The Age of Discovery: 12 Adventurers Who Explored North America
The Age of Discovery: 12 Adventurers Who Explored North America

The Age of Discovery: 12 Adventurers Who Explored North America

Donna Patricia Ward - November 7, 2017

The North American continent provided opportunity for the curious. The continent had been inhabited by native peoples, but it was not until the 800s when Europeans had primitive means to explore its northern reaches. When shipbuilding and navigational technology improved, ushering in the Age of Discovery, Europeans sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and quickly laid claim to new lands and people. Even after successful settlement, the interior of the continent and its potential for great wealth intrigued men and women that explored the West. Below are 12 explorers and expeditions of North America.

1. Erik the Red and Leif Erikson 980s

Erik the Red, a Norse Viking, killed his neighbor and was banished from Norway. He moved his family west to Iceland. While banished, Erik the Red explored westward and has been credited with establishing the first settlements in Greenland in 986. The Eastern and Western Settlements of Greenland provided the opportunity for Icelanders to leave in search of new farmland.

Erik the Red named the new area Greenland to imply abundant fertile land. Reality was different, but enough Icelanders moved to Greenland to sustain the new settlements. Over time, a central settlement emerged providing food and shelter to people traveling between the East and West settlements.

Leif Erikson, Erik the Red’s son who was 10 years old at the time of his father’s banishment, was also a Norse Viking and explorer. After his conversion to Christianity, Erikson and a crew of about 35 men embarked on a journey to convert residents of Greenland. During a storm, they were blown off course and landed in North America in 1000. The expedition separated into two groups with one exploring the countryside and one creating a permanent settlement.

The Age of Discovery: 12 Adventurers Who Explored North America
Vikings discovering North America. Public Domain.

Erikson named the new settlement Vinland due to its numerous grapevines. Vineland is presumed to be the area that includes Newfoundland, the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and New Brunswick. The Icelandic sagas were literary stories compiled and printed before 1265. The sagas described the Norse exploration of North America. In the 1960s archeological evidence supported the locations described in the sagas, confirming a much earlier arrival of Europeans to North America centuries before Columbus.

The Age of Discovery: 12 Adventurers Who Explored North America
Portrait of a Man said to be Christopher Columbus 1513. Public Domain

2. Christopher Columbus 1492-1504

Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer from the Republic of Genoa. Determined to find a shorter passage from Europe to the Indian Spice Trades in the Pacific, he asked numerous monarchs to fund his exploratory voyages. Finally, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, the Catholic Spanish monarchs, agreed to finance Columbus in exchange for claiming any new lands for Spain.

Columbus embarked on a total of four voyages. The first and the most famous happened in 1492. When his three ships left Spain, it took them three weeks to traverse the Atlantic. In October, the group sighted land—Columbus claimed he spotted land first—in the present-day Bahamas. This first voyage opened the door to an entirely new world and brought fame to Christopher Columbus.

The second voyage left Europe in September 1493. After seeing gold adornments on natives, Columbus demanded that the natives take him to their gold. When they refused he took some natives hostage, mutilated them, and then forced them into slavery. As the Europeans searched for gold, they also explored the coastal and inland areas of Hispaniola and Cuba. Through their quests, new information was sent to Spain’s mapmakers.

In May 1498, Columbus left for his third voyage. During the transatlantic voyage, Columbus discovered compass variation between the magnetic north pole and the North Pole star. To remain on track to land in what is known as South America, he had to make adjustments. Documenting his changes due to compass variation became an important navigational advancement.

His fourth voyage was fraught with problems. Not only had he lost his governorship due to his own brutality and incompetency as a leader, he suffered from arthritis that forced him to remain bedridden for weeks. As he explored the coast of Central America in search for the Strait of Malacca, hurricanes damaged his ship and he was stranded in present-day Jamaica for a year. He returned to Spain in November 1504 and died in 1506 at age 55.

In the process of searching for an oceanic route to the Spice Trades, Columbus claimed millions of acres of land for Spain including animals, plants, and people. Because of Columbus, Spain became a powerful empire with an enormous sphere of influence that lasted until the early 20th century.

The Age of Discovery: 12 Adventurers Who Explored North America
Ponce de Leon. Public Domain

3. Ponce de Leon 1513-1521

Ponce de Leon was born in Spain to unknown parents likely in 1474. As a young man, he joined Christopher Columbus’s second voyage in 1493 as one of 200 “gentlemen volunteers.” Little is known of de Leon’s first experience in the New World, but it is likely that he participated in enslaving raids and conquest battles against native inhabitants. He returned to Spain and by 1502, he set sail for Hispaniola with the new governor, Nicolas de Ovando. The island was in disarray and Ponce de Leon was ordered to squash an Indian uprising.

Hearing of fertile land and gold on a neighboring island, Ponce de Leon set sail with 50 men toward the island of Puerto Rico in 1508. The men constructed a fortified house and storage building and then focused their efforts on mining for gold. When their supplies were low and the small bit of farming they had done would no longer sustain them, they returned to Hispaniola. Spanish officials considered the expedition successful and Ponce de Leon was appointed governor.

Ponce de Leon moved his wife, three daughters, and one son to San Juan in 1509 as part of the settlement and colonizing of the island. After he was replaced as governor by one of Christopher Columbus’s heirs, he petitioned to go on an exploration. April 2, 1513, Ponce de Leon and his three ships spotted land that he named La Florida. The explorers sailed along Florida’s coast and encountered an extremely forceful current that sent one of the ships out to sea. This was the first known account of Europeans interacting with the Gulf Stream current, which soon became the primary current for returning to Europe.

On May 23, 1513, the three ships encountered Calusa warriors on the west coast of Florida. The Calusa surrounded the Europeans in canoes and displayed their force with longbows. From this point, Ponce de Leon disbanded the expedition and returned to San Juan. After reporting on his expedition to the King, Ponce de Leon returned with an order to settle the lands claimed by Spain in the New World. He was also tasked with reading the Requerimiento, a document that Spaniards had the Devine right to conquer the land and all of its inhabitants and that they “shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can” to ensure compliance.

When King Ferdinand died, Ponce de Leon traveled to Spain to fight for his legal claims in Florida. Finally, in 1521, he set sail to settle and colonize Florida. Native inhabitants resisted the Spaniards and battle raged. When Ponce de Leon was shot in the thigh with a poisoned arrow, the expedition returned to Hispaniola where Ponce de Leon died. His remains are at the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in San Juan. While he was not the first European to see Florida, he is credited with being the first explorer to document its coast.

The Age of Discovery: 12 Adventurers Who Explored North America
Giovanni da Verrazzano. Public Domain.

4. Giovanni da Verrazzano 1524-1528

Giovanni da Verrazzano was an Italian explorer. He identified as a Florentine but sailed for King Francis I of France to explore Florida north to Newfoundland in 1524. His crew sailed from the island of Madeira off the western coast of Africa on January 17, 1524. After six weeks at sea, the party landed near the mouth of the Cape Fear River along the coast of North Carolina on March 1, 1524, claiming the land for the Kingdom of France.

Verrazzano continued north into the Pamlico Sound, which he called the Pacific Ocean. As his party sailed north, they skirted the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the Delaware River. The group entered into New York Bay and continued their northward journey along the coast to Narragansett Bay and then past Long Island to Cape Cod Bay. Finally, the party reached the southern coast of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

As the man that claimed the land for France, Verrazzano named the new territory Francesca. Perhaps in a fit of sibling rivalry, his mapmaking brother changed the name to Nova Gallia or New France. If that blow was not enough, there were two other major events that overshadowed Verrazzano’s accomplishments. The first was the Spanish Conquest of Mexico in 1521, which provided Spain with massive new territories, people, and commodities. The second was the first circumnavigation of the world in 1522 by Ferdinand Magellan’s crew.

Like other explorers of the age, Verrazzano kept detailed accounts of the flora, fauna, waterways, and landscapes that he encountered. His first exploration was short but covered a large distance. The information he provided permitted cartographers in Europe to create new maps of North America that would be essential tools for explorers and historians. Giovanni da Verrazzano returned to North America for a second time in 1528. He sailed along the coasts of Florida, the Bahamas, and the Lesser Antilles. While controversial, it is presumed he was killed and eaten by native Carib people in the Lesser Antilles.

Giovanni da Verrazzano never experienced the fame on the same level of Christopher Columbus and many of the other North American explorers. He was not a central figure in France’s colonization efforts, but his work was invaluable. Fame came late for Verrazzano. In the 20th century, the suspension bridge that connects Staten Island with Brooklyn carries his name and annually, the New York City marathon’s starting line is on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.

The Age of Discovery: 12 Adventurers Who Explored North America
Engraving of Hernando de Soto. Public Domain

5. Hernando de Soto 1524-1542

Hernando de Soto was a Spanish explorer and conquistador born in 1495. He grew up listening to stories of men obtaining military glory and riches in the New World and wanted that for himself. As a young man, he sailed to Panama with its new governor, Pedrarias Dávila, and participated in the conquest of Central America.

In Nicaragua, de Soto was awarded an encomieda from the Spanish Crown for his efforts in conquering the native inhabitants. Desiring wealth and military glory, de Soto led soldiers into the Yucatan Peninsula in search of gold and a new route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The men plundered native villages, taking some of their booty back to Spain.

After hearing about the adventures of Cabeza de Vaca in Florida, de Sota set his sights on exploring what is now the southeastern United States. With 600 plus men of various ethnic backgrounds, he led an expedition into the interior of North America. His purpose was to find the elusive gold, find territory for settlement, and then colonize the native inhabitants.

Exactly where de Soto and his soldiers entered into the American southeast is disputed. What is known is that he traveled into Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. As he did in Central America, de Soto and his men plundered, pillaged, raped, and inflicted violence and terror on the native inhabitants.

While in southern Alabama, de Soto and his men encountered a Mobilian tribe under the leadership of Chief Tuskaloosa. De Soto’s men claimed that the natives ambushed them. Reports from the native inhabitants differ in that that de Soto’s men forced entry into Tuskaloosa’s cabin demanding gold and supplies. No matter how the interaction began, it resulted in the Spaniards looting the village of supplies, setting it on fire, and then killing between 2,000 and 6,000 warriors.

De Soto’s military victory was in name only. Over 200 Spanish soldiers were dead with over 150 wounded. Over the next several weeks, some of the wounded died. Afraid that his hollow victory would reach Spain, he marched his men to the interior instead of toward the fortified city of Mobile. His men encamped for the winter of 1540-1541 near present-day Tupelo, Mississippi where they ran low on food, weapons, and other necessities.

Glory as an explorer came for de Soto when he and his men reached the Mississippi River. On May 8, 1541, the group was credited with being the first Europeans to cross the mighty river. Over the next year, de Soto continued on his quest for gold, a route to the Pacific, and a place for settlement. He was never successful and died of a fever in May 1542. The location of his death has been disputed but it was somewhere near the Mississippi River at the Arkansas and Louisiana borders.

The Age of Discovery: 12 Adventurers Who Explored North America
Portrait of Cabeza de Vaca. Public Domain.

6. Alvar Nunex Cabeza de Vaca 1527-1537

Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was an explorer born into Spain’s nobility. As a young man he served in the military, fighting with distinction in several far-off battles associated with the Crusades. Due to his military experience, he was appointed to the Narvaez Expedition as treasurer setting sail from Spain in 1527. The goal of the expedition was to establish garrisons to protect Spanish colonies. Of the 600 men that set sail, only four are known to have survived and returned to Spain.

In April 1528, the expedition landed near present-day St. Petersburg, Florida. Claiming the land for Spain. Abandonment and death adversely impacted the expedition. It was common for men to abandon expeditions as they formed families with native women. For these men, it was economically advantageous to remain in the New World instead of remaining on an expedition and eventually returning to Spain. Death also impacted the success of the expedition. Many died of new diseases, harsh conditions, lack of fresh water, and starvation. Even Pánfilo de Nárvaez died shortly after arriving in Florida.

Early during the expedition, native inhabitants kidnapped and enslaved Cabeza de Vaca and some of his men. Over several years, he labored as a sort of traveling merchant and healer. De Vaca documented the harsh landscape of Florida and the coastal areas along the Gulf of Mexico providing detail about the numerous native tribes that he interacted with and their nomadic cultures. He provided meticulous accounts of the routes in which he traveled, the animals, and the vegetation.

After 10 years traveling as a slave, merchant, and faith healer, Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain in 1537. His “news of the human race” was published in 1542 and remains in print today as The Journey and Ordeal of Cabeza De Vaca. Over time, archaeologists, anthropologists, map makers, geographers, zoologies, and historians have sued his account as a tool to understand the onset of foreign exploration in the New World as well as how natives lived before their encounter with Europeans. De Vaca is credited with being the first European to see the mouth of the Mississippi River as it emptied into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Age of Discovery: 12 Adventurers Who Explored North America
Coronado Expedition heading north. Public Domain

7. Francisco Vazquez de Coronado 1540-1542

Born in 1510, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado listened to stories of great wealth and fortune waiting in the New World. As a young man, he set off on his first voyage to New Spain, married the daughter of family friend, 12-year-old Beatriz de Estrada. Through his marriage he inherited a large encomieda and access to his wife’s other estates.

Coronado proved to be an excellent conquistador and was awarded the governorship of the Kingdom of Nueva Galicia or New Galicia in today’s Mexican states of Jalisco, Sinaloa, and Nayarit. In 1535, Coronado sent a scouting party out to find gold. When the party returned they gave Coronado reports of a city of great wealth that they called Cíbola.

In 1540, Coronado left for his expedition. Thousands of men, horses, mules, priests, and guides departed New Galicia in search of Cíbola and to squash any native resistance. To pay for supplies, Coronado pawned some of his wife’s estates. This group traveled into the interior of present-day northern Mexico and the southwestern United States.

Native inhabitants that stood in the way of Coronado’s search were simply eliminated. When the Zuni people refused to provide supplies to the army, the Spaniards attacked, pillaging, burning, and murdering the Zuni inhabitants in the village of Hawikuh. During the winter of 1540-1541, more violence erupted when the Tiwa Indians, along with other Pueblo groups, refused to accommodate Coronado’s demands. At night, the Tiwa slaughtered 40-60 horses and mules. The Spaniards retaliated by burning 30 Tiwas at the stake and attempting to lay siege to the city, Coofor.

Coronado successfully laid siege to the city of Moho. He forced the native inhabitants to remain in the city as prisoners and slaves. When water ran out, some Indians tried to escape and Coronado ordered that all native men be killed and the women taken as slaves. The Tiquex War ended in March 1541 and Coronado set off into the Great Plains in search of Quivira. After native guides presumably sent him on a wild goose chase, Coronado gave up his hope of finding great wealth and returned to New Spain in 1542.

The expedition traveled through present-day northern Mexico, southwest Arizona, across New Mexico, the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, and north into Kansas. They were the first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. Coronado died in Mexico City in 1544. His expedition was a failure.

The Age of Discovery: 12 Adventurers Who Explored North America
“The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson.” Public Domain

8. Henry Hudson 1607-1610

Henry Hudson was an Englishman, navigator, and explorer. Merchants hired him to find a route to the Pacific Ocean and the silk and spice trades. Hudson traveled to the Arctic and northern North America four times, documenting all that he saw. The information he provided assisted in the launching of a very lucrative fur trade that funded settlements throughout North America and fueled wars for empire between European powers.

The Muscovy Company hired Henry Hudson to find a route to the Pacific Ocean and China. Hudson sailed on Hopewell with a crew of 10 men and one boy, leaving England on May 1, 1607. At the time of the voyage, people believed that the Arctic would be a place of great warmth due to three months of almost continuous sunlight. Cold and unsuccessful, they returned to Europe on September 15, 1607. In April 1608, he was hired by the East India and Muscovy Companies. Again on the Hopewell, Hudson and his crew traveled over 25,000 miles, mostly in the Arctic Circle. The ice was impenetrable and they returned to England in August.

Hudson was an experienced explorer and now knew more about the Arctic than any other European. Again hired by a trading company, Hudson set off on a third voyage, leaving from Amsterdam on April 4, 1609. By mid-July, he had reached the coast of Nova Scotia and anchored the Halve Maen off the coast.

Crewmembers obtained permission to set off on a fishing expedition. While away, they encountered native inhabitants. When the Europeans asked for supplies, the natives refused and the Europeans attacked. Native men, women, and children were forced from their settlement while the crewmembers took pelts, boats, and other goods for trade. Despite this encounter with the native inhabitants of Nova Scotia, Hudson took his crew up the Hudson River on September 2, 1609. The land that Hudson saw, he claimed for the Dutch.

In 1610, the Virginia and the British East India Companies hired Hudson for another voyage. He landed off of the coast of Labrador on June 25. He entered into a large bay that he believed to be the Pacific Ocean and meticulously documented the eastern shoreline of the Hudson Bay. When Hudson wanted to cross the bay, his crew mutinied and placed Hudson, his son, and other crewmembers on an open boat and sent them adrift. They were never seen again.

The Age of Discovery: 12 Adventurers Who Explored North America
Father Marquette and the Indians. Public Domain

9. Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet 1673

Jacques Marquette was a Jesuit missionary born in France and assigned to New France in 1666. Shortly after his arrival, he and fellow missionaries founded Sault Ste. Marie, which became Michigan’s first European settlement. In his capacity as a missionary to indigenous people, he learned several native languages including Huron. Through his interactions with these native groups, he heard about a large river to the west. Marquette asked his superiors permission to search for and explore the river.

Louis Jolliet was born in Quebec and considered a French Canadian. As a young boy, Jolliet interacted with native groups as he worked with his merchant stepfather in the fur trade. He was fluent in French, Spanish, and English as well as several native languages. Prepared to enter into the priesthood, he never took his orders and in 1667 entered into the fur trading business.

Marquette and Jolliet joined forces for an expedition to search for and explore the fabled Mississippi River. With a crew of five men and two canoes, the Jolliet-Marquette expedition departed from St. Ignace, Michigan on May 17, 1673. The party followed Lake Michigan to Green Bay, and then paddled upstream following the Fox River to what is present-day Portage, Wisconsin. The group had to their canoes two miles through marsh.

With a crew of five voyageurs—men who transported goods for the fur trade—and two canoes, the Jolliet-Marquette expedition departed from St. Ignace, Michigan on May 17, 1673. The party followed Lake Michigan to Green Bay. They paddled upstream following the southerly flow of the Fox River to what is present-day Portage, Wisconsin. The group had to portage, carry, their canoes two miles through marsh. Portaging was common for the Jolliet-Marquette expedition. River obstacles, rapids, and cascades were common and hiking with their canoes was the only way to avoid such treacherous conditions.

The group put in at the Wisconsin River and traveled downstream. On June 17, 1673, they reached the Mississippi River at present-day Praire du Chien, Wisconsin. Floating downstream the group encountered few inhabitants. As they claimed the land for France, they documented the river, plants, and animals. As they approached the Arkansas River, they made note of native people adorned with items of Spanish origin. Fearing hostility, they turned around and began the laborious trek back upstream.

Through their infrequent encounters with native inhabitants, they were informed of a shortcut to the great lake. From the Mississippi River, they traveled up the Illinois River and then on to the Des Plaines River. They portaged their canoes to the Chicago River and traveled into Lake Michigan near today’s Navy Pier. The Jolliet-Marquette party was the first group of men of European ancestry to explore the upper Mississippi River and the upper Midwest of North America.

Louis Jolliet went to Quebec with reports of their journey. In May 1700, he set off on an exploration of Anticosti Island in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and was never seen again. Father Marquette wintered in the Illinois Country in 1674, staying in a small encampment that is now Chicago. He died in 1675 of dysentery.

The Age of Discovery: 12 Adventurers Who Explored North America
“Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap” by George Caleb Bingham. Public Domain.

10. Daniel Boone 1734-1820

Daniel Boone was born in 1734. His Quaker family moved from Pennsylvania to the backcountry of North Carolina when he was a young boy. Growing up on the frontier, Daniel Boone and his siblings, had little formal education. Like most contemporaries, Boone knew how to read and eventually became a merchant, surveyor, trapper, and hunter. As a young man he moved to Kentucky and when the Revolutionary War broke out, Boone fought for the Patriots as part of the Kentucky militia.

After the war, the Transylvania Company hired Daniel Boone to create a road through the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachian Mountains. Boone literally blazed a trail, accessible only by horseback or foot, connecting Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. The Wilderness Trail provided a route for migrants to settle onto the American frontier.

Boone married Rebecca Bryan and they had 10 children. In order to support his family, Daniel became a commercial hunter, trapping and transporting hides of deer, beaver, otter, and bison to market for money. As a trapper, fur trader, and explorer, Boone had earned a reputation as an ideal frontiersman. In 1784, an acquaintance published a book about Boone entitled The Discovery Settlement and Present State of Kentucke. The book became very popular and was translated into French and German.

The stories of Daniel Boone’s hunting and trail-blazing exploits captured the imagination of Americans and Europeans, turning Boone into a folk hero. In reality, Boone had become indebted to the federal government due to speculative land deals that did not come to fruition in part due to strict regulations. When Nathan, Daniel’s youngest son, moved into Spanish Louisiana, Rebecca and Daniel went too, leaving America in 1799.

The Spanish provided the American folk hero and frontiersman with several land grants. When the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory, the verbal agreements between Boone and Spanish officials immediately dissolved. Again, the federal government impeded Boone’s potential fortune. Daniel Boone died on September 26, 1820, and was buried next to his wife in a small cemetery in Missouri.

In 1845, rumors circulated that Boone’s body had been removed from its burying place in Missouri and sent to a cemetery in Frankfort. For 138 years Missouri and Kentucky, the state that Boone mapped out, claimed to be Boone’s final resting place. In 1985, evidence suggested that the remains believed to be Boone in Kentucky were actually those of an enslaved African America.

