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Monday, March 28, 2011

Jim Beckwourth's Bowie Knife Adventure

James Pierson Beckwourth (1798 -- 1866)

Jim Beckwourth was born in Virginia to a white slave owner and a mulatto slave. He later moved to the West where he became a noted mountain man, fur trader, and explorer. He lived with the Crow Indians for a number of years, and is credited with the discovery of Beckwourth Pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the gold rush years.

Late in life he related his recollections to Thomas D. Bonner, and his story was published as The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer (1856). In it he gives this description of a bowie-knife scrap, which stemmed from the fact that a large party of whites led by Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick was looted by Crows when Beckwourth was living with the tribe, though he did his best to stop it:
It now comes in the order of relation to describe two or three unpleasant rencounters I had with various parties in St. Louis, growing out of the misunderstanding (already related) between the Crows and Mr. Fitzpatrick's party. I had already heard reports in the mountains detrimental to my character for my supposed action in the matter, but I had never paid much attention to them. Friends had cautioned me that there were large sums of money offered for my life, and that several men had even undertaken to earn the rewards. I could not credit such friendly intimations; still I thought, on the principle that there is never smoke but there is fire, that it would be as well to keep myself a little on my guard.

I had recovered from my sickness, and I spent much of my time about town. My friends repeatedly inquired of me if I had seen Fitzpatrick. Wondering how so much interest could attach to my meeting with that man, I asked one day what reason there was for making the inquiry. My friend answered, "I don't wish you to adduce me as authority; but there are strong threats of taking your life for an alleged robbery of Fitzpatrick by the Crow nation, in which you were deeply concerned."

I saw now what to prepare for, although I still inclined to doubt that any man, possessed of ordinary perceptions, could charge me with an offence of which I was so manifestly innocent. True, I had met Fitzpatrick several times, and, instead of his former cordial salutation it was with difficulty he addressed a civil word to me.

Shortly after this conversation with my friend I went to the St. Louis Theatre. Between the pieces I had stepped to the saloon to obtain some refreshments, and I saw Fitzpatrick enter, with four other not very respectable citizens. They advanced directly toward me. Fitzpatrick then pointed me out to them, saying, "There's the Crow."

"Then," said the others, "we are Black Feet, and let us have his scalp."

They immediately drew their knives and rushed on me.

I then thought of my friend's salutary counsel to be on my guard, but I had no weapon about me. