May 20, 2016
@ CYNTHIA ADINA KIRKWOOD
James Pierson Beckwourth, circa 1860, in Denver, Kansas Territory
Jim dusted off years of serenity from his creased trousers as he walked into Miss Elizabeth
Ledbetter’s mother’s house in Denver.
He had grown restless with his perfect life in Beckwourth Valley and left it, seduced by travel
again. First, he visited St. Louis in 1859. If the dead could have accepted invitations, he would
have had a rollicking welcome home dinner. Most everyone had passed on.
Randolph and Louise had burned to their deaths in the small house and the big bed they shared.
Neither had married. No one seemed to know that Randolph ever had a fiancée. People said the
two Beckwourths kept to themselves. Jim refused to dwell on the insinuations strangers made,
but not before he asked himself whether the story of Christine, his brother’s secret love who was
enslaved, was true. He left the question unanswered and paid his respects to the graves of his
oldest brother and his youngest sister. He also visited his brother Peter’s grave and then spent
time at his mother’s burial place with his head bowed.
Jim’s boyhood friend, John Hierophant, had died quietly in his sleep. And Estelle had died, also
of natural causes.
Jim was especially grieved by the death of Estelle. He had loved her; she was a link to his
childhood and past. She had taken him to her bosom like a mother who is always there.
Jim fled St. Louis’s graveyards. He chose Denver as his next destination because many of his
guests at the inn had described it as a growing town with promise. When Jim first arrived, he
met William Byers, editor of the Daily Rocky Mountain News, who became an admirer and
friend of his. A newspaper editorial on December 1, 1859 read: “We had formed the opinion, as
has, we presume, almost everyone, that Captain Beckwourth was a rough, illiterate backwoods
man, but were most agreeably surprised to find him a polished gentleman, possessing a fund of
general information which few can boast. He is now sixty-two years of age, but looks
scarce fifty, hale, hearty and straight as an arrow.”
It was at Byer’s house at a soiree that Jim first saw Elizabeth. She sat on an overstuffed chair
near the heat of the parlor’s fireplace on the coldest winter day Jim had known in years. This
statuesque woman, the color of powdered cinnamon mixed with cloves, wore purple and red with
verve like the women of New Mexico. Her dress, wrap and their color shielded her from the
cold. Elizabeth had leaned forward slightly, rubbing her hands together, when she caught Jim
staring at her from across the room where he stood with four other men. She had a long-shaped
face, light brown eyes and curly, dark eyelashes. There was something of the innocent, though
intellectually mature, in her look. Jim smiled at her; she returned his smile.
Later, they were introduced. Elizabeth’s mother owned a string of laundries in the city, making
her a successful businesswoman and a prominent member of the black community. Since their
introduction four months ago, Jim had been courting Elizabeth.
Today, as he walked into her house, he took a long, deep breath. He meant to ask her in a few
minutes to marry him. Jim wanted to change again through a woman. Visiting dead relatives
and friends in St. Louis had jolted him. He wanted to share his life with someone so that he
could stave off thoughts of mortality. But he feared that Elizabeth, who was thirty-six, might
think he was too old at sixty-two. He hoped to persuade her of his appreciation of a good
woman. He could make her happy, he thought. He could buy her things.
Jim followed Elizabeth to the parlor where they sat and talked, first about how they had been and
how much snow had fallen since last week. Jim grew impatient.
“Elizabeth,” he said. “I’ve admired your dignified comportment, your social nature and your
sense of humor as well as your beauty.
“I’ve come here today, Elizabeth, to ask for your hand in marriage.”
She did not seem surprised. Almost immediately, she began:
“I can’t marry you, Jim, because…well, I hate to say it,” she hesitated again.
Finally, she blurted out—“I would feel uncomfortable having white relatives.”
Jim’s face fell. He looked at the ground in shock. His spirit flew out of him, leaving the shell of
a man behind. Words of anger, words of pain deserted him. His white heritage had repulsed a
prospective wife. He had not anticipated bigotry from Elizabeth.
This Denver woman despised whites. Jim’s mixed parentage had troubled her from the
beginning. But she had kept shirking the issue. Jim’s charm had disarmed her. Now that he had
proposed, her uneasiness could not stay hidden.
“I feel compelled to marry black,” she said, in a strong voice. “I feel it is my duty to perpetuate
Jim had thought that prejudice could not touch him this deeply anymore. When he was out in the
wild, at a trading post or his inn, strangers sometimes raised eyebrows on first seeing him. But
he was in a position to help them, and so their eyebrows soon dropped. Jim was an
accomplished man who deemed it obscene that race should intrude into his personal relations, his
life, his dinner table, his bed.
“You mean to tell me that you have no white…relatives,” Jim said, articulating the last word as
its own sentence. He was spitting angry.
“The whites in my family are not about to come to a Sunday dinner,” Elizabeth said, curtly.
“Don’t you see how evil your thinking is,” Jim shouted.
“I see how evil slavery is. Thank God I’ve been freed. You’ve never known that feeling of
being owned, have you, Mr. Beckwourth? Well, I have, and I curse the yoke around my neck
and the hands that put it there.”
“I’ve been a slave, too,” Jim said, softly, “Owned by my father until I was a grown man.”
“Your father! But I thought your mother married your father and you all lived in the same
“We did. All, my father’s slaves.”
Jim’s voice was barely perceptible. His words began to bring back the ugly feelings he had had
for his father when he was a boy.
“Oh, Jim. I am so sorry. I didn’t know.”
She stood up and went over to him, sliding her arms around his shoulders while slightly stooped
over. And then, she kissed him, lightly, gently, on the lips.
What does this kiss mean, Jim thought. I am no different than the man she rejected moments
“I’m sorry for what I said, Jim. Of course, I’ll marry you.”
“You find out that I was a slave and I become acceptable to you,” Jim asked.
“It’s not that,” Elizabeth said.
“Then what is it?”
Elizabeth paused, her mind revealing its activity by the strained expression on her face.
“It’s that you and I share a common history.”
“A past indignity,” Jim said.
“The same pain,” he argued.
