James Beckwourth was an African American pioneer, mountain man, fur trader and scout. He was the only African American to ever document his own life story.
Beckwourth was instrumental in opening one of four mountain passes through the Sierra Nevada for emigrants as they headed west.
He spent many months preparing a trail through the lowest of the mountain passes (an elevation of 5,212 feet) to Marysville. Beckwourth brought his wagon train of emigrants in the fall of 1851. To honor Beckwourth’s contributions to pioneers, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp bearing his face.
Ina Coolbrith was 11 years old when her parents traveled through the pass with Beckwourth leading the way. Many years later, in 1927, a luncheon honoring her as California’s first poet laureate, Coolbrith remembered Beckwourth and her experience.
“Ours was the first of the covered wagon trains to break the trail through Beckwourth Pass into California. We were guided by the famous scout, Jim Beckwourth, who was an historical figure, and to my mind, one of the most beautiful creatures that ever lived. He was rather dark and wore his hair in two long braids, twisted with colored cord that gave him a picturesque appearance. He wore a leather coat and moccasins and rode a horse without a saddle.
When we made that long journey toward the West over the deserts and mountains, our wagon train was driven over ground without a single mark of a wagon wheels until it was broken by ours. And when Jim Beckwourth said he would like to have my mother’s little girls ride into California on his horse in front of him, I was the happiest little girl in the world.”
Beckwourth told many colorful stories, “He could spin a good yarn,” according to those who knew him well. Additional research on Beckwourth’s life revealed that indeed many of the stories he wrote were not tall tales. They really happened.
The Beckwourth Pass was used so frequently, the wagons wore a trail into the ground. After the transcontinental railroad was completed, wagon trains were no longer the preferred method of transportation, and the pass lost its appeal. Today, modern “emigrants" drive through the mountain pass on State Highway 70 or ride through it on the train.
The pass is about 15 miles east of the town of Beckwourth. To celebrate Beckwourth’s life, Marysville presents Frontier Days, with living history programs the first weekend of October every year.
The California Historical Marker is located at a roadside rest area on Beckwourth’s Pass on State Highway 70 (P.M. 95.8), 1.5 miles east of Chilcoot.
El Rio de las Plumas, “The river of feathers,” lends its name to Plumas County. Captain Luis Arguello named the river, having been impressed by the many floating feathers on the water. Plumas County also contains Beckwourth Pass, the lowest summit of the High Sierra, which quickly became a favorite route of wagon trains.