He was proud.

While Jim was still a secret guest in his bedroom, John had visited Colonel Hiram Johnson at Le Barras’

Hotel. The colonel, an Army career officer, had come from back East on this official mission of his

government. He had never traveled west of Chicago and he looked sedentary. Johnson was a middle-

aged man who carried a distinct paunch on a lanky body. He smoked a pipe as an affectation of a

cultured city man when he was really a country gentleman with much compassion and no formal

education. John managed to convey to the colonel, without revealing the details, that Jim was in

trouble. Johnson did not care to hear the intricacies of Jim’s personal story. He needed men. He knew

that many of those who had come forward were running from something. “It is a peculiar sort who goes

out exploring,” Johnson had said. “Yes, it is,” John had agreed. John arranged for Jim to meet the

colonel and the others at the boat’s dock rather than in town.

Yesterday, Jim had crept through St. Louis while it slept before the sun came up. Jim asked John to wait

a few days before explaining his sudden disappearance to his father and Eliza. Jim had answered to

Casner for so long that he thought it unnatural that John could not also report to the blacksmith.

Casner did not need a messenger. Whatever Casner’s feelings toward Jim, he knew him well. For four

years, he worked side by side the boy, directing him in ways to hone his craft and live his life. When

Jim first came to Casner, the boy confided in the man. Casner listened. When Jim had problems with

friends or girls, Casner offered sensible advice. Practical advice. He suggested caution in every

situation. The master attained an intimate knowledge of the student and the student of the master. As

Jim gained more of a sense of himself, however, the blacksmith perceived a waning of his blind loyalty.

Jim stopped talking with him about his life. Casner sensed Jim’s discontent with blacksmithing. He

knew of his desire to travel. He observed his charge’s determined character.

Casner loved Jim. He had no children of his own and had never married. Teaching Jim offered Casner

the pride of fatherhood without complete responsibility. Jim looked up to him as the person who knew

everything and had all the answers. Casner had grown accustomed to that relationship. Change terrified

the man. He did not know how to change. His work tools were a hammer and an anvil. He forced

things into shape. It was the only way he knew.

A few days after Jim vanished from town, Casner figured he knew how to track him down. He spotted

Johnson’s advertisement in the Missouri Gazette, made some inquiries and then hired a small crew to

advance on the expedition which had left yesterday. The blacksmith and his crew had only been on the

river a few hours but the speed of the thirty-foot-long bullboat surpassed that of the larger keelboat

which at its fastest accomplished eighteen miles a day. The second vessel veritably skimmed the water.

No one sang on this boat that traveled under a cloud.

Casner pursued his obsession with single-minded vengeance. He spoke little but frequently spat out

curses under his breath. The other men on board would steal glances at him, look at each other and

shrug their shoulders. His antics stupefied them. What did he plan to do when they caught up with the

expedition? Why hadn’t he alerted the authorities to his hunch? Why, on his own, chase someone down

who might hurt him?

Casner’s crew did not know what to expect from him when they pulled their boat up behind the lead


“Careful, sir,” they warned Casner, as he received permission to board the larger vessel.

Strong arms reached out to help hoist him on board while Casner’s men steadied their boat. Casner

presented himself to Johnson as Jim Beckwourth’s former employer who had some unfinished business

with him. He asked for a word with him. Johnson assumed that money was at issue. The colonel had

no objection to a few minutes of Jim’s time.

Ice flowed through Jim’s veins when he saw Casner on the bullboat. He had underestimated his

teacher’s stubbornness. He despised Casner and the feeling that this man inspired in him of being a

small child caught and reprimanded. Casner’s actions seemed so unjust and irrational to Jim that the

young man construed them as racist. What other explanation could there be? However, Jim in his

typical manner of avoidance did not voice this assumption. Jim hated to be reminded of who he was. In

not airing his accusation, he gave it credence and power and made it real.

“Jim Beckwourth,” shouted Johnson, after talking with Casner. “Come forward.”

Jim climbed on deck thinking that the drama of the past few days had not yet ended.

“This man claims that you worked for him,” Johnson said. “Is that true?”

“Yes, sir,” Jim said.

“He says that he has business with you and would like a few minutes with you. What do you say to


“That’s fine, sir. I’ll talk with him.”

“Make it brief. We’ve got a lot of miles to cover today.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You can talk over there, starboard, with some privacy,” Johnson pointed to the other side of the boat.

The two men walked over. The crews on both boats pretended to work but all eyes and ears were on

Casner and Jim.

“How did you find me,” Jim asked.

“It wasn’t hard. I’ve been seeing the way your eyes glaze over when you talk with mountain men and

people who have been out. This was the only expedition leaving town now.”

“Why did you follow me out?”

“To bring you back home,” Casner said.

“Who appointed you the warden with the key,” Jim asked. “You’ll go to any length, won’t you, to

punish me. For what? What have I done wrong?”

“Dream,” was the answer, but neither said nor thought this.

Casner took in a long breath. The fury of the mood broke.

“You shouldn’t have run away, Jim,” he said.

“Shouldn’t have run away? Should I have stayed in St. Louis and face a charge of assault?”

“I only accused you of trying to kill me because I thought it would bring you to your senses. Make you

see that your confusion about your trade is unwarranted. I wanted you to realize that abandoning it

would snuff out any hope of a normal, stable life.”