“A shared passion,” she said.
“Freedom,” Elizabeth said.
And at this, Jim was quiet because he remembered when he once thought that he could achieve
that. Now, he was old enough to know that he did not know the meaning of freedom although he
was more and more certain that no one is free. Being a player in life’s game makes everyone
prisoners of its rules. Jim knew his human limitations. Death, for one. Elizabeth did not realize
“Here’s to freedom,” Jim said, and rose to kiss his bride-to-be.
It was on this vague, seemingly noble, vow that they hinged their engagement.
Elizabeth’s short, round, affable mother delighted in her daughter’s news. She did not concern
herself with Jim’s father. She simply wanted a good man for her daughter, someone who would
take care of her and she of him.
Jim and Elizabeth married on the twenty-first of June. After their wedding, he called her “Lady
Beckwourth” and she called him “Captain”. They managed the A.P. Vasquez farm on the Platte
River two and one-half miles north of Denver. They lived a highly stylized life, avoiding
controversy. In keeping with Jennings’ old habit of not talking about race, Jim did the same.
The farm was a success, their house was large and comfortable but their hearts kept cooling
toward each other. It was so gradual that neither of them noticed. Then Elizabeth got pregnant.
The coolness abated as her stomach grew fuller with life. Jim would caress it with his hands and
then kiss her.
In September of 1862, Elizabeth gave birth to a healthy baby girl whom they named Julia. She
brought light into their lives. They realized that something had been missing before and they
took it to be their daughter. The Denver City community celebrated Jim’s tiny family.
Then one night in May of 1864, tragedy struck. Julia grew quiet in her bed. Her pink
complexion turned purple. The next morning, Elizabeth could not rouse her little girl from sleep.
The doctor could not say what happened. Jim blamed Elizabeth for neglecting Julia although
that was not true. Their marriage brought no good, Elizabeth thought. Their lives were worse
than dark without their child. They were bitter. Jim and Elizabeth mixed their grief with anger.
It seemed as though a permanent frost had descended upon them. They barely acknowledged
each other’s presence.
Two weeks after Julia’s death on a Saturday night, Jim was resting in the bedroom, suffering
from a rheumatic attack, when he heard a commotion in the front room. He got up and walked to
the parlor where he found Elizabeth with two men, N.A. Fairchilds and John McGuire, and Bill
and Maria Payne. Payne was pulling on his wife’s left hand.
“What’s going on here,” Jim demanded.
“Mr. Payne came to get Mrs. Payne’s wedding ring back,” Elizabeth said. “She won’t give it up.
She says it belongs to her rightfully.”
“Stop it this instant,” Jim said. “I won’t have this type of low-life behavior in my home. Get
“Who do you think you are, Beckwourth,” said Payne, as he released his wife and moved toward
Payne threw a wild punch at Jim which the sick man dodged. The others in the room backed up
to the walls. Payne, a notorious character, had come to Denver City as a slave but had gotten his
freedom and worked as a blacksmith. He was a large, muscular man whom everyone believed
had killed another black man in cold blood years ago. So, when Payne lunged for Jim, he scared
everyone in the room but Jim. Both men reached for a double-barreled gun standing in a corner.
At this point, Fairchilds and McGuire, both tall and wiry, wrested the gun away and, with their
combined strength, threw Payne out. But the blacksmith, infuriated, broke into the house and
Jim, as angry, reached for the gun. As Payne ran toward him, Jim fired two shots which hit the
madman in the neck and the shoulder.
“Bill,” Maria screamed.
“Oh, my God,” Elizabeth uttered, quietly.
Payne fell, face down, near the fireplace. Fairchilds and McGuire went over to him to check
whether he was breathing.
“He’s gone,” the dark-haired Fairchilds said, on his knees.
Maria made no attempt to go to her husband. She stood against the wall frozen, her eyes fixed
on his body. Elizabeth also remained still, gawking. Neither woman felt love for their husband;
neither woman ran to them.
“Are you all right, Jim,” the red-haired McGuire asked.
Jim had collapsed in a chair. He was breathing hard, his eyes squeezed shut.
“I suppose so,” Jim said, opening his eyes. “We’d better get the authorities.”
“Right,” McGuire said.
McGuire and Fairchilds rushed out and returned with a man of the law within the hour. The
parlor scene was the same as the one they had left. The sheriff took testimony from everyone
and removed the body for an autopsy. Not a tear was shed by anyone in the room—or the town,
for that matter. Citizens thought that Denver City was well rid of a dangerous troublemaker.
They applauded Jim. However, the sheriff still charged Jim with manslaughter as more of a
formality than anything else. Jim waited for his trial, set for August, in his home as his attorney,
James M. Cavanough, prepared his case of self-defense.
As the trial approached, Jim and Elizabeth parted four years after exchanging vows. Elizabeth
returned to her mother’s house while Jim convinced himself that he should live as much like a
Sparrowhawk as he could without going back to Absaroka.
On August 13, the day of the trial, evidence was presented from both sides. The jury was out
only a few minutes before delivering a not guilty verdict. Jim shook his lawyer’s hand and
walked out the courtroom to begin a new life.
Jim sought refuge in a cabin in the mountains where he and two young Sparrowhawks lived. It
was a man’s house, a temporary and rough construct of wooden logs placed loosely together so
that the late night, summer breezes whistled through the spaces but not where Coyote Man and
Yellowed Grass had thrown cowhide skins. They all slept in their clothes on skins on the dirt
ground and covered themselves with furs. They cooked in the middle of the house, outing their
fires with sand. There was nothing else in the spartan cabin serving as decoration. Jim spent
his days hunting and fishing. After six weeks, he was ready to exchange the boisterous joking
and storytelling of rough hunters for the tender, listening ears of a gentle woman.
One night, Jim quizzed his hosts about Sue Sleeping Fox. He had met her while hiking in the
mountains at about the same time he had been introduced to Elizabeth. The attractive, the
intelligent, the civilized Elizabeth. Sue had preferred to speak the Sparrowhawk language with
Jim although she knew English. They talked easily from early morning until the sun hid itself
again behind the trees. She was closemouthed about her past but chatty about her future as a
woman making her own way. She was not the daughter, the sister, the wife of anyone. She had
come to Denver for the same reason Jim had—its promise. Her youth boasted itself on her
smooth, supple hands she used to punctuate her sentences with quick, clawlike movements.