The Age of Discovery: 12 Adventurers Who Explored North America
Corps of Discovery. Public Domain

11. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark 1804-1806

President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Corps of Discovery to explore and map the territory of the Louisiana Purchase. By mapping out the land, the United States would have a legal claim to the land. Jefferson selected Meriwether Lewis as the captain for the expedition who in turn hired his long-time friend, William Clark as his Second Lieutenant.

Over several months, President Jefferson had Captain Lewis study the geography of the Missouri River, study medical techniques and treatments, and learn how to use navigational equipment. After his training, Lewis recruited US Army volunteers that were willing and able to endure the physical demands of paddling upriver each day, be under constant threat of Indian attack, and who could tolerate the lengthy journey so far away from family and friends.

In May 1804, the Corps of Discovery began their upriver journey from St. Charles, Missouri. The expedition documented everything that they saw, measuring each bend in the river, observing plants, animals, and people. The Corps entered Sioux Territory, 640 miles from St. Louis, on July 21, 1804.

Because the United States government-funded the expedition, they carried gifts, various supplies, medicine, 15-star US flags, and Indian Peace Medals created by the US Mint. The front side had an image of President Jefferson with the flip side displaying a message of friendship. Although the men traveled in peace, they had to inform all native tribes that they were now under control of the United States government.

In total, there were 33 men as part of the Corps of Discovery. Others joined as guides along the way with the most famous being Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian who was Toussaint Charbonneau’s wife. During their expedition, the men became the first non-native people to see the Yellowstone River, cross the western Continental Divide, and enter into present-day Montana. The Corps of Discovery relied upon the numerous native tribes that they encountered. Without them the men may have starved or been permanently lost. Only one member of the expedition died and that was from appendicitis.

Two months after the end of the voyage, President Thomas Jefferson gave a public address to Congress proclaiming that the mission was a success and then proceeded to justify the allocations of money for the Corps of Discovery. Meriwether Lewis reportedly committed suicide while outside of Nashville, Tennessee on October 10, 1809. William Clark went on to become the governor of the Missouri Territory. He died in St. Louis on September 1, 1838.

The Age of Discovery: 12 Adventurers Who Explored North America
James Beckwourth before 1856. Public Domain

12. James Pierson Beckwourth 1824-1866

James Pierson Beckwourth was born a slave in Frederick County Virginia around 1798. Beckwourth’s mother was a mulatto slave and his father, Sir Jennings Beckwith, was an Irish and English nobleman. In 1809, Sir Beckwith moved James, his mother, and thirteen children to St. Louis, where he freed Jim, sent him to school for four years and apprenticed him to a blacksmith.

In 1824, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company hired Beckwourth as a wrangler where he quickly earned a reputation as an efficient and superior trapper. The next year, Beckwourth claimed that Crow Indians kidnapped him while on a trapping expedition. Reality may have been that the Rocky Mountain Fur Company arranged for Beckwourth to live in the Crow nation as a means to strengthen trade.

For eight years, Jim lived with the Crow and participated in raids upon other native tribes and white settlements. Through his successful participation, he was given status of chief, married two or three Crow women, and sold his furs to the American Fur Company, owned by New York mogul John Jacob Astor. When his contract with Astor expired, he left the Crow nation and returned to St. Louis in 1837.

His stay in Missouri was short-lived. Later in 1837, he participated as a civilian wagon master, transporting items for the US Army during the Second Seminole War in Florida. After the war, he traveled west and had short stints as a trapper, trader, and shopkeeper. In 1848, he operated a shop but turned professional gambler, taking advantage of the gold seekers in California. To provide a new route into gold country, Beckwourth widened an old Indian trading route so that it could accommodate wagons. In 1851, he led the first wagon train of settlers through the Sierra Mountains to Marysville, California at 5,221 feet.

Beckwourth had settled in Denver by 1859 and was a shopkeeper and an Indian Agent. The US Army hired him as a scout in 1864 as part of its military campaign to eliminate all Indian resistance in the Colorado Territory. During his tenure, Beckwourth participated in the Sand Creek Massacre and Red Cloud’s War where Native American tribes, mostly women and children, were mutilated and killed.

Beckwourth was well known in his lifetime and his exaggerated exploits were published in 1856 as The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth. While in Montana in October 1866, Beckwourth suffered a sever headache and a nosebleed that would not stop. He bled to death due to presumed extreme hypertension. Crow Indians placed Beckworth’s body on an elevated platform, leaving it to the elements in the customary funerary practice.

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