“Trying to kill you,” Jim repeated slowly, as though he had imagined hearing the words. “What are you

saying? Did you file such a charge against me, one of attempted murder?”

“My God, man,” Jim said, quickly. “What would you have the authorities do to me! Hang me by my


“You’re young. You’re impetuous. You think now that blacksmithing bores you. But not too far away

is a time you’ll be thankful you stuck with it.”

“Mr. Casner. I don’t understand how sending a constable after me was to have brought me to my

senses. More likely, it would have brought me to a premature death.”

“Jim, no. I would never have let the charge stay. I would have dropped it.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Yes,” said Casner, reclaiming his angry posture while remembering the pain of Jim’s rejection of him.

“I’m crazy for trying to reason with you.” Enough of it. Get into the boat. We’re going to see your


“My father? What does he know about this? What have you told him?”

“He knows everything. He wants to speak with you.”

Johnson cleared his throat on the other side of the boat. He began to pace back and forth with his hands

clapped behind his back. Jim could see that Casner’s time was up. Jim had to decide whether or not to

return with Casner. How did he know that Casner was telling the truth about his father and about

dropping the charge. Jim was scared of Jennings, but he also wanted his approval.

“All right. I’ll go,” he said.

The boatswain cleared the way for them. The two walked through the parted crowd of men who had

kept a respectable distance while they talked. It was apparent to all that this was a family dispute.

“Everything all right,” one man called out. Others joined in the question.

“Yes, yes,” Jim answered. “I’ll be back pulling this barge – if you’ll have me,” Jim said to Johnson.

“Sure, Jim. Sure. We’ve got some more time on this river. Time enough for you to catch up and take

your place on the line.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jim said.

“Come on, Jim,” said Casner, as he nudged Jim forward.

They left side by side, a chasm between them. Casner had, long ago, lost Jim. Both men adopted a stoic

attitude on the interminable river journey back to town. Jim hated him. They rode together in the night

to Beckwourth’s Settlement where Casner deposited Jim at home to explain the last few days to his

father. The blacksmith wanted to humiliate his student. Casner immediately headed back to St. Louis.

The dark colors of the interior of the house at Beckwourth’s Settlement produced a heaviness that

suffocated Jim. The velvet maroon drapes at the windows blocked out any moonlight in the drawing

room where Jim waited for his father. His feet rested on a handwoven Persian rug whose flowers

appeared blood red because of the absence of light. One candle burned in the room, near Jim on a small

table. He sat on a long divan upholstered in the same fabric as the drapes. The wood beams in the high-

ceilinged room and the corner tables and desk seemed black in the house’s somber tones.

It had been two years since Winifred Beckwourth’s death. Jennings grieved silently. He withdrew into

himself, avoiding his children and visiting her grave every Sunday afternoon with a fresh bouquet of red

roses and purple violets from her garden. It was as though he was still courting her, still trying to win

her complete love. Life lost its spontaneity for him. He was waiting to die and be buried beside her.

Jennings handed over the business of running the estate to his eldest son, Randolph, and James Teasdale,

a hired manager. Teasdale had been at Beckwourth’s Settlement since its founding. He acted as

Randolph’s teacher.

Jim was the only son of the six who had asked for a higher formal education. The others were

complacent. Matilda, the second eldest of the thirteen children, begged to be sent to a finishing school.

Her brow often knitted together as she contemplated a provoking subject in her active mind. She craved

learning for its own sake unlike Jim who enjoyed it, foremost, as a way out of his precarious

predicament. But Jennings refused to send his daughter to school because she was a girl. She had had

enough school. More of a book education, he felt, would be wasted on her. And after Winifred died, he

needed her to run the house and care for the children as a surrogate mother. The levelheaded Matilda

shouldered the responsibility as a matter of course. However, after everyone retired and the house

quieted, Matilda would light a candle and happily read the books that Jim smuggled home for her on his

vacations. Matilda had become Jim’s confidante. She had inherited her mother’s empathy and


Jim thought back to when the house was light and airy. He remembered his mother and then, as quickly,

remembered the newfound exhilaration he felt when the river water splashed on his body. Oh, how he

wished he were there! His freedom had been snatched from him so suddenly! He vowed that he would

get back to the river.

Legally, there was nothing to keep Jim in St. Louis unless his father demanded that his son, his property,

not leave. Casner had rescinded his charge against Jim before pursuing him. Jennings had talked the

one-armed constable out of pressing charges against his son. He would have done the same for any of

his sons. But especially for Jim who was his favoured son. He reminded him of himself; he went after

what he wanted regardless of the consequences. Jennings admired this quality but also feared that it

would cause Jim’s downfall. After all, Jim was not a white man. What would be applauded as

aggressive for one race would be criticised as impudent for another. Perhaps his son was too much like

him for his own good. Jennings was never sure how Jim should act. Though he had married and lived

with a woman of mixed race for years, he had not lived as a black man. Neither had Jim.

