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Certificate of Freedom of Harriet Bolling (1851) in Petersburg, Virginia

This certificate of renewal states that Harriet Bolling was freed by James Bolling on 14 May 1842. It says that Harriet Bolling, "a free woman of color"... is now of the following discription (sic), to wit: four feet 9 1/2 inches high, about forty two years of age, of a mulatto complexion, has some spots or splotches on each oh his (sic) cheeks, a scar on his (sic) left wrist occasioned by a cut". Freeborn blacks could stay in Virginia, but emancipated blacks were generally required to leave the state. This document states that the court allowed Harriet Bolling "to remain in this Commonwealth and reside in Petersburg".

(From the Carter G Woodson Collection at the Library of Congress)


“James Pierson Beckwourth. I can’t believe my eyes. You’re home. Welcome home,


Jim’s sister, Matilda, rushed to the door and swung it open for her younger brother to step into

her arms. In her embrace, he felt at home; he felt calm. He did not have to think; he did not

have to know. Matilda allowed him to just be.

A chant of his name filled the house as family members got the news that he was back. They

clamored around the estate until they reached Jim whom they pulled out of Matilda’s arms.

They plagued him with one thousand rambling questions about the expedition. They asked him

about the bears, about the wolves, about the buffalo, about the Indians, about the fights, about

Ashley, about the food, about starvation, about the rivers, about the beavers, about the

mountains. And they asked him about the future.

“So Jim, what are you going to do now,” asked Randolph, the oldest.

Randolph resented Jim for his boldness in leaving home and making his own life. Although

Jennings had tried to woo Jim into staying at Beckwourth’s Settlement, Randolph knew that his

father admired Jim’s determination and his willingness to take chances. Randolph feared that his

younger brother had designs on his position of managing the estate. He needed to know how to

arm himself against Jim who sensed the meaning of his brother’s question. He and Randolph

were so different. He wished his brother would realize that and bury the antagonism that he tried

to hide. Jim did not want Randolph’s position; he did not want Randolph’s life. Why, he had

not been at Beckwourth’s Settlement more than an hour and already he felt closed in and

contained. Perhaps he should have gone on to Le Barras’s Hotel with the others to carouse.

“This is much too soon to discuss future plans,” Jennings interjected. “Jim hasn’t been home

long enough to look around and reacquaint himself with things. Let’s give him some time to rest

and be alone. There is a certain young lady for whom he’ll want to be refreshed before


Jennings rescued Jim from Randolph’s self-serving probing and acid tinged question. The rest of

the family also relented and cleared the way for Jim to leave for the upstairs bedroom he had

shared with Randolph.

For twelve hours he slept in his huge above ground bed so unlike his goat skin spread on the

grass. Though the bed felt strange, Jim treasured the solitude and the rest. Oddly, he woke up

anxious with a buzzing in his stomach and sweat on his palms. He had so many people to see.

And he did not know what to expect from these meetings. His father’s face, for example,

showed lines under his eyes that were not there before. Also, his hair was graying around the

temples and the nape of his neck. He moved slower than before. He walked like an older man

which astonished Jim because he never thought that his father would change. But then, the

rugged reflection staring back at Jim in the stand-up, full-length looking glass contrasted sharply

with the clean cut image of James P. Beckwourth who had left on Ashley’s expedition. His face

wore signs of experience. His eyes had seen so much tragedy and as much delight that Eliza saw

a man before her. Her Jim had grown up.

“Jim. Finally, you’ve come home to me. I’ve missed you so. I’ve prayed for this day to come

soon. I love you.”

In one breath, Eliza confessed all this without hesitation. She took Jim in quickly and expected

him to do the same. He did not. He drank her in slowly, scrutinizing her curvaceous hips and

breasts and studying her hands, her lips, her cheeks, her eyes. He took her face into his hands

and kissed her lips softly. In that kiss, they stayed loved.

“Let’s get married soon,” Eliza said. “Reverend Thompson doesn’t need advance notice. He

would marry us any time we wanted. I can wear my spring white dress with my white shawl. It

is getting cooler. Winter will be here before you know it. We’ll invite the family and close

friends. Maybe have a reception right at Beckwourth’s Settlement. It would be lovely, wouldn’t


Talk of marriage depressed Jim. He had returned from a triumphant journey in his life. He felt

exalted. Discussion of wedding plans brought him down to earth. The mundane negated his

traveler status and affixed him with the title of citizen of St. Louis. He was not ready for that.

“Eliza, you know that I love you. That’s why I came straight here after arriving at Beckwourth’s

Settlement. I wanted to see you, to touch you, to hear your voice again. You fill me with love.

But sweetheart, I am not yet worthy to have the honor of marrying you.”

“Jim, what do you mean? Of course, you’re worthy of me.”

“No Eliza, I’m not. I am a slave.”

He stoppered her torrent of enthusiasm for awhile.

“Have you spoken with your father about that,” she asked.

“No. I only arrived home yesterday, Eliza.”

“Well, what makes you think he won’t give you your freedom?”

“What makes you think he will,” Jim countered.

“I’m sorry,” Eliza said, consolingly. “I know that it hurts you. I’ve never known the pain of

being owned. It doesn’t matter to me, Jim, that you’re not a free man. I love you. And I want to

be your wife.”