“She’s so young, Captain,” Yellowed Grass said. “You can smell mother’s milk on her breath.”
“Ah, the sweet perfume of youth,” Jim defended himself.
“Not just her youth. So, her newness to the world is part of the attraction,” Yellowed Gras
“Yes, it is,” Jim answered. “Of course, it is. It’s a part of what makes her who she is. But I’m
also attracted to her sincerity, her enthusiasm, her generosity. She struck me, too, as a loyal
“How many times have you talked with this woman,” Yellowed Grass asked, laughing. “You
would think you grew up with her. Or her mother anyway.”
“As you get older, you can figure out people quickly. You don’t have to know them for years to
“Well, what about Elizabeth? What happened there,” asked Coyote Man, the bolder of the two.
“Elizabeth and I married with the same problems we had before we got married. I made the
mistake of thinking that she would change. People don’t change. I wasn’t following my
instincts when I asked Elizabeth to marry me. I was doing what I thought I ought to be doing. I
wasn’t being honest with myself. Elizabeth never accepted me. Sue, God willing, would take
me as I am.”
“I understand what you say,” Coyote Man said. “Well, she isn’t married. And she keeps to
herself. I wish you well. I see that you’re intent on winning her.”
“I hope she’ll have me. I think she’ll have me. But if she won’t, I won’t force it. That’s what I
did with Elizabeth. My pride wouldn’t let me walk away without her. Sue and I may have
talked only that one time. But Elizabeth and I were never able to talk. At this stage in my life, I
need a companion, not a pretty woman to look at. And Sue can take care of herself. It’s
important because I don’t know how much longer I have.”
“From the looks of you, you have a long time,” Coyote Man said.
“Who knows,” Jim said. “But thank you.”
The sound of snoring jarred both of them. Yellowed Grass had fallen asleep during their
“Guess he’s telling me not to take myself so seriously,” joked Jim. “I guess it is late. It’s time
we all got some sleep.”
“Yes. Sleep,” Coyote Man said. “Tomorrow, I’m going fishing. It’s so pleasant this time of
year in the morning. Would you like to come with me?”
“No, I’ve got another kind of fishing to do tomorrow,” Jim answered.
Coyote Man laughed good-naturedly as he slipped into slumber. Jim slept as soundly as a stone
that night. Coyote Man had helped soothe his mind about his intentions for Sue. Jim had
become convinced to pursue his desire for her. The next morning, he listened to Coyote Man
and Yellowed Grass get up. After they left, he daydreamed about Sue, a woman he had not seen
in four years. He remembered her animated facial expressions for some emotions and imagined
her looks for others. His eyes caressed her round hips as he watched her walk. He longed to
place his hands around her waist and slowly drop them to massage her lower regions.
He wanted her badly.
Jim knew that it was possible that time had stolen the spontaneity from the woman he had met.
But he doubted it. He had memorized his meeting with Sue because he had thought about it
many times after it happened. His involvement with Elizabeth had blocked him from seeking a
second meeting. Now that he was alone, he could make room for dreams of Sue. In an odd way,
he felt the same headiness for her that he had once felt for Eliza. But this time, he could better
appreciate the preciousness of meeting someone special.
He got up and prepared to see Sue again. At a nearby brook, he splashed himself in cold,
invigorating water. When he returned to the cabin, he scented his shoulder-length hair with
basil. He wore his best leather leggings. The design along the border of his buffalo robe was of
the sun and mountains pressed against the sky. When Jim finished dressing, he drew himself up
and smiled. He felt proud, excited and young because he was going courting.
Jim mounted his horse and rode to Sue’s house several miles away. The aroma of food enticed
him before he even saw her home. He smelled beef smothered with tomatoes and onions. It
prodded him to think of the attractiveness of regularity in one’s life. Regular meals, regular
conversation, a regular woman.
He rode farther. Her cabin came into full view, smoke curling out of the chimney. Jim’s heart
beat twice as hard when he reached her home and tied up his horse. Garden plots on either side
of the house were sprouting vegetables. He tried to think of what he would say when Sue
opened the door. His mind drew a blank. He was so nervous he felt like a boy. What if she did
not remember him? What if she thought he was nothing but a foolish old man?
“Morning Star,” Sue said, as she came out of her house to greet him. “I am so happy that things
worked out in town and you won’t be going to jail. You are looking well. But tell me, how is it
that you find my house to visit this morning?”
She looked the same, Jim thought, with her stark black hair, huge dark eyes and the slight body
of a young girl. And she looked happy to see him! After these first thoughts passed through his
mind, he stopped being nervous and was himself.
“I missed you,” Jim said. “I’ve been missing you since we met four years ago.”
Sue outstretched her right hand. Jim took it and followed her inside the house. There was no
dance back and forth between them. Sue’s instincts about Jim were the same as his about her.
And she was not entirely surprised by his appearance at her door.
“Are you hungry,” she asked. “I’m just making something to eat.”
Jim took in the warm, comfortable house. To his right, a large dog lay beside the fireplace over
which a black skillet cooked the meal. A long, rectangular oak table stood in front of the fire.
There were two chairs on the same long side facing the hearth, which were adorned with metal
pots of various sizes. On his left, a wooden framed platform, three inches from the ground, held
a lumpy mattress, which was covered with a massive, graying wolf skin. Cloth-wrapped parcels
were arranged carefully in rows on the ground near the bed. Jim deduced that these were her
clothes and trinkets.
“Yes, I would like something to eat,” Jim said.
“Please sit while I finish fixing it,” Sue said.
Jim felt easy as he sat and watched Sue cook. She was happy. They both felt the bond between
them harden into a desire not to break it.
“Has life here been what you thought it would be,” he asked.