Jennings felt remiss in educating his son on the question of race. He did not know how to teach his son

shrewdness in dealing with people who could not see past his color. Jennings usually avoided

discussion of racism. He was overwhelmed by it. He wished it did not exist. But then, Jennings did not

consider his children wholly a part of the race issue. Their mother, after all, had a white father. His

children were almost white. The problem laid with outsiders who did not respect that. When he

received word that Jim was wanted by the law, he agonized that it might have been the ignorance of

outsiders that led to his fugitive status. And he feared that Jim’s troubles resulted from his failure as a

father. A surge of gladness shot through Jennings’ body when a servant ran upstairs with news of Jim’s

return home. He bounded downstairs with an energy that had been untapped since his wife’s laughter

rang through the house. But when he reached the door to the drawing room, he stopped short, took a

breath and slowly opened it.

Jennings held out his hands to Jim.

“Welcome home, son,” he said.

Jim rose and took his hands.

“I’m happy to see you,” he said.

They stood like this for a minute. Then Jennings shocked his son. He took him into his arms and

rocked him back and forth with unbridled joy.

“Son, son, son,” he said. “Thank God you’re home.”

They both sat down and in Jennings’ typical roundabout fashion discoursed a few minutes about town

politics, memorable meals Jim had relished at the homes of friends, and his father’s loss of appetite. Jim

chided his father for neglecting, what he called, “one of life’s finest pleasures.”

“Next you’ll be scolding me for not paying enough attention to the opposite sex, also one of life’s finest

pleasures that I hear you’ve been enjoying. How is Eliza Shepheard these days?”

“Well, Father. She’s doing quite well.”

“And how does she feel about your recent escapade?”

“I haven’t spoken with her about it.”

“I’ve heard several different reports about what led up to your disappearance. Why don’t you tell me

what happened,” said Jennings, in a no-nonsense voice.

“First of all, Father, I would never try to kill someone unless my life was in danger. I don’t know what

came over Mr. Casner. I was a few minutes late last Wednesday. He threw out some unsavory

accusations and physically attacked me. Why, he hurled a hammer at me. I fought him in self-defense.

Fortunately, we were interrupted by a customer. I walked home to the boardinghouse. Mr. Casner had

told me to leave and never come back. Which was just as well, Father. He had no reason to do those

things. He –“

“Then what happened,” Jennings asked.

“Then Mr. Casner had the gall to follow me to Mrs. Jacobo’s place and try to get me kicked out. I didn’t

even know what I was going to do yet. It was like Mr. Casner was trying to knock everything out from

under me. And I couldn’t understand why. I worked so hard for him. He tried –“

“And then what happened,” Jennings cut in a second time.

“I challenged his attempt to get me thrown out. I told him I didn’t need his money; I had plenty of my

own and I was going to stay put. My remark enraged him, Father. He completely lost control and

lunged for me again. I thought it most unseemly to fight like that in the parlor of the house. But what

could I do? He acted like an unleashed mad dog.

“Finally, when I was able to safely do so, I stepped aside and apologized profusely to Mrs. Jacobo who

witnessed the entire nasty incident. Mr. Casner followed my example and left.”

“And then,” said Jennings, sensing that his son was about to attempt another diatribe.

“And then I went upstairs and started to pack, not knowing where I was going or what I was going to

do. I was apprehensive that Mr. Casner would come back. I don’t know, Father. I was confused. While

I was upstairs in my room, a constable came to take me away on a charge of assault. Assault. And he

wasn’t even telling the truth. It was a charge of attempted murder. Father, they would never release me

if I had turned myself in. Mr. Casner’s charge would stick because of who he is and who I am.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“I mean that Mr. Casner is a well-known, successful man who happens to be white. And I am…I am

who I am.”

“That’s right, Jim. You are who you are. A Beckwourth. Don’t try to weasel out of any deserved guilt

here because you’re not one hundred percent white. I won’t allow it. I will not tolerate any


“Yes, Father,” said Jim, who did not dare disagree with him.

“So then, what happened when the constable arrived?”

Jim paused and looked away from Jennings as if to recall the events. Then he looked him square in the

face and said:

“I thought I spotted a bulge on his left side and took it to be a weapon,” Jim lied. “I ran inside my room

and got my revolver, then kept him at bay at the bottom of the stairs. I told him not to come up or I

would shoot.”

“Jim, he was a man of law,” Jennings said. “As a man of law, he might very well carry a gun.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Well, was it?”

“Was it what,” Jim asked.

His father stared at him stone-faced.

“Yes, it was, Father,” Jim lied again. “He drew his gun. I did not shoot. We held each other off with

our weapons. He left shortly thereafter.”

“Well, son. What then?”

“I hid out at John Hierophant’s for a few days and joined Colonel Johnson’s expedition on the Fever River to Sac Indian country.”

“Is that it? Anything else?”

“No, Father.”

In an uncharacteristically small voice, Jennings asked:

“Jim, why didn’t you come home?”

Jim’s face flushed with remorse. He had hurt his father deeply. He had not expected this. He did not

know how to say he thought his father helpless in this situation. So he apologized instead.

Jennings wanted his son to stay. He wanted to protect him from the world. He urged him to apologize

to Casner. When Jim refused, He offered to set him up in his own blacksmithing business on

Beckwourth’s Settlement.

“You’ll be assured customers,” Jennings said. “Owning your own business might give you the passion

that you haven’t found in the trade itself. Please, Jim, give it a chance.”

Jennings was pleading for himself, not blacksmithing. “Give me a chance, Jim.” This is what he was

saying. He was doing what he knew well: making enslaved life so comfortable that it would be difficult

to leave.

Jim thanked his father but insisted on going. His time had come. He knew that he had to go. Jennings

recognized that there was no talking him out of it. Jim then announced that he should rejoin the Johnson

expedition. It had started out depending on him being a part of it. He had been hired as a hunter.

Jennings argued futilely that its leaders probably did not expect him to return; they usually planned on

losing some men, there would be other expeditions. But Jim would hear none of it. Jennings would not

even have time to fantasize that his son was settling home. Jim asked him to explain matters to Eliza.

He loved her; he would be back, but he had to go now. Jim did not want to dilute the freedom he had

tasted by listening to her arguments. And he did not want to risk her breaking up with him,

He could not, however, escape Matilda’s watchful eyes and relieved heart because her brother was safe.

She waltzed her six-foot-tall frame into the room and held Jim close to her breasts in much the way his

mother had held him. Jennings left them to chat. He went back upstairs to be alone with his Winifred.

Matilda rejoiced in the news that Jim was on his way to pursuing his life. She longed to do the same.

They sat down together on the divan.

“You know what I would love to do. I’d go to Paris where I would write stories of love and romance

and dreams all day. Then, in the evening, I’d dine with friends and talk about my work and their work.

They would be artists, too. Other writers, painters, actors, dancers. What an exciting milieu! There

would be parties where guests would come from artistic and aristocratic circles. Imagine how grand that

would be! And they would throw masked balls where people would spend the first hours guessing

identities until they became enraptured with the sound of romantic waltzes, the mixed scents of ladies’

perfumes and the tingly taste of ice cold champagne bubbles. Then no one would care who was who!”

Mattie’s eyes were glassy like a drunken person’s. She had transported herself to the French capital that

also reigned as the capital of Western culture. Select Parisian salons showcased the most brilliant and

creative minds of the continent in vivacious conversation.

Matilda was not trying to steal Jim’s moment. It was just that she never got to talk about her dreams

with anyone but him. Now that he was going, those talks would come to an end. His departure,

however, also excited her because it meant that there was hope for her dream. Jim understood. He let

her talk.

“I can’t wait ‘til I meet Madame Germaine de Stael! She is so talented and fiery. She is Napoleon’s

nemesis, can you imagine! Her novels, Delphine and Corinne are so beautiful and sad.

“The social climate is much freer in Paris than here. Who knows what Madame de Stael would be doing

if she lived here. In Europe, she is a real woman of the world – thinking, writing and loving freely –

except when Napoleon banishes her, of course. I know that there are political problems there. But there

are those problems here, too. Everywhere there are problems. I would be legally free there. I have no

allegiance to a country that allows me to be owned like a horse. Did you ask Father for your freedom?”

“No. It wouldn’t have worked today. I’m relieved he didn’t put up a fight about my decision to leave.”

“I suppose you’re right. Father has been even more emphatic about keeping us since Mother died. He is

so strange these days. Father is in his own world. Maybe you will have had enough of the West after

this journey and you’ll decide to come to Paris with me. Then we can both live happy and free lives.”

“As much as I’d like to be with you, I doubt I’ll spend my fascination with the West on just one

expedition. If I visit Paris, I will be a free man when I set foot on foreign soil. I won’t relent on that.”

“All right, little brother. I will be waiting.”

“The grandfather clock in the corner struck twelve o’clock midnight. It was quite late. Jim and Mattie

kissed goodnight. Jim went upstairs to his room where Randolph snored loudly. Tonight, Jim did not

mind. The sound lulled him to sleep.

The next morning at breakfast, Jim saw all his brothers and sisters assembled to wish him well. He was

the first of them to leave home. Though they already saw less and less of him after he went away to

boarding school, they felt they would miss him. Jocelyn, Evangeline, Abigail, Ellen, Amy and Louise

gave him kisses. Matilda offered a delicate filigree square locket that she had designed for her

eighteenth birthday four years ago. At the table, Jennings announced that one of the family’s hardest

riding horses, Diablo, would carry Jim to the boat. Then he passed a maroon money bag tied with gold

string from his head of the oaken table to Jim at the other end. Randolph, Caswell, Benjamin, Peter and

Raymond stood after breakfast and took turns shaking Jim’s hand and hugging him.

Later, Jim counted five hundred dollars in the money bag, enough to run a business for a year, enough to

support himself on the Grand Tour of Europe, enough to start a family. He put the bag back into his

breast pocket and turned back to the business of pulling the keelboat’s cordelle.


"Kee-o-kuk, The Watchful Fox", Chief of the tribe of Sac and Fox (1835) by George Caitlin

(From the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.)


Jim scratched his head in disbelief. Free!

This journey marked the beginning of the making of his life as James Pierson Beckwourth.

Explorer! His myth began to spin itself.

Jim stretched his legs out on his hard-bottomed berth and clasped his hands behind his head. The boat

rolled forward at its barely perceptible pace. A ray of rose and orange sunlight streamed through a chink

above Jim’s head. The work had exhausted him on the lead mining expedition’s nineteenth day. It was

the last day before reaching its destination. However, he had become accustomed to the feeling. The

achiness in his legs disappeared a few days after he returned to the boat. He developed new muscles and


The chunky beef, carrot and potato dinner stew drained him of the tiny reserve of energy he had when he

left the line. His eyelids grew heavier than his desire to think. But his mind disagreed. He dreamed of

Eliza. Her eyes shined with lust for their home. She looked past Jim into their future. She smiled


Eliza had never known loss, heartache, misery. Nor did she expect to. She thought that she would not

know despair because her wishes were calculatingly attainable. She played at life carefully expecting to

get what she wanted from it. She imagined herself and Jim posed, the top of their heads touching, in a

perfectly round, smooth bubble. Perfect. Absolutely perfect. Jim experienced the buoyancy in his

sleep. A soft sky blue color enshrouded him.