“It does matter to me. I must be a free man when I marry.”

He paused. His voice wavered when he continued.

“I don’t even know who I am. I’ve got to know who I am before we begin a life together.”

“But you are free, Jim. How many men have explored the Far West? Your father allowed you

to go.”

Jim slurred the words. “My father allowed me to go.” Still standing, he continued:

“I’m twenty-four years old. I shouldn’t have to get permission from my father to leave town.”

“What difference does it make, Jim, whether you have a piece of paper that emancipates you if

you can leave anyway?”

“What difference does it make, Eliza, whether you have a piece of paper that marries us if we

love each other anyway?”

“It’s not the same.”

“Oh, isn’t it?”

“Without a marriage certificate we couldn’t start a family or home together.”

“There is nothing stopping us from fully demonstrating our love to each other,” Jim said.

Eliza slapped him on his left cheek. Her tiny hand left a reddish imprint. It stung and surprised

Jim. He apologized to her. She accepted. They hugged. Finally, they sat in the upstairs parlor.

Eliza changed the topic of conversation to Ashley’s expedition. She knew that she would gain

nothing by pressing the wedding issue. And she feared she would lose Jim. He stayed a few

hours talking and sharing dinner with Eliza and her mother. Portia looked at Jim with eyes

askance but was gracious nonetheless. Between mouthfuls of chicken and potatoes, Jim’s mind

wandered salaciously to Estelle’s delicious treats. After dinner, he rode to his former residence.

It had become Jim and Estelle’s custom to make love when they saw each other. He looked to

her for guidance concerning Eliza, never suspecting that she might be envious of his fiancee’s

place in his heart and life. There was some jealousy at work when she advised him to go out

again exploring before he commit himself to a forced marriage that he would resent. He

complimented her on her womanly wisdom before they made love again. She giggled like a

young girl. Being with Estelle was as undemanding as being with Matilda. Jim and Estelle fully

enjoyed their time together in bed. She did not ask nor seem to care about tomorrow. They took

their pleasure sweetly and stealthily.

“No one can keep us from each other because we don’t exist for anyone else,” Estelle told Jim,

as she lay on her side stroking his tight, hard stomach.

Jim mumbled in agreement before slipping into a nap with his lover. He woke up within an hour

and galloped home smiling. He had wanted to see John Hierophant but had understood that he,

his wife, Christine, and their baby, Sarah, had gone to look at some family property outside of

town. They planned to stay at the manse several days to rest.

Jim, in the meantime, lounged around the house. Friends stopped by and he regaled them with

tales of the West. He felt happy when doing this. It was the time that he spent alone when Jim

felt like a caged panther. Restless and angry, he paced the house thinking of a way to take his

freedom. During these frantic, yet meditative, intervals, he snarled at siblings who interrupted

him with questions about his adventures or comments about his snappishness.

“Something is bothering Jim,” his brothers and sisters whispered about him. “What can it be?”

When John and his family returned to St. Louis, Jim visited immediately. He experienced an

uneasiness unlike any he had felt before. He was no longer the half breed of the school but a

mountain man in a banker’s home, still an outsider. John’s father had handed the business over

to his son who showed a talent for safeguarding citizens’ savings. John held his daughter as he

and Jim talked, breaking the conversation to soothe her occasional whining with cuddles. John

did not look older but he was because his responsibilities made him so. And they had rendered

him a contented man. Jim wanted to feel this way but feared it.

“My life must seem dull to you,” John said.

“Does it to you,” Jim asked.

“No. No, not at all. But it is routine. Not many surprises in my day like finding dead men with

split skulls or having a friend who suddenly stops talking and communicating with everyone.

What happened to Baptiste?”

“Another French Canadian took him back home to his family.”

“Do you think he’ll be well taken care of? After all, he left home.”

“I don’t know,” Jim said. “I hope so. There are many reasons for leaving home.”

“I guess so. Still, it sounds as though he needs someone to shield him.”

“We all do at some time,” Jim said.

Jim kissed the baby and left. His friend was fine, he thought. But John was too involved with

his family to spend time at Le Barras’s Hotel with the trappers. Jim headed to Estelle’s. He

wanted to be with a woman who knew and wanted him before he partook in anonymous revelry

at the hotel.

The house was quiet that late evening. No one and darkness downstairs; closed doors and faint

laughter upstairs. Jim crept up to Estelle’s bedroom door. He listened to her voice and a man’s

commingled. He was hurt, then angry, then jealous. He rapped at the door with authority. The

sounds inside stopped abruptly.

“Who is it,” Estelle asked.

“It’s me,” Jim said.

“I’m busy right now. Can you come back later?”

“No. I must see you now. If you don’t answer this door, I’ll break it in.”

Twitters inside. Moments later, Estelle cracked open the door, her blond hair mussed, a dress

hastily thrown on.

“What is it,” she asked, cowering at Jim’s rage.

“Who is he,” Jim demanded, shoving open the door.

Estelle shrieked.

“Father,” Jim gasped.

“Son,” Jennings uttered in embarrassment, sitting up naked in Estelle’s bed.