“No. It hasn’t been. I don’t know. I thought I’d be reaping the joys of independence, that I’d be
euphoric with freedom. Instead, my life has been humdrum and predictable. Don’t
misunderstand. I’m happy. But sometimes I wake in the middle of the night with a need
gnawing at my insides.”
“Are you thinking of going back home,” Jim asked.
“No, I can’t. Do you understand? I am making my home here. And you, is Denver what you
expected? Is it what you want?”
“No, it’s not what I expected. But that’s because of the people I’ve involved myself with. My
last wife, for example. If I had stayed clear of her, Denver would have been different. Elizabeth
and I are no longer together. Now, is Denver what I want? Yes. Yes, it is. I know that without
a doubt. But I must do what you say you’re doing—make it my home. Why don’t we, Sue,
make it our home together?”
Sue turned her back to the food and, smiling, faced Jim. With the solemnity of a marriage vow,
which it was, Sue answered Jim:
“We will make it our home together.”
Jim thought of the simplicity of their words and the profundity of their intent. They had
sanctified their feelings about each other in an acceptable Sparrowhawk fashion. When he was
new to the ways of his adopted people, Jim had questioned how a man or woman could walk
away after a dance with someone into a marriage with them. He had done just that with Sue.
And he thought that he had no reason to question whether they would stay together the rest of
their lives. He knew that they would. It felt right.
They lived in Sue’s home on the South Platte River. Jim regained the peacefulness he had found
in Beckwourth Valley. He and Sue created their own Sparrowhawk village. Sometimes, as
many as twenty tepees surrounded their house. Their life was simple and quiet. Jim and Sue
hunted and fished; they both together cleaned and prepared their catch.
Shortly after his vindication, Jim received a letter from the United States Army rejecting his offer
of service fighting against the Confederates in the Civil War, which had broken out three years
ago in 1861. Jim wanted to add his anger and strength to the fight against slavery. And he
wanted to thwart more murders of Indians. The U.S. Army had initiated attacks on native
Americans, causing alarm among the Western tribes.
Things had not changed.
Four years ago just after arriving in Denver, Jim had written a letter published in the Rocky
Mountain News pleading for recompense of several white men’s rape of a group of Indian
women of various ages and for the need of a resident agent. Jim had written:
“All our Indian troubles are produced by the imprudent acts of unprincipled white men.”
Two months ago in September, he and all of Denver City had cheered a procession of mounted
soldiers, four white children who had been rescued from war, and seven Indian leaders. The
Indians had come to talk with Governor John Evans of the Coloradan Territory. He had advised
“friendly Indians of the plains” to report to Fort Lyon, where they would be directed to places of
safety because some of their people were at war with the whites. The Indians were shocked and
disturbed by this notice. Who was fighting whom?
At the council near Denver at Camp Weld, the Cheyennes’ Black Kettle said: “I want you to give
all these chiefs of the soldiers here to understand that we are for peace, and that we have made
peace, that we may not be mistaken by them for enemies.”
Evans insisted that the visitors were at war. Besides, as he had told an officer earlier: “But what
shall I do with the Third Colorado Regiment if I make peace? They have been raised to kill
Indians, and they must kill Indians.” Black Kettle may as well have kept his mouth closed.
Jim read about the council whose outcome promised more attacks of Indians by whites. There
was an Indian agent now, but the situation was larger than local. Washington City officials had
been made to believe that their soldiers and citizens were under siege in the West. It was a crisis,
way past the point of a letter to the editor of the newspaper. And then, suddenly, there was no
more time to think.
A sharp rap at the door one bitter cold November evening startled Jim and Sue, who had just
finished dinner. Jim got up and answered the door to a thin-lipped man with blue skin and light
eyes. The snow swirled around the stranger’s body like a whirligig as though he were the only
person or animal out there.
“Please come in out of the cold,” Jim said.
He stepped in, stiffly. The dog, who had been napping near the fireplace, got up and ran away,
hiding somewhere in the cabin. The man was creepy, there was no doubt.
“I don’t believe I know you,” Jim said. Sue walked over to the fire and stared into it.
“I’ve seen you around town,” a hoarse voice said, slowly. The man’s body seemed to disappear
as his spooky voice made its impression, and the smell of absinthe stained the air. “You are Jim
Beckwourth. Captain Beckwourth. And I am Colonel George Shoup.”
They shook hands. Jim invited him to remove his coat and sit. He refused.
“I’ve come to give you an order,” Shoup said. “You are to guide the Third Regiment of
Colorado Volunteer Calvary to the Cheyenne village of Sand Creek.”
“Why Sand Creek,” Jim asked, thinking that Sand Creek was supposedly a haven.
“It’s not for you to know,” Shoup said. “Report tomorrow at eighteen hundred hours. Be ready
Shoup turned to go.
“Wait,” Jim said. “I’m not sure if I’m up to such a journey at this time of year. It’s wet and
cold. I’m no complainer but I suffer from rheumatism.”
“Guiding the regiment to Sand Creek will be far better for your rheumatism than hanging from
the nearest tree, which is what awaits you if you disobey this order.”
Then, whish, he was gone. Sue rushed over to Jim and held him close. Shoup’s visit was a bad
The next morning, Jim reported to Colonel John Chivington, a straight-laced man who had
taught many Methodist Sunday school classes. He rarely swore; his men never cursed around
him. He held his tall body curved inward, his fists closed much of the time. He never smiled,
laughed, danced. Jim disliked being around this man.
Chivington’s dour visage, however, led the cavalry that day on its way to the village. Jim guided
the man southwest until they reached the Arkansas River and then Fort Lyon. There, Chivington
and Shoup met Major Scott Anthony, who assured them that the Army had given the young men
at Sand Creek permission for a winter buffalo hunt. The young men had gone away.
Four hundred and fifty of the six hundred Cheyennes and Arapahoes at Black Kettle’s peaceful
village were women and children; the rest, for the most part, were old men. Some of Anthony’s
men cringed at the thought of attacking. Their hesitation angered him. His argument was an
ignorant one. As he told one officer:
“Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! I have come to kill Indians and believe it is
right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.”
The reluctant officers, threatened with court-martials, joined the death march, bolstering the
number of troops to seven hundred and fifty. On the evening of November 28, 1864, they moved
out in columns of four, towing four twelve-pound howitzers with them.
Jim was horrified by this nightmare about to come true! But he got nowhere talking with the
crazed Chivington. Sand Creek lay forty miles north of Fort Lyon. On the way, Jim’s
rheumatism had crept back into his bones. The expedition stopped at a ranch and ordered Robert
Bent, William Bent’s oldest son, out of bed to guide it. Robert’s two brothers, Charlie, who had
wanted to kill his white father, and George, were camped at Sand Creek.
The night was clear and freezing cold. Jim rode beside Chivington as they crossed Sand Creek
shortly after sunrise. The colonel halted his men in the middle of the crossing.
“Men, strip for action,” Chivington bellowed. “I don’t tell you to kill all ages and sex, but look
back on the plains of the Platte, where your mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters have been slain,
and their blood saturating the sands on the Platte.”
"At the Sand Creek Massacre" (1874-1875) by Cheyenne eyewitness and artist Howling Wolf
This work is in the public domain in the United States, where the copyright law exyends 80 years or less after the author's death.
The soldiers charged into the sleeping village which had no night watch because the Indians
were at peace. The white-haired much revered Spotted Antelope ordered that the United States
flag be displayed. It was. The soldiers kept charging. He ordered everyone to escape. They ran
toward the hills. The soldiers kept charging. His arms folded, Spotted Antelope shouted as
loudly as he could above the din of war cries, “Stop! Stop!”
Spotted Antelope was gunned down; he was scalped; he was castrated.
The first gunshot ushered in eight hours of a cacophony of death sounds. Some men, like Jim
and Robert and a few Fort Lyon officers, shot only in self-defense. But, nonetheless, the
massacre was unbelievable.
The four cannons broke holes in the sky. Bullets exploded the wombs of pregnant women; they
shattered the tender bones of young children; they ripped apart the insides of old men drawing up
the red, white and blue. There were no rules; there was no mercy. Private parts of men, women
and children were cut off and carried on sticks.
Black ash fluttered in the sky above their heads, obscuring the light of the sky and the sun. It
was like hell on earth.
One of the wounded estimated one hundred and sixty-three deaths, one hundred and ten of them
women and children. There were no recorded figures of the number wounded. Chivington lost
nine men; thirty-eight were wounded, many by their own compatriots’ furious firing.
Chivington later wrote about his men: “All did nobly.” He claimed that four hundred to five
hundred warriors had been killed. He lied.
"The Sand Creek Massacre" by Robert Lindneaux (1936)
Jim hated the arrogant Chivington; he hated the colonel’s men only doing what they were told;
he hated himself for being there. During the Sand Creek Massacre, he had become the enemy.
Entrapped in himself, his past, his identity, his parentage.
“What am I doing? What was I doing? I led these men, these stupid, bloodthirsty madmen on an
inhuman mission into a village of innocent people,” Jim thought, his mind jumbled.
There was no vindication now. No vindication. Only despair. After Sand Creek, something in
Jim broke. For the first time in his life, something broke deep inside him.
The survivors at Sand Creek, including the Bent brothers, turned away from Black Kettle’s plea
for peace with the whites. In January of 1865, Governor Evans and Colonel Chivington sent Jim
to Black Kettle as a friendship emissary. When Jim arrived at the village of Cheyennes, Kiowas,
Comanches and Arapahoes at White Man’s Fork, which the trappers once called Box Elder, he
found that the leading chief was now Leg in the Water. Jim recalled his meeting two months
later during his testimony at a military hearing in Colorado investigating the Sand Creek
“I went into the lodge of Leg in the Water. When I went in he raised up and he said, ‘Medicine
Calf (the Sparrowhawks’ final of many names for Jim), what have you come here for; have you
fetched the white man to finish killing our families again?’ I told him I had come to talk to him;
call in your council. They came in a short time afterwards, and wanted to know what I had come
for. I told them I had come to persuade them to make peace with the whites, as there was not
enough of them to fight the whites, as they were as numerous as the leaves of the trees. ‘We
know it,’ was the general response of the council. ‘But what do we want to live for? The white
man has taken our country, killed all of our game; was not satisfied with that, but killed our
wives and children. Now no peace. We want to go and meet our families in the spirit land. We
loved the whites until we found out they lied to us, and robbed us of what we had. We have
raised the battle ax until death.’
“They asked me then why I had come to Sand Creek with the soldiers to show them the country.
I told them if I had not come, the white chief would have hung me. ‘Go and stay with your white
brothers, but we are going to fight ‘til death.’ I obeyed orders and came back, willing to play
quits. There was nothing mentioned about horses or anything that transpired on the battlefield,
with the exception of their wives and children.”
Near the end of his two-day testimony, Chivington asked Jim: “To what race do you belong—the
white, black or Indian?”
Jim’s insides quivered. How could he answer that question? There was no answer. The
president of the commission objected to the question, and the objection was sustained.
“Were you a chief among the Crow Indians,” Chivington then asked.
“Yes,” Jim answered.
The hearings ended with the United States government’s damnation of the Sand Creek Massacre.
The shamed government apologized with a pledge of monetary and land reparations for the
families of those murdered. It promised a fairer deal to the native Americans whose lives were
no longer theirs.
It was too late.
In April, the Civil War ended, a victory for abolitionists. One year later, Congress overrode
President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Bill, which gave equal rights to all persons
born in the United States.
All except native Americans.
James Pierson Beckwourth in California (1855)
Morning Star visited Absaroka in October of 1866 feeling old, feeling sad, feeling sorry. But he
hid his true emotions behind smiles and open arms. He pretended it was the old days although
Black Panther was a man and though Morning Star, still strong as a bull, had bones which ached
“My husband and father of my son! Welcome home,” shouted Swift Fish. She hugged him
Both she and Morning Star had aged gracefully. Swift Fish’s body appeared as lithe as when she
was young. She showed her years most in the lack of lustre of her waistlength, gray hair.
“I see you and I am feeling better,” she said, knowing that the customary, complimentary
greeting would lighten his heart.