The nights flooded blue during the twenty-day journey to Galena, which was named for the primary ore

of lead, or lead sulfide. Ancient peoples, such as the native Americans, Egyptians, Romans and

Phoenicians had mined lead. Now, the Americans also mined it for use in ammunition, paint and pipes,

leaded glass, pewter and ceramic glazes.

Early the next morning before the keelboat’s arrival and the sun came up, Chief Lots of Stars combed

his lustrous, blue-black, waistlength hair. He oiled it with castoreum and scented it with sweet herbs.

He primped in preparation for the visit of the men from St. Louis. They came on a peaceful mission.

His runners had notified him of it days ago. He checked himself in a hand-held enamelled mirror

decorated with blue roses and pink camellias. The head chief of the Sacs adorned himself in the fifteen-

foot high, dome-shaped tepee lodge where he lived with one of his wives. His children dressed for their

guests in the lodge of his other wife who was their mother. His two wives and many other women

busily smoked succulent deer and boiled buffalo meat for the welcoming feast. They also boiled and

roasted several varieties of squash, beans and corn. Blue corn, rabbit-soft corn and corn-white and bean-

red, bean-navel-black and bean-white and pumpkin-black, soft-buttock squash and squash-white.

The aroma wafted on gentle May breezes into Chief Lots of Stars' nostrils. He smiled to himself. A

jutting chin and prominent cheekbones graced his face, which was the color of the earth. His eyes, the

color and hardness of obsidian, sparkled with the vitality that exuded from his whole person. His body,

long and muscular, looked years younger than its thirty-eight. A necklace of elongated horizontal cow-

bone beads tapped softly against his hairless, developed chest. He moved like the aristocracy he had

earned and been born into, not in a hurry but purposefully. He set aside the ceremonial tanned skin robe

whose hem depicted pictures of multicolored birds, fruit and flowers. These were the incarnations of

nature which Chief Lots of Stars resembled. He embodied brightness and good fortune.

Chief Lots of Stars felt things that were about to happen. He knew what others were thinking before

they spoke. At night before he retired with one of his two wives, he took time alone in the lodge. No

one was permitted to enter. His people believe that he offered gifts to the gods then. He did pray. He

meditated. He thought. Chief Lots of Stars, who was also called Black Thunder, was a gifted man, a

good man. He wanted a good life for the Sacs. His people planted and harvested. They ate and used

what they hunted and killed. They held ceremonies at the appropriate times.

The Sacs kept the universal order. They broke no sacred codes. Chief Lots of Stars ruled by consensus.

He imposed no orders. His people were like-minded and independent-minded. They wanted what he

wanted. He was a powerful man who gained his stature by keeping his people happy.

An impressive entourage of more than one hundred Sac men, on horseback, accompanied Chief Lots of

Stars to the edge of the Fever River. There they met Chief Bank of the neighboring Fox tribe and his

party of the same size. They assembled in rows of ten to twenty across. The two chiefs waited, side by

side, for Johnson’s tiny flotilla.

Comforted by Eliza’s illusion, Jim awoke from another night to the sound of Jean Louis on night watch

shouting the sighting of the end of the river journey. Jim and the others jumped up, pulled on their

trousers and washed best as they could with a dwindling ration of water. Their clothes looked rumpled;

their hair had grown over their ears; and their hands had lost their softness. They let out sporadic

whoops of joy as they prepared for their last day on the river.

Jim did not know what to expect once they went ashore. His adult encounters with native Americans

had been restricted to observation on the streets of St. Louis.

His childhood contacts, however, were many. When the family first moved to Beckwourth’s Settlement,

the region’s inhabitants regularly attacked the new settlers. Volunteers kept constant watch over the

land. They staked out at a blockhouse in the center of four neighboring houses. Nearly every day, the

settlers took refuge there. Many times, they sought protection needlessly. No one was willing to take a

chance on trust. Fear permeated the air. In the blockhouse, even more so. Mothers shushed their

babies. Fathers wielded weapons. Everyone alerted their senses to danger.

Once, a sparrow flew into the side of the house triggering the shots of many guns through the oblong

wall openings on the second floor. Silence followed the round of fire. A contingent of men left and

skulked about the house. Soon they returned. Hank Latham, the leader of the party, cradled the baby

bird in his palms, its right wing crushed from the impact. They fashioned a wooden splint for it. No one

attacked that day. The settlers returned to their homes, tired and worn. The sparrow took flight a week

later. The newcomers continued to live under siege.

One nightmarish incident, however, Jim could not forget. As a boy of nine, he had discovered the

butchered bodies of eight of his friends and their parents strewn about their house. The Atkins children,

aged one to fourteen, lay in contorted positions of pain in the front yard, their throats slit and their scalps

ripped off. Parents Richard and Virginia lay in the doorway in similar condition. Mrs. Atkins’s open

eyes stared at terror. The blood oozed from the family’s fresh wounds into pools of warm liquid. A doll

that belonged to four-year-old Aggie floated in the puddle beside her little mistress.