Everything in the world stopped for those two at their first glance of each other. They were two

men sharing the same woman unbeknownst to them. A storm of hurt and anger and shame

swirled into the room sweet with the scent of sex. It stonewalled a windblown Jim on the other

side of the threshold. He saw his father who fed and clothed him, his father who worked hard at

protecting him, his father who disappeared before dinner to make love to his mother. This man

was his mother’s husband. His father was his lover’s lover!

Jennings was not one to lose control. He spoke:

“Jim, we’ll talk later at the house.”

His parental decree, however, did not work.

“We’ll talk, yes. But not later. I’m going to Le Barras’s and I don’t know when I’ll be back.

We’ll talk now.”

Jennings realized that he could not treat his son like a son. They were two men caught.

“All right.”

In their terse, difficult exchange, they had managed to contain their voices. Jim’s eyes spat at

Estelle when he turned to her. She was crouching in the corner opposite the door looking as

white and scared as a rabbit about to be skinned. She had tricked Jim leaving him dispossessed.

His father could have her. He certainly did not want her. She was not worth fighting over.

“Trollop,” he cursed her.

“Jim,” his father snapped.

“Well, that’s what she is, isn’t it,” Jim screamed. “Sleeping with a man and his son. Did you

know, Father? Did she tell you about us?”

No. Estelle had not. Of course, it was clear to Jennings that Jim was her lover betrayed. How

long had he been her lover, Jennings wondered. He thought of all those conversations he had

had with her about his children. What had Estelle been doing with him and Jim!

“No, Jim. She didn’t tell me. If I had known, I wouldn’t be here now,” Jennings said, pulling

the white sheet tautly up to his waist. He knew that his son was not going to leave until some

things were said. He began talking as though he and Jim were alone.

“Estelle was a friend who comforted me. I comforted her. We confided in each other. I trusted


“I’m shocked by this situation,” Jennings continued, his voice rising. “I’m angered by it. My

friendship with Estelle is over. But Jim, my bond with you will never dissolve. Please accept

my regret about this predicament we find ourselves in. I, with all due respect, bow out.”

Jim spoke slowly and softly.

“It was the same for me. I can’t believe that I’m finding you here. How long has it been going


“It doesn’t matter, Jim. It’s over.”

“Well. There’s nothing for me here either.”

Estelle piped in, straightening her body slowly as she spoke until she stood.

“Jennings. Jim. I am sorry. I kept meaning to tell you. Both of you. But the words would

come at the wrong time and when the time was right, the words never came. I cherished my

friendships with you. I didn’t want to jeopardize them. And I got caught up in you. I couldn’t

stop the deepening of the relationships. After awhile I figured why complicate things by telling

you what was going on. We were all happy. You were happy before you found out tonight.”

There was a silence as all three dwelled on their twinned pleasure.

“Jennings, we’ve been close for a long time. How can you throw stones at me when you visited

me while Winifred, your wife, played with your children at home. I admit I was wrong. Yes, I

was wrong. But you must take the burden of your guilt. You were as responsible as I.”

Jennings jumped in.

“Don’t you dare speak my wife’s name! She’s—she was too good to be mentioned by you in

this sordid context!”

“And you are too good, Jennings,” Estelle said. “That’s what you really mean. Well, Jennings, I

did not force myself on you. We came to bed two grown people wanting each other.”

“Yes damn it! I wanted you. And I was wrong. I committed adultery knowingly. I risked my

wife’s fury. But, my God, Estelle, I had no idea I was also risking my son’s respect. What in the

hell gave you the gall, the audacity to take my son as your lover? What? What, Estelle?”

Jennings trembled with anger. He stood now, his height increasing several inches, it seemed, in

his nakedness and breadth of emotion.

“And not to tell us what you were doing? I have no use for you, you rag of a woman.”

Jim, still standing outside, silently agreed that his father was right. His mother did not belong in

this room. Only he and his father need know about this. Did she know, he asked himself. How

awful if she did.

“Jim, would you close the door so I can get dressed. I’ll be with you shortly.”

Jim obeyed. The sound of Estelle crying seeped through the door but there were no words. His

father joined him soon. Shoulder to shoulder, they walked downstairs and out the front door

deserting Estelle and her crushed fantasy of a secret liaison with a powerful, accomplished man

who knew his weaknesses and another with his younger, unformed self who thought he had


Father and son mounted their horses and trotted to Le Barras’s. The saloon downstairs rollicked

with the mountaineer’s good time. The trappers drank liquor and touched barmaids freely. They

talked and laughed loudly, almost burying the sound of the piano. Jennings thought about how

much St. Louis had changed since he brought his family there. He missed Virginia and his son’s

adoration. He knew that from now on Jim would see him as only a man with sexual feelings and

human failings. They found a round table with one man seated at it. He must have sensed the

gravity around Jim and Jennings because he left politely before they sat. Jim ordered two

whiskeys from a passing barmaid. He did not see anyone that he knew well, only a few

recognizable faces. Moses and Zachary had already left St. Louis. The drinks came quickly.

They downed them with their heads thrown back and fell quiet for a long time until Jim spoke.

“I love you, Father,” he said, in the same reverential tone he had used as a boy.

