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
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.
“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.
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
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.