Little Jim fell into a daze. He galloped home a mile away. He did not know what happened to the sack

of corn that he had carried halfway to the mill. He ran into his house babbling the gory news to his

father. Jennings sounded the alarm in the settlement. He took up arms and recruited ten of his own

men. Stoked by revenge, the band of fifty stormed out. Two days later, the avengers returned with

eighteen Fox scalps. Nearly two for one.

“Why are you dawdling,” asked Pierre Charbonneau, who slept on the bunk under Jim.

Young Beckwourth shook himself out of the past. He threw water on his face. He joined the others on

deck for a breakfast of porridge. They ate as they worked. Frank, the boatswain, estimated an hour

before their arrival.

The depth of the quirky Fever River had changed overnight. It was too deep for the cordelle. They

pulled out ten oars from the cargo box on deck next to the cramped stateroom where Colonel Johnson,

his son, Darwin Johnson, and mining company officials Marcel February, David Simon and George

Kenneth stayed.

Five crew members positioned themselves on either side of the boat. Jim rowed starboard through the

deep. No time seemed to have passed before he spotted a colourful blur ahead. It came into focus as the

boat approached it. The Sac and Fox parties, in their paints and feathers and bones and skins, aroused

Jim’s suspicion and his curiosity.

Everyone carried a rifle. The Sacs, the Foxes and the miners.

Mining officials Kenneth, February and Simon jumped off the boat when it touched land while Colonel

Johnson’s men secured it. They spoke to chiefs Lots of Stars and Bank as men who had come in peace.

They wanted to ensure continued peaceful relations. They had journeyed to request permission to

exploit the lead mines in the area. The two men listened. They offered no thoughts on the matter. They

invited the St. Louis men to the Sac village for an official welcome and feast.

A motley parade of visitors and hosts proceeded on the march. They hiked and rode through practically

indiscernible forest paths and trampled through tangled ravines. When they passed through an open

spot, the leaves of oak and maple and other deciduous trees shook from an occasional breeze and

shimmered a light green. A respectful quiet overtook the group.

While walking through a wooded cavern of darkened images, a rustle startled Jim on his left. An

antelope hid in the bushes waiting for the human cavalcade to go by. Jim cocked his rifle. He prepared

to lift it to eye level when Pierre clamped his hand on Jim’s.

“It is not necessary,” he whispered.

That was all he said. Jim did not argue though he had been hired as a hunter.

Pierre, a solidly built man in his late twenties, hailed from the clingy, moist air of the backwoods of

Louisiana. For a dozen years, he had hunted, trapped and mined in the wilderness. For about as long,

he had been married to a prairie woman twenty years his senior. But on his last journey to the top of the

Illinois, he was told by her people that Sweet Water had vanished.

Some said that enemies of the Illinois people had kidnapped her. Another story was that a grizzly bear

had eaten her. Another claimed that she had lost her way back to the village and starved to death. Pierre

did not know what to believe. Once a lighthearted man, his brown eyes now contained sadness. Some

nights, Jim had heard him cry. He did not know why.


"Two little braves: Sac and Fox" (1898) by Frank A. Rinehart

(From the New York Public Library)


When Jim stepped out of the forest into the Sac village, it was like falling into another world. Seventy

huge lodges dominated the scene. The village buzzed with activity. People moved definitively.

Jim was uneasy. He did not know what they were doing. He did not know these people. He was an

unaware outsider. Young Jim felt his first twinge of homesickness. But it disappeared as he feasted on

the food and then, the newness of the smells, sights and sounds. The welcome lasted into the night.

Negotiations began the next day. Colonel Clayton Morgan, the United States commander of troops

stationed in that region, represented the young government along with Colonel Johnson. Native

American officials Black Thunder, or Chief Lots of Stars, Yellow, Bank and Keokuk removed

themselves completely from daily routine to represent their peoples. The three company officials

attended as spectators. Two translators, one from each side, kept participants clear on whom was saying

what. The white Americans hammered away; the native Americans said little. They trusted the British


The War of 1812 had raged for three years between the British and the young Americans. Both sides

smeared the other among the many western tribes. The Sacs had received many guns, gifts and lessons

from the British. The Johnson talks were the first formal ones between the Sacs and the revolutionaries

since the war’s end five years ago.

All emerged for recesses with frozen faces and unfocused eyes. The Sacs and the Foxes feared that

granting the white Americans permission to mine on their grounds would breed too much fraternization

among their peoples. They thought the new Americans brash, too direct and disrespectful and that

interaction should be limited to business. The newcomers thought the native Americans mysterious,

stoic and superstitious and that they would have to change to accommodate the times. But these

thoughts were not the issues on the floor. They were not voiced but were reflected in the length of time

over which negotiations lasted – nine days. Nine days of wrangling, smoking and pondering.

Finally, they signed a treaty in the spirit of necessity. The visitors bestowed presents on the Sacs and

Foxes as a show of good faith. They gave them what the natives had grown to want – the lethal mix of

whiskey, guns and gunpowder. Knives of different sizes, blankets of various textures, black coffee and

strong tobacco – the contents of a small general store – were presented one by one in a makeshift


The liquor did not keep long. The negotiators immediately shared it with their people. Most everyone

had a taste before it finished. Most got drunk, sloppy, fall-down drunk at the full-blown celebration.