The weight of possible loss was lifted from Jennings’s shoulders. Relieved, he and Jim drank

like friends. And Jim tried to tell his father about the exhilaration and danger of exploring the

prairies and canyons of the Far West. He told him how much of a man he now felt, how heroic.

Jennings told him how proud he was of him. Their conversation was good-natured and the

whiskey forthcoming. They were two men, two drunk men enjoying themselves and each other

in a liberating atmosphere. Jennings talked about Winnie. No, she did not know about Estelle,

he assured Jim. He explained that his love for his wife was undaunted by his affair with Estelle.

He mused over why he took up with Estelle at all. He really did not know. And Jim did not

know his reasons either. Perhaps another glass of whiskey would help him make sense of it. It

did not. But he told Jim that Jim would understand as he got older. At twenty-four, adultery was

not a consideration. Indeed, neither was marriage. Love was enough. Love was enough, echoed

in Jim’s mind. Jennings had loved Winnie—he still did—but there was something missing. Jim

thought about Eliza. Would he be faithful if he married her, living in St. Louis, working every

day? His father seemed to be espousing no other alternative than taking a mistress. Jim sounded

a faugh at the prospect. His father cautioned him not to be so hasty at dismissing the notion.

Because they had had the same woman who had had them, there were new areas of discussion

that were open to them.

“Estelle was my occasional, though steady, lover,” Jennings said. “We were better friends than

lovers. I came to her on days when I wanted to be with someone who took nothing and

demanded nothing. I didn’t have to try hard with Estelle. She was satisfied to see me whenever

we both had the time. And I only asked that she set aside enough time for us to keep in touch

with each other’s lives.”

“How can you be sure Mother didn’t know,” Jim asked.

“Out of respect for Winifred,” Jennings said, his voice rising with liquor and righteousness, “I

was discreet. I know how to do the right thing. I am, after all, a member of nobility. And I was,

you remember, a major in the Revolutionary War. I possess, my son, a sharpened sense of

propriety. Never, even after your mother’s death, have I spent the night away from home.

Estelle and I would meet for tea or such. I visited her under the guise of talking about my

business investment in the boardinghouse. If you never guessed the truth, why should your

mother have?”

“Father, she was your wife! Each night, her body rested next to yours. She smelled even the

changes in your breath. Isn’t that what a wife does? She looks out for you. She notices the


“But Jim, there were no changes. Estelle did not change me nor my life. It wasn’t like that.

Your mother now, she changed my life. I loved her as though she were a sickness that I could

not expel from my body, from my being. It wasn’t easy loving your mother. Sometimes, it was

very painful. She was so self-sufficient and on her own. I never felt she needed me as much as I

did her. She was a good woman with a strong sense of herself. Winifred didn’t try to change

me; I tried to change her. I married her. I gave her a home. I gave her children. I tried to make

her need me. I tried to make her mine. She demanded her freedom. And she succeeded.

Winifred was free. I never gave up trying. Now she’s dead and I am imprisoned by her memory

and haunting past. I feel her presence in the house. I feel her presence in me. She possesses me.

“Ah, ha. How ironic! I owned her when she was alive and now that she’s dead, she possesses

me. It happened before her death really, this gradual process of gaining ownership. Maybe this

is what happens when you want something too much. It begins to consume you. All I wanted

was Winnie to never leave me.”

“She loved you very much, Father,” Jim said.

“I love you, Jim. I love you very very much,” said Jennings, speaking spiritedly and truthfully in

a drunk.

“Father, can’t you see? You’re doing the same thing to me that you did to Mother. You’re

killing me with your love. Father, please release me. Let me go. I promise I’ll love you. I’ll

always love you. You are my blood. You’re my—You’re my very being,” he sputtered.

“I know, Jim. I know. But I can better protect you this way,” Jennings said, making certain not

to use the dirty words “slave” or “master”.

“Please, Father. I beg you. Let me go. I can’t take it anymore. I’m not your little boy. I’m a


“You’re a half-black man in a white country, son.”

“This is not a white country, Father. And I am not half anything. I’m a man in a country that

refuses to accept me as a whole person. And I have a father who perpetuates that skewed

rationale of having to be owned by someone to be someone if you happen not to be a white male.

I can’t stand being owned and I hate being owned by my father! You’re my master, Father, and I

despise it!”

“No. I’m your father.”


“Father,” he thundered.

And then Jennings stopped. His words had dried themselves out.

“My God,” he cried. “My God. My God. My God. What have I done?”

Jennings hid his face behind his hands.

“Oh my God…Please, Jim, forgive me forgive me forgive me. I didn’t want to lose you. I had

no right. I had no right.”

Jim placed his hands around his father’s and lowered them down from his face.

“You haven’t lost me. I forgive you. Finally, you heard me. You understand. Thank you.

Thank you, Father.”

They stayed at Le Barras’s through the night, alone for the most part. They broached every

topic—some portentous, some trivial—that came to mind. When would they experience a heady

time like this again?

They were so close. It made them smile. They rode home before dawn. After they entered the

house, they climbed the stairs together and squeezed each other’s hands before parting into their

separate bedrooms. They slept through breakfast and the midday meal.

At dinner that evening, Jennings and Winifred’s children were dressed as for a special occasion,

all except Jim. He dressed like a mountain man and he insisted on keeping his hair long and

pulled back with a black ribbon. After everyone settled down to prepare to eat the food that had

been served, Jennings said that he had an announcement to make. All heads turned toward him

as he cleared his throat.

“I have decided to give all of you your freedom,” he said, in a stentorian voice.

Neither Randolph, the oldest, nor Matilda nor Caswell nor Benjamin nor Jocelyn nor Evangeline

nor Abigail nor Peter nor Joshua nor Amy nor Edward nor the youngest, Louise, said a word.

Then Randolph spoke:

“This is Jim’s doing, isn’t it?”

Randolph threw Jim a deadly look that also accused, “How dare you make the choice of freedom

for someone else!”

“It is not my doing, Randolph. It is Father’s decision. I asked for my freedom and Father agreed

to it."

“Yes, Randolph,” Jennings said. “And I thought that everyone else would want the same. I

assumed that your papers would bring you happiness.”

“Happiness,” Randolph questioned. “It brings me uncertainty. Uncertainty for all of us. What’s

to become of us now? We’ve made our way in the world as Mr. Beckwourth’s children, his

special slaves. That is the skill we’ve all nurtured since birth. We’ve all made peace with that, I

thought, except for Jim. Now everything is upset.”

“Speak for yourself, Randolph,” Matilda said. “I’m sure we’re all shocked by this news. I think

that we need to hear more from Father.”

With that, she turned to Jennings and asked:

“Father, what does this mean?”

“It means that you can choose your own futures,” he said.

“No, it doesn’t,” Matilda said, marking the first time she outwardly disagreed with Jennings.

Her father winced.

“Please let me speak honestly,” she continued. “Our futures are not ours to choose. We cannot

brush off our color. What are you giving us, Father, when you say you are giving us our

freedom? What is this freedom?”

“It means that you’ll no longer have to follow my orders,” he answered. “It means I won’t own


“Maybe not owned by you, father. But we will be owned.”

“What are you talking about, daughter?”

The response did not come easily to Matilda. She had been spewing bits of philosophical

notions about freedom. Her reading had concluded that there was no such thing as absolute

freedom, and she believed that. There had to be lines and grooves, sometimes boxes and ceilings

for freedom. However, her father’s question attempted to draw her back into the realm of law

and practicality.

“I don’t know, Father. It seems to me that we may keep ourselves in bondage.”

Jennings said nothing. It was all so difficult and frightening for him to talk with his children

about his doing and undoing of them. If only Winnie were here. But then, he thought that this

time Winnie would not spare him. She would force him to listen and talk. Why couldn’t their

love have been simpler? He stared out at the thirteen faces that mirrored his own and his wife’s.

He loved them so.

“Your mother and I wanted you to have a good life. We agreed on the move here from Virginia

to help ensure that. But we never agreed on your status as free persons. Your mother never

stopped asking me to free you and her. She insisted that it was the only way for you to take

responsibility for yourselves. I didn’t believe that. Now I see what she meant. I never intended

to enslave you or own you. I wanted to take care of you and protect you, that’s all.

“I was wrong. I was robbing you of your dignity as persons. I’m not expecting a tremendous

change in the way we’ve been living. It was naïve, I suppose—No, it was stupid, I admit, to

think that setting you free would engender euphoria. Listen, I am not taking anything away from

you. I am giving you your human right to be legally free, to be alive and uncertain. You can do

with it as you will. I will always be here willing to help you in whatever way I can.”

Jennings’s speech dissolved the overwhelming panic. Tears slid down the faces of the older

ones. The younger children wrung their hands. Their futures were cloudy, but they were theirs.

Matilda embraced her family with words of hope. She knew that now she could pursue her

dream of writing in Paris. Her father had released her and, in so doing, he had set her on the


“Let’s move on,” she said, resolutely. “Thank you, Father.”

Matilda began to applaud a sharp, steady clap that resounded throughout the room. Slowly, the

others joined in until the family created a loud, brave ovation. Everything was going to be all

right. They began jabbering about what they thought they might do in their lives. Jennings saw

his family come to life in a way he had never seen before. The scene around the table was a

moving tableau. It seemed that their imaginations had been chained before that night. They

were freed now. The Beckwourth children were free now. And similarly, though surprisingly to

him, so was their father.


"Blackfoot Indian on Horseback" (unknown date) by artist Karl Bodmer (1809-1893)

(From the New York Public Library)




A green tortoise shaped whistle sounded its shrill noise like the young boy who made it, loudly

and unabashedly. It zinged through the air like an untiring tiny bird in early spring. It was that

time of year.

Jim watched this boy with long, spindly legs stretched in front of him, his back pressed against

an old, grand tree. They faced Bear Lake where Jim had worked as a trader among the Blackfeet

for five days. He daydreamed about his boyhood in Fredericksburg, Virginia where he had

listened to his mother’s singing and guitar playing. Jim bent over, picked a blade of grass and

blew through it in the gentle breeze. How life had changed! He was no longer young and

carefree. The light had gone out of his eyes. But his skin still glowed and stretched tautly except

over muscles where it rippled. Many mountain men Jim’s age carried themselves in bodies

ravaged by their chosen profession for years as many as ten. It was clear that Jim would age

slowly as his parents had.