Morning Star breathed reassuringly. He had not known how the Sparrowhawks would receive
him after the Sand Creek Massacre. Soon Swift Fish had to step aside to let other people hug
him. They heaped love on him like it was armor. His people knew that he would be worried
that he would be blamed for the massacre. But they understood that incidents between the
Indians and whites were becoming no one’s fault. These atrocities were taking on a vicious life
of their own. Sand Creek was no surprise. It was inevitable.
However, Black Panther, now a chief, hated his father even more. The old man could not
explain his participation at Sand Creek to the satisfaction of his son who had made Morning Star
a grandfather a year ago.
“Jennings,” the revered brave insisted on calling his grandson.
Winged Deer was the name of the baby boy. Black Panther would flinch when he heard his
father utter the English name of his own grandfather. It reminded him of Morning Star calling
him Little Jim when he was young. At that time, Black Panther felt proud like a little man. But
what did it mean? His father still left him. To hear the name ‘Jennings’ for his son seared Black
Panther’s soul. His hurt crystallized into outrage.
“Winged Deer,” Black Panther commanded his son.
The baby cried at the anger in his father’s voice. Little Jim glowered at Big Jim with Jennings’
steel black eyes.
“Son, I’ve been thinking that we should try and work some things out,” said Morning Star.
“Work what things out? And besides, you can only work things out with someone. They’ve got
to be around for that, not many days’ journey away killing innocent women and children.”
“I was following orders. What else could I do? What would you have done,” Morning Star
appealed. He was grateful that his son had spoken several sentences to him even if they were in
“I would not have been there in the first place,” his son answered.
“But I was,” said Morning Star. “If you were there, what would you have done?”
“I would not have been there,” Black Panther answered again hostilely.
“But--,” started Morning Star.
“I would not have been there, Father. That is the difference between us. I know which side I’m
Black Panther called him ‘Father’! Morning Star thought that he had pricked a tiny hole in the
wall separating them but that they would remain on either side of it if they continued the
conversation then. He thought it ridiculous that his son assumed there were two distinct sides. It
was much more complex than that. Surely his son realized that. Certainly, his son knew that
whatever the vicissitudes of the conflict, he and Black Panther were family; they were
Beckwourths; they were one. The family formed a united front against the craziness of the
“We’ll talk about this later,” he said and walked away. Black Panther’s stare bore holes in
Morning Star’s back forever.
The old man entered Laughing Coyote’s lodge where several chiefs and Pine Leaf, now a
respected wise woman with silver hair, had filled it with the sweet smell of tobacco. The aroma
was comforting because it was from the strain that the Sparrowhawks grew, not from the kind
that came from the traders. It made him think of ceremonial smokes before battles he had fought
and won. It made him think of Absaroka. It was the smell of home.
“Morning Star, come and smoke with us,” said Laughing Coyote. He packed his pipe again. His
wizened hands shook.
They passed the pipe to the left. Everyone smoked. Pine Leaf broke the silence.
“You remember when you would try to get me to marry you, Morning Star,” she asked.
They all snickered at the absurdity of it. Imagine, Pine Leaf as a wife.
“It was an impossibility because of who I am and who you are. Yet, you persisted and we
managed to forge a solid relationship. Different from the one you wanted, but solid.
“What I’m saying, Morning Star, is that Black Panther is not going to love you blindly. He is too
old for that. But you might be able to become friends.
“Black Panther has definite ideas. He’s a young, intolerant man. That will change as he
matures. Be patient. Don’t try to force it. If you do, you’ll lose him, my friend.”
“You’re right, Pine Leaf,” Morning Star said. “I’m just scared that Sand Creek is the final break
“Morning Star, love is stronger than hate. Always. Don’t give up hope. It’s not over yet.
Nothing in life is final but death.”
Laughing Coyote began talking about his family. Two of his children had drawn the line
between him and them regarding the whites.
“They don’t remember a time when there was respect between us and the Americans. For most
of their lives, we’ve been dealing with representatives of the United States government, not
people, until my two oldest think that they are the same. Many of the young people think this
way. And they despise the United States government. They see no humanity in it. They want to
“Destruction, to them, means peace and a new beginning isolated from the whites. They are
absolutely convinced of it. This is how my two hardheaded children think. It is how your son,
Black Panther, thinks.”
Morning Star knew that Laughing Coyote was right. But he was encouraged by Pine Leaf’s
“Why not have a meeting of the chiefs tomorrow to give me a chance to address my role at Chivington’s bloodbath and in the federal
hearings, and also to discuss our political future,” Morning Star suggested.
“Good idea,” Laughing Coyote said. The others in the lodge echoed agreement.
“But tonight, we feast in Chief Morning Star’s honor,” shouted Pine Leaf.
The mood was no longer ponderous. Laughter rang out of the lodge. Lightness, lightness, all around. The aroma of meat and vegetable
stew wafted in.
Morning Star thought that he was a lucky man to be loved by these people. The old man went to sleep among his friends. When he woke
up, the lodge was barely light enough to make out the nearby body of Laughing Coyote. He shook him.
“Everyone else must be getting ready for tonight,” Morning Star said. “I’m going to do the same.”
Laughing Coyote rose. And Morning Star strode to the lodge of one of his sisters. When he arrived there, he chose the softest deerskin
leggings, shirt and moccasins for the evening. Then he threw his buffalo robe round his shoulders with a flourish.
After talking with his father, Black Panther had spent the afternoon quarreling with his insightful wife, Snow Cloud, about her cooking,
sewing and cleaning. None of these things were really worth arguing over, but Black Panther needed to latch onto them instead of the
truth. His father was the source of his unsettledness. It angered Black Panther that Morning Star was back. His hate for his father had
hardened into a stone wall. He thought him a traitor to his family and his people. His father loved the whites; Black Panther hated them!
“Are you ready for the feast tonight? Do you have clothes prepared for Winged Deer and myself,” Black Panther asked, in an accusatory
“Yes, my husband. And for myself too,” Snow Cloud answered, sarcastically.
“I don’t want to go,” Black Panther stammered, like a boy.
“What do you mean, ‘Then don’t’? I have to. He’s my father. It would be a show of disrespect to him and to the tribe.”
“Black Panther, you don’t respect him,” she said, evenly.
He said nothing for a few seconds and then hissed:
“I know I don’t.”
In an even lower voice, so low that Snow Cloud would claim later not to have heard him say any such thing, Black Panther said:“I’m
going to free myself from him.”
Later that day, he chose the softest deerskin leggings, shirt and moccasins for the evening. Then he threw his buffalo robe round his
shoulders with a flourish. He managed to slip furtively a tiny leather pouch, packed with a ground herb, over his left shoulder and under
his right arm. Out, he, and his wife carrying their child, went into the night to collect Morning Star and his sister, Slim Woman, and her
husband, Disappearing Tail. Morning Star had been waiting anxiously for his son. He jumped at the sound of footsteps approaching the
lodge. He received Black Panther standing.
“You look very handsome, son,” Morning Star said, thinking of how much his son resembled him.
“Thank you. You too,” Black Panther said, disgusted by his resemblance to a man he hated.
“Let’s go,” Morning Star announced to everyone.
The six set out. The night air bit into the pores of their skin. Morning Star and Black Panther secured their robes tighter round their bodies.
After a brisk, ten-minute walk, only Slim Woman and Snow Cloud talking, they reached the feasting place, and father and son relaxed their
hands on their cloaks.
Campfires glowed like red and orange bouquets of long stemmed flowers amid circular seatings of ten that were arranged in a huge circle
to accommodate several hundred people. Morning Star’s two other sisters and three brothers had died. His nieces and nephews sat around
the neighboring circle. Morning Star wished that he had brought his young wife, Sue, from Denver. This celebration in his honor would be
more reason for her to love him. Instead, Black Panther sat next to him. Minutes after they arrived, Black Panther spoke to his father.
“I am sorry about my harsh words this afternoon,” he said to Morning Star, who was stunned to hear an apology but quick to take
advantage of it.
“Son, everything’s going to be fine. It will. I love you. I want you to believe that. I want to show you. I want you to like me, Black Panther.
That’s what I want. Please like me."
”Black Panther swallowed. Droplets of sweat began to form in his armpits. He felt his color in his face flush to red. It was difficult enough
to apologize when he was not sorry. Now Morning Star was opening his heart to him, begging to be liked. Pathetic, Black Panther thought.
It is too late, old man. This would be the last time he would be exposed to his father so what did it matter. He could continue lying for a
few more hours.
“Father, we’re changing. We’re getting closer. We’ll…I like you, Father,” he said. He had stopped hedging. He had surrendered to
subterfuge. Black Panther wanted it to appear that he and his father were on friendly terms.
The drummer kept a slow, steady beat all night. Whether other drums or flutes were played or musicians sang, the principal drummer
pounded a deep, “Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.” Slow and steady. Slow and steady. It was an omen. And if Morning Star had not been so
happy about his feast and his reconciliation with his son, he might have sensed the danger. Instead, he accepted tribute from the people
who stopped by every few minutes. And he brought Black Panther into many of the conversations, eager to show off his new rapport with
Morning Star was busy being the man of the hour. There was no room in his mind or his heart for fear or apprehension.
A flautist began unfurling a sensual cadenza that lulled its audience. It certainly did so to Morning Star. Another flautist joined in. Soon
there were three, four, five. They darted in and out like contented birds while the drum pounded a deep, “Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.”
The beat was so incessant that it went unnoticed.
Swift Fish came by to sit and talk. She was heartened to learn that the break between her husband and son had been patched. She was
blinded by parenthood as was Morning Star. They believed what they wanted to believe.
“Morning Star, did you think that we would be so fortunate to have a son like ours. He’s strong and he’s brave and he’s smart. Very much
like you,” she said.
“No, I had no idea what to expect. You remember me, Swift Fish. I was so young, so much of a cocky warrior. I wasn’t thinking of
becoming a father when suddenly, one morning, you woke me to tell me that you were pregnant.”
Black Panther hoped that he wasn’t going to tell the story of that early morning when he went running through the village awakening
everyone with the news of his good fortune. The younger chief had heard the story so many times that it had become tiresome. Morning
Star did not tell it. The older man looked at the younger and said:
“If I haven’t been a good father to you, part of it is that I didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t prepared. I don’t know, son, maybe I
shouldn’t have had children. Maybe I was selfish to have you. I know now that it must have been hard for you to have a father who only
came to visit once a year. You could depend on me to come but you could also depend on me going. It wasn’t always like that for you. At
one time, when you were very small, you believed in me. You looked up to me. You liked me. Once when I was on my way back to New
Mexico from California, you begged me to stay. You cried on the ground while I was on horseback. You pulled on my clothes and pleaded
with me not to leave again!
“But I did,” Morning Star’s voice broke before he continued. “I left because I couldn’t change my life for you. I felt that there were more
glorious, more heroic deeds for me to accomplish. I didn't know that being a father is one of the most courageous, challenging tasks that a
man can take on. Honestly, Black Panther, I failed you because I wasn’t man enough.”
“No,” screamed Swift Fish. “That’s not true. You are a good man, Morning Star. A strong man. For one thing, you saved the
Sparrowhawks from the scourge of liquor, which you strongly discouraged. Other tribes have not been spared. Your strengths are not
demonstrated in the home. They are not demonstrated with the women you love or with your son. You are a brave, a warrior, a hero.
Morning Star, you are a legend. Truly, a legend! And you can’t marry a legend. I think that even in my youth I realized that.”
“But I need to apologize,” bellowed Morning Star. “I need to apologize to you, Black Panther, and to you, Swift Fish, because I failed you
both. I’ve lived for myself alone and I’m ashamed." Morning Star was shaking with remorse. Swift Fish cried quietly. Morning Star took
Black Panther into his arms and began sobbing, “I am so sorry. I am so sorry.”
“It’s all right,” his son lied. “It’s all right.”
This unexpected outburst prompted Black Panther to act faster on his plan. He felt no empathy for his progenitor, the “legend”. When
Morning Star released him, Black Panther fingered the thin shoulder strap of his herb pouch under his robe. His heart started to thump.
What if someone saw him do it, he asked himself. But no one would if he acted calmly.
Conversation turned to Lots of Trees who had died a few years ago. Morning Star and Swift Fish began to reminisce about the time when
he was married to them both and Red Cherry, too.Red Cherry had left Absaroka to live with her husband who worked as a scout in
California. When Swift Fish and Morning Star returned to their youth like this, Black Panther vanished into the realm of dreams. They
were served food on metal plates—mashed squash and stewed tomatoes and roasted beaver tail and buffalo and deer—while they held onto
Meanwhile, Black Panther could not believe his luck. He reached into his leather pouch, withdrew his hand slowly from inside his robe
and then sprinkled the powder on his father’s squash. He looked around the circle and at neighboring groups before and after he did it.
Then he used a metal spoon to mix it in so that it would not be noticeable.
“Lots of Trees adored you,” Swift Fish told Morning Star.
“She accepted your aloofness as a natural way for you to be,” she continued. “That’s why she could never marry again. She expected
things of men that most couldn’t give. She couldn’t marry a man. She had to marry a hero. In a way, she had to marry you.”
“I’m not so certain of that,” he said. “Lots of Trees begged me not to leave Absaroka. I think she needed me to be a man. And I refused.
You know, it really is true. You reap what you sow. I ruined many opportunities to make my life richer through my family.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Morning Star. We love you. We do. I do.”
Silence. They looked into each other’s eyes. Tears filled them. It was hard for Swift Fish to admit that Morning Star had treated her
shabbily. She wanted to believe that he had not. She wanted to be able to categorize her feelings for him. She wanted to exhibit no ill will
toward him. But all of this was impossible. And they both knew it.
Swift Fish had not begun to miss the caring, the gentleness, the loving of a man until Black Panther reached his manhood. While she
reared her son, she devoted herself to the boy. Of course, Morning Star had long ago abandoned her when she felt the pangs of loss. She
already had endured the taunts of other people. “You are not good enough to attract any man,” they would say. Or, “You were very lazy;
you never did beadwork or made moccasins for your husband.”
These were common sayings but they hurt Swift Fish, nonetheless. They also made her question whether her behavior had chased her
“Yes, it’s been hard for me to see you every year as a friend, remembering when we were lovers, incomplete as it was, we were at least
exploring another dimension of ourselves. We were trying, supposed to be trying, to give all of ourselves. Since you left, it’s been barely
adequate but enough to make us still care about each other.”
She stopped crying and continued in a more sober tone:
“I don’t think it does any good for me to feel sorry for myself. And really, I’m too old to seek out another man. I don’t want one. So I’ve
reconciled myself to our relationship and that with my son. I have no regrets. No regrets, whatsoever.”
Silence. The hero sat justly accused. He hung his head in shame. Finally, he spoke in a low voice made raspy by tears. Halting one measure
after each word, he said:
“I have never gone out of my way for anyone.”
He was struck by the harshness of truth. Silence. The drum in the background sounded, “Boom.
Boom. Boom. Boom.”
Black Panther’s heart hardened with hate. Evil swarmed around him. Vengeance oozed out of
his mouth when he said:
“Father, please, eat and enjoy your feast. Stop talking about things that are over and done with.”
Morning Star’s sister quickly agreed. She could not hear the conversation he was having with
Swift Fish but she could sense clearly the prodigiousness of it. Tribal tradition forbade her to
indulge in long, serious talks with her brother. She was ready to get on with the gaiety of the
“Yes, Morning Star,” Slim Woman said. “Eat now. Talk later.”
“Yes, Father. Eat now.”
So they all did. The meal satisfied Morning Star and Black Panther and Swift Fish and Snow
Cloud and Slim Woman and Disappearing Tail. When they were done eating, they talked about
the world of appearances.
“My, isn’t Morning Star’s hair an attractive length past his shoulder!”
“Doesn’t Black Panther look like his father when Morning Star first returned to his people?”
“Isn’t Winged Deer bright and quick? Like his father when he was a baby.”
“Isn’t it cozy? Everyone back here together again?”
The hypnotic beat of the drum broke through the chatter to Morning Star’s ears. His life was so
clear to him. He had committed the same mistakes over and over again. Why couldn’t he have
realized that before now? He glanced over at his son dancing in the center of the large circle
with two other men. He hoped that his son would live a happy life. Morning Star’s grandson
slept next to him cradled in Snow Cloud’s lap. The old man wished him happiness all his life
and clarity from his youth until his death. Then he startled everyone by breaking into a song to
the beat of the drum—the death song:
“Nothing lives long except the earth and the mountains.”
Morning Star’s food had tasted funny. Was that jimson?
* * * *
Jim drifted to sleep carried on a dream of galloping under a big sky on a wide, wide expanse of country toward that elusive place over the
next hill, and the next, and the next. Forever, the openness seemed to go on. The color and contour of the terrain changed along with the
foliage but the openness went on. Jim let out an impulsive, whooping cry of joy whose sound faded as he rode on.
James Pierson Beckwourth was 68 years of age.
Have I been sleeping?
Where has the time gone? Where have the years flown? Where did my youth disappear?
I feel lost.
Somehow it seems that I must have been asleep because I cannot reconcile my many years on this earth with my little understanding of it.
I miss Mother. I never understood why she had to die so long ago.
Mother loved Father. But she punished him for keeping her his slave. It was like this between them. They paid a terrible price for love.
Red roses and purple violets. Is that how it really was?
I want to be a small child again. I want to curl up in my mother’s arms and be warmed by her body. I want to walk into her long, full skirt
and get lost in its folds. Her skirt was my world then. That was all there was to understand.
Mother, Mother. Why didn’t you tell me that you would leave me? Why didn’t you teach me that there was more to life than you and
me? Why didn’t you warn me that in this world the choices are sometimes no choices? My life was not my choice. It simply was.
I was alone. I was a man, trying.
And it was good. Life is good.