Chief Lots of Stars did not drink. Once, when a previous treaty was signed with the white Americans,

he had tasted whiskey. The caramel colored liquid slid down his throat. It warmed him. He felt

exulted. Then his stomach retched. His head spun around. It only got worse when he shut his eyes.

Finally, he was able to go back to sleep. He stared into the beady, black eyes of a huge buffalo in his

dream. The shaggy animal ran toward its herd numbering in the hundreds. The herd raced toward the

sound of rifles. The buffaloes could not see or smell the men with the guns. They did not sense the

danger. Chief Lots of Stars did.

He woke up sober. He was not tempted to indulge again. But his people did drink. And some craved


Jim and Pierre drank together. They and the other men had stood sentry at their nearby camp throughout

the treaty talks. Their superiors permitted them to drink at the feast but warned them to be cautious.

The travelers welcomed the taste of whiskey and forgot to stay on guard. They had been twenty days on

the river and nine on their feet. They were exhausted. One drink was all they needed to forget



"Dance to the berdache" by Geoge Caitlin (1796-1872) depicts a ceremonial dance to celebrate the two-spirit person among the Sac and Fox Indians. Two-spirit is a modern term used by some native Americans to describe gender-variant individuals.


The cooks served them with more savory food than they had eaten on their arrival. They ate. They

drank. They took in the mime and dance performances. In a circle outside the lodges, the musicians

played different drums and wind instruments. The dancers often began inside a lodge, wearing the skins

of wolves and coyotes and buffaloes. After the opening bars, they would dance outside under the sky

rafters. The repetitive beat of the rhythm on the drums heightened Jim and Pierre’s enjoyment. It

hypnotized them into a lovely trance and seemed to portend an extraordinary occurrence. The dancers

became the animals whose skin covered them. The wolves slinked like wolves. The coyotes ran like

coyotes. The buffaloes grazed like buffaloes.

Much later, the plaintive wail of a young woman pierced the night. Her voice intertwined with that of a

shrill, straight-out flute. She sounded like Jim’s mother. He did not understand the words but felt the

meaning. An inexplicable sadness engulfed Jim. Pierre told him the story behind it:

“It is a song of the wolves. According to the storyteller, it is a song that, long ago, was overheard from a

wolverine outside its den by an older woman whose only baby had just died. She took it as an omen that

she would have another child. The woman later did become pregnant and sang the song to her unborn

child and then to the baby girl after she was born, who sang it to her children, and so on.”

Pierre and Jim withdrew. They stopped eating. The woman’s song affected half the village in this

profound way. The other half responded as to silence. They carried on carousing. Their noise sounded

a world away to the entranced ones who did not want her to stop. She paused and started again,

changing the mood and the tempo, several times. She ended on a quickened note of hope.

Jim found himself the next morning in their miners’ camp. He did not know how he had gotten there.

Many found themselves in the same situation. Jim stared at a hard-backed black insect crawling on his

bedroll. The smallness of the strange creature made the largeness of his new adventure even grander.

He had never seen the bug before. He did not know its name. He had much to learn.

So began Jim’s fifteen months of living in Sac country.

The men spent weeks building the lead mining infrastructure. Jim despised the actual mining. He hated

going down into the earth with twenty other men, one after the other, all instructed not to speak like

soldiers. They might as well have been. Only the uniforms were missing. Grateful that he was hired as

a hunter, Jim mined fewer and fewer times as the days went by. And then, something happened that

ended his flirtation with a distasteful pastime.

Jim and the others were ascending through the narrow, winding tunnel of darkness. Jim crouched

because the tunnel’s ceiling was two inches shorter than he was. Suddenly, he began to get scared.

“I’m blinded,” he thought. “I cannot see Pierre in front of me. I can’t see my own hand in front of my


Nothing about this was new or different. But somehow, it dramatically affected Jim this time. And then,

he had reason for fear.

“We’ve stopped,” Jim thought. “I smashed into Pierre in front of me. I’m gathering myself up, dusting

myself off. Still, we are not moving. Why are we standing still?

“I can’t breathe. I’m sweating all over. Will we ever get out? Will we ever see daylight again?”

Jim thought that it was crazy to crouch motionless like a statue and wonder whether these were his last

moments. To hell with saving air! He hollered out:

“What’s going on here?”

“Shut up,” barked someone up front. “An accident. Almost out.”

No one else said anything. And so Jim waited. One second. Two. Three seconds. Four.

“They could at least do something,” Jim said to himself. “This is tormenting, not knowing anything.”

Five seconds. Six. Seven seconds. Eight.

Jim resisted a strong urge to ram into Pierre and the ten or so men in front of him so that he could barrel

his way out. Then the line creeped forward again. It seemed like an eternity before Jim surfaced. He

started dancing a whirligig under the open sky on the flat earth until he heard what had held up the line.

Death. Death had detained them.

A boulder had rolled onto the path of the miners. A few of them pushed it out of the way. One man’s

heart stopped beating as he pushed. Jim swore to himself that he would never mine again and risk a

forgettable death.

The mining brought out the melancholy in the men. Every day, they submitted themselves to the Fates

underground; every few weeks, they dug some other man’s grave. Jim despaired at times.