He began to walk back to the Blackfoot village south of the continental divide where he had

accepted one of Chief As-as-to’s two daughters as his wife. Jim, Jake Henshaw and Francois

Mule had proposed a trading enterprise to the chief whose name means heavy shield. Gifts were

given on both sides to show good faith. Woman Whose Words Smile was one of the gifts. Jim

did not know her, love her, want her. However, he accepted her as a business gesture.

Woman Whose Words Smile was a willing, giving, generous woman. When their bodies

touched as they lay on a buffalo skin covered with animal furs, it was impossible for Jim to resist

her supple body. She readily succumbed to her father’s choice. She gave herself to her husband,

the handsome stranger who acted like a white man but looked almost like a Blackfoot. Because

he resembled one of her brothers, she often fantasized that he was one of her people and not the

outsider that he truly was. Her marriage ranked as a prestigious one because Jim was a shrewd

trader, accepted and chosen by her father, and he had a familiar face but hailed from an

intriguing, far away place from Bear Lake in Blackfoot and Flathead country.

Jim was not so comfortable with Woman Whose Words Smile. She was not chosen by his father

nor would she ever be. She was not one of his people. Her culture was strange to Jim. He did

not feel completely at home with her. He could not make peace with her otherness. She did not

speak his language. He spoke elementary words and greetings in hers. But even if she knew

English, her conversation about her past, present and future would bear no resemblance to Jim’s.

He bided his time with her until he could get back to Eliza whose background was the same as

his. Eliza had been waiting six years since his first journey at nineteen.

Jim did not become Woman Whose Words Smile’s husband. He was not attentive to her needs

or her moods. Sometimes he completely ignored her. His business demanded much of him. He

strived to make the temporary trading post a success, constantly looking for a deal, largely

because it was his first opportunity to prove himself as a merchant. Since his marriage to

Woman Whose Words Smile was a matter of circumstance, Jim exhibited little compassion

toward her. It never occurred to him that he might need to give something of himself to this

woman whose brow began to crease in furrows. The novelty of the marriage wore off for her.

Woman Whose Words Smile could feel the distance between them. She did not know who her

husband was and it saddened her. She began walking with her head cast downward in an attitude

of regret. He did not notice the change in her. Jim was much too preoccupied with himself to

see her worry.

“Mr. Beckwourth, we’re doing just fine,” Jake said, as Jim walked into the trader’s tent.

Jake was never known to say an unkind word to anyone though he had killed a fellow trader a

few months back for teasing him too hard about his nose. Jake was an ordinary looking man, tall

and gaunt, but he did have one memorable feature, and that was his nose. Like the rest of him, it

was long but it seemed to have changed its mind on the direction it wanted to take and twisted to

the right near the bottom. The dead man had been drinking—everyone had been—when he took

to jabbing Jake about his nose. Jake challenged him to a wrestling match which the teaser lost

with a broken neck.

“We’re selling more skins and buying more buffalo robes than we’d thought we would,” Jake

said. “The Blackfeet are hospitable and easy to work with. They’ve got a strong reputation as a

warlike people. Chief Heavy Shield must really like you, I mean, giving you his daughter and


“In marriage,” Jim said, quickly and defensively.

“Whatever,” Jake said.

Jim might not have loved Woman Whose Words Smile; he might have felt an uneasiness around

her because of her ways. However, he kept his qualms to himself because they surfaced from his

prejudice and uncertainty about his identity. He felt obliged to protect his wife from the bigoted

barbs of strangers. Jim and Jake worked well together but they were associates, not friends.

Jake realized that Jim’s favour arose from Jim’s Indian complexion. Jake was not about to

criticize the making of money, green in all hands, but he was curious about Jim’s racial identity.

“Are you Creole or colored or Indian? I don’t mean to be insulting but what are you,” Jake


Jim’s head swirled. He felt almost crazy. How could he explain when he did not know who he

was and he was two or three different people. Jake did not understand. He could never

understand so what was the use of trying. Jake was not dancing on the edge of worlds,

separating one from the other. He was born white; he lived white; he would die white. There

were no cultures to mediate, no inner wars to battle. He had nothing to prove and nothing to

escape. Jake only had to come to terms with Jake the man, not Jake the half white, half black

man. Yet, Jake also had taken on the universal challenge of life. He also had to learn to accept

death. But Jim could not see that. He was consumed with his own struggle imposed upon him

by society.

Jim’s ambivalent feelings about himself ate away at him. He had his papers; he was a free man

in the eyes of the law but his soul was embroiled in psychic turmoil. It was not supposed to be

this way. All the years he had spent finagling a way to convince his father to free him, he had

expected peace with his papers. Now he knew that his confusion about who he was would not

disappear with a legality. Sometimes he wanted to cry out with his pain, scream his way to the

answer of his identity. He was not just his father’s son. He cursed his mother for being born and

for giving birth to him. Why me, he asked. Why me! In those scarlet moments, he closed his

eyes and saw Eliza. For all their differences on how to live their future, they at least shared a

similar past. They could tell the same childhood stories; they could laugh at the same time; and

they could cry the same tears. Eliza was his dream woman.

What was he?

“I don’t know how to answer that simply,” Jim said. “But I can tell you how it feels. It’s like

winter and spring at the same time, the most formidable and the most inviting of seasons. And it

means having them in solitary. There aren’t too many others like me. My father married my


Jim’s answer surprised Jake. He thought that Jim would answer with a joke, a habit he had

developed in response to personal questions. But they were in a place far removed from friends

and family and the slavery question. Jim really did need to talk and someone to listen even if

they did not understand.

“Yeah,” Jake said. “I look at these half Indian, half white babies that trappers are making and I

wonder what it will be like for them. Out here, it’ll be fine. They’re accepted. But back East,

say in St. Louis, I don’t know how they’d fare. Suppose it depends on the individual. But one

thing’s for sure, they’ll carry a load of prejudice and hate people will lay on them.”

“Well, I’m not Indian,” Jim said. “That’s one thing. I was raised in a civilized country in a

civilized household.”

The civilized Mr. Beckwourth was not contemplating taking any children to Missouri. Indeed,

he was not contemplating any children. Besides, he did not want to continue the conversation.

He was through with his side of it. It was taking a turn. Jake had taken to lumping him in with

another ethnic group of color as though the fact of non-whiteness made them one and the same.

The presumption angered Jim. He drew a distinction between himself and native Americans by

looking down on them.

“So what would you do if you had a child with Woman Whose Words Smile? Leave it here?”

“Look, Jake. I married this woman for the business. That’s all. It wasn’t my idea. It was her father’s. I

had little choice. If I had refused, where would that have left us? You know all this. I wish you’d stop

plaguing me with irrelevant questions.”

Jake did. After all, he had no stake in what happened to Jim’s progeny.

"Scalp Dance of the Minitarres" (1843-1844) by Swiss-born artist Karl Bodmer

(From the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas)


Some days later, the Blackfeet planned a large feast and celebration for their returning warriors who

brought three scalps of white men with them. The battle had been wildly fought with hair and blood and

sweat flying about. The Blackfeet, however, lost no men. Everyone prepared to attend the scalp dance

that evening. Everyone but Jim. He shuddered at this news of war. Jim refused to celebrate the victory

over his people. When Woman Whose Words Smile ran to him and excitedly babbled about the dance,

he forbade her to go. A beautiful, tristful face looked at him.

“Why,” she asked, quietly.

“Because they’re my people you killed! My people!”

“All right then, my husband,” she said, as she left the tent.

But she thought to herself that marriage to Jim was becoming intolerable.

Savages, Jim muttered to himself about his wife’s people. That they should rejoice over the killing of

men like it was a birthday or a holiday disgusted him.

“These people,” Jim sneered aloud in the empty lodge. “I can’t take much more of this.”

Minutes later, Jake walked in with the other trader, Francois, who always held his lips in a pursed

fashion so that it seemed he was about to say something but he rarely did. They invited Jim to attend the

celebration with them.

“What,” Jim screamed. “Have you no self-respect? It’s white men they’ve killed! White Americans!

I’m not going to that barbaric ritual they call a scalp dance. Only ruffians would go to a spectacle like


“We’re the ruffians who have been asked and we’re the ruffians who will go,” Jake said, happily.

“Neither of us has seen this kind of dance before. We’re grateful we were asked to spectate and not

donate our scalps to the affair. If you change your mind, Jim, come and sit with us. We’ll be as close to

the front as we can get.”

“Don’t look for me,” Jim said.

“All right, my friend,” Jake said, as he and Francois walked out.

Jim, all alone in his loyalty, spread a bear skin on the ground and lay down. He began writing a letter to

his father about the Blackfeet’s primitivism. He never once mentioned Woman Whose Words Smile.

The confused man fell asleep in the middle of his written tirade. Voices broke through his slumber. He

awoke to see Jake and Francois. At first, he thought it was morning. Then he remembered.

“What are you doing back? No one else is here. The party still raging,” Jim asked, sarcastically.

“Yes, Jim,” Jake said. “It still is. You should have seen the colors they were wearing! Turquoise and

orange and scarlet all on one person! Everyone wore bells on their ankles and around their knees,

pealing with each step, and shook rattles as they danced. The drummer was a very old man with

extraordinarily long, white hair that touched the ground around him! And he was no short man! I’ve

never seen him before. At times, a much younger man, a boy really, would play. Gave the old man a

rest, I suppose. There was a free-for-all section when everyone danced. My God, Jim, that was

incredible! The longer they danced, the faster the drum beats came, the harder they danced. The men’s

backs arched over, almost parallel with the ground, their knees bent. Before the sun went down, each

man looked like several rings of color. The women held themselves straight and regal. They looked real

good. I’ve got to say, I was surprised to see your wife there. The way you were talking, I didn’t think

you’d want her to go.”

“You must have seen someone else who looked like her,” Jim said.

“No, Jim. I know what she looks like. Even if I was mistaken, that means everyone else was too ‘cause

it was her name that was on the lips of everyone praising her spectacular dancing. She was one of the


Jim was shocked. He was completely awake now. Infuriated, he got up and dashed out with a club in

his hand. He could not believe it. How dare she disobey him! How dare she sneak away. She thought

she could get away with it. But she had outsmarted herself by dancing too well. He would teach her a

lesson. When Jim reached the feasting area, his wife was easy to find. She was still dancing which

made Jim angrier. She was not even subtle about it. She was dancing on the heads of his people,

dancing on his father, dancing on him and on his children to come. He hated her!

“Stop,” he shouted, almost louder than the drum and singing of the old man.

Some of the twenty or so dancers did stop as though stung. Jim kept his stride toward Woman Whose

Words Smile who was so caught up in the rapture of the music and victory that she had not heard her

husband’s warning. She felt her hair being yanked out of its roots and her body slapping the ground.

The startled woman looked up at a nearly unrecognizable monster standing over her with a club over his

head. He let out a war whoop as he brought it down on her head as though it were a vegetable gourd

that he wanted to smash so that its seeds would spill out.

Then, wearily, he walked back to the lodge, leaving his still wife with her people. He found it difficult

to think clearly. Before he made six steps, he heard a mob rumbling behind him.

“He killed her! The trader killed the chief’s daughter! He killed her! Her death must be avenged.

Avenged! Avenged! Avenged!”

A chant went up. Jim did not run. He did nothing to protect himself. He had dropped his club beside

his wife. Jim simply kept walking back to the lodge. Just as a Blackfoot was about to pounce on him,

Chief Heavy Shield ordered his people to stop.

“I am saddened by the death of my daughter, Woman Whose Words Smile. She was my oldest

daughter. She was a strong woman. But she disobeyed her husband, Jim Beckwourth. Earlier today, I

spoke with Jim’s partners. They said that Jim had refused to attend the scalp dance because they were

white people who were killed, possibly men he knew. I understand Jim’s allegiance to his own. And I

am certain that when he saw his wife enjoying herself at the festivities that he himself boycotted, he was

enraged. Unfortunately, his anger led to the death of my daughter. Still, there is no cause for another

death. Woman Whose Words Smile was wrong not to listen to her husband.

“I promised these three white men a safe place to do business. I intend to keep my word. We will keep

our word. And what happens if we don’t? There will be no more business. All those goods that we buy

from the traders—gunpowder, for example, which we need to fight a better fight against our enemies—

would be denied us.

“So, tangle with him on a field of battle if you choose. But while he’s here, he remains safe.”

The crowd hissed. The people wanted revenge then and there. Only respect for Chief Heavy Shield

made them hesitate from tearing Jim apart. Jim was not even a Blackfoot! How could he be forgiven

for so horrendous an act! Here he was invited to marry the chief’s daughter—many men would have

fought for the honor—and he lost his temper and mangled her. No. There was no way he could escape.

His would be the fourth scalp to dance around.

“Wait,” Chief Heavy Shield ordered again. “To show you how clear my heart is of revenge, I am

offering the trader my other daughter, now my only one. Put Up the Horse is kind; she is quiet; she is

obedient. Jim Beckwourth, I offer her to you as your wife since you no longer have one. Will you


The mob grew quiet. Its mood was changing. The death of Woman Whose Words Smile was receding.

Her father had refused to fan the anger of his people. It sputtered sputtered sputtered out. The chief had

offered Jim the refuge of becoming part of the tribe again. Put Up the Horse was kind, quiet and

obedient. She agreed to marry Jim.

“Yes, I accept,” Jim said.

The trader stood dazed. He had never murdered anyone before this year. Suddenly, he seemed to be

killing habitually. He had fought against the Blackfeet in a number of battles. His gun had brought

down many warriors. He had shot from a distance; he had shot in self-defense; his coups, or hits, had

won him esteem among the traders and the Blackfeet once he fought on their side. But today, he had

murdered someone, a woman, his wife, in cold blood, up close, without warning, without need. And the

act had given him tremendous pleasure and then, peace. He began to regret the murder about the time

he heard the mob behind him. He was becoming a barbarian. His wife did not deserve death for

disobedience. He deserved the wrath of the mob. Thank God the chief had protected him from it. Of

course, he would accept his dead wife’s sister as his next wife. Under the circumstances, he had no

choice. Besides, his business would soon come to an end there. He would be moving on. He was very

fortunate, he thought, as he was welcomed again into the chief’s family.

“Jim, you’re one crazy, lucky nigger,” Jake whispered, as Jim passed him and Francois on his way back

to the village.

“Don’t you ever call me that again,” Jim whispered back.

Later that night, Jim did not feel fortunate. The two sisters bore a great resemblance to each other.

When he looked into Put Up the Horse’s eyes, he looked into her sister’s eyes and he saw her killer.

How could he stand to live with himself! A woman was dead because he had lost his temper. No, she

was dead because she was a savage whose people had joyfully killed his people. But she was a person

who deserved a chance at life. No, she was a barbarian whose life was not precious. Was he a murderer

if his victim was not fit to live?

From the time Jim was small and his family lived in Virginia, he remembered his father saying:

“Son, you are special. You are a Beckwourth.”

Jim tried to expunge his conscience of his wife’s blood. Sometimes he could; other times, no. Not only

her sister reminded him of her but so did the place. It was with great relief that Jim left the Blackfeet

after twenty days of residence and a fatal act of self-hatred.


#Blackfeet #ScalpDance