Hunting was not a fatal activity, at least not on a regular measure. A hunter might be surprised by an

American panther who pounced on him and tore out his throat, but that was not the ordinary state of

affairs. Jim reasoned that feeding the camp was a far more noble act than chipping away at the bowels

of the earth. It also brought back fond memories.

He had had some of the more cherished times of his childhood hunting with his father in Missouri.

Jennings and Jim, father and son, spent a few days regularly, hunting for game and discovering

closeness. During the day, they watched out for each other, avoiding the perils of the wild, and bagging

game. At night, Jennings described roaming the countryside of his native England as a boy.

“It was an emerald green carpet,” he said, “Skirted by treacherous cliffs overlooking jagged rocks. The

sea would range in color from blue to gray to murky green depending on whether the water was calm or

stormy. On most days, a cool mist would seep into the air. It would cling to the inside of my nostrils.”

The poetry flowed out of the man when he remembered his youthful home. Jim would become

infatuated with his father’s ruminations on the ocean. His father described the Atlantic like it was a

person with fast changing, unpredictable moods. Jim would keep silent hoping that his usually taciturn

father would talk more. The older man’s personal musings flattered his son. But Jennings limited his

conversation to the land where he was born a baron. The man had created a mystery about his youth and

family by not talking about them. He had started a new life for himself when he sailed alone from

Southampton to New York.

“Son, we have fun, don’t we,” Jennings would ask Jim over and over again on their hunting expeditions.

“Yes, Father,” Jim would always answer.

Jim and his father had hunted together for sport, not necessity. The family’s hired hands assured the

Beckwourth household a generously laid out table every day. It was different in Sac country. Here, Jim

and three other hunters shouldered the main responsibility of feeding the entire crew which varied in

size from forty to fifty depending on deaths, resignations and new hires. Jim had to shake off the air of

aplomb employed by his privileged class. He displayed his powers of concentration and discernment

that are crucial to the hunter. His new sense of purpose sharpened his already good aim. He stalked

wild turkeys, deer and bears so well that he shot the prey dead before it knew it was prey. The animal

had no chance of escape but neither did it have time to panic the way Jim had when he believed himself

trapped in the mine forever.

In the mining camp, there were no women. Jim lived in a world of rough woodsmen who followed the

call of survival and dropped all else at the border of settled places where women and propriety reigned

in homes. Many of these men did not have the upbringing that taught complex manners so they were

not leaving behind many courtesies. They spat on the ground in the midst of a sentence; they lunged for

food out of the pot, and they talked bawdily about their lust for women. Jim defended himself more

than once among them.

“Your mother must have been a looker,” growled one man named Donaldson one evening in front of a

campfire with five others.

“Yeah, Jim. She must have been,” shouted a crony.

“Shut up about my mother,” Jim yelled.

“What if we don’t, Jim? What if we keep on ticking off her virtues. Like, for example, her two big

eyes,” said Donaldson, sticking out his chest and laying his two hands on his breasts.

Jim breathed fire. Donaldson kept on.

“I always wondered what those hot blooded, African women feel like, if you know what I mean,” he

said, while gyrating his hips.

The other men laughed. They rolled on the ground. Jim popped up and threw himself on Donaldson,

swinging his fists as forcefully as he could. He got in a few good ones before the others pulled him off.

Then he took a few punches of his own before Johnson himself broke it up. Fights were common

among the men in the camp. Were they bored? Tormented? Or simply addicted? By and by, it

becomes all three. It becomes the life.

Much to Jim’s disappointment, he did not have many chances to meet with the Sac women. They

intrigued him with their graceful way of walking. Pierre sneaked out at night, everyone assumed, to

meet with a woman. He would not return until just before dawn. He yawned constantly during the day.

However, he also whistled and joked and laughed again.

Jim managed to befriend a few young Sac men. They sometimes hunted together. Jim learned the

choice spots for game from those who had been taught them by their uncles, fathers and grandfathers.

Blue Corn Harvest, the first son of Chief Lots of Stars, spent much of his free time hunting with Jim.

They were the same age and resembled each other in looks and manner. They were quickly drawn to

each other. They did not, however, talk much. They knew only rudimentary words in their friend’s

native language. Pierre, who struggled with English, translated when he shared their company.

After four months of residing in the camp, Jim felt confident that he knew enough to survive well in the

warmer seasons. However, it was September. The leaves started to turn colors. Some floated

prematurely to the ground. The air smelled crisp some days. Jim protected his arms and legs with

leather clothing. Now that autumn had shown signs of soon arriving, the young hunter experienced a

longing for home and the past.

It struck him that he was not on a summer holiday. He worked here and would remain through the

autumn, winter, another spring and summer and winter and part of the following year. The months

seemed to stretch out before him like an interminable road. He found it hard to sleep at night and eat

during the day. He moped about the camp and hunted poorly. He had no close friends at the camp.

Where was Mattie to console him? Where was John to talk with? Where was his father to be strong for

him? And Eliza, where were dreamy brown eyes to gaze into and get lost in?

Jim missed the privacy of his room at Estelle’s boardinghouse. He missed making love with Estelle.

Somehow, with the passage of time, it seemed that they had been lovers for a long time. He missed

Casner and his crotchetiness. They had been together a long time. Jim wondered how his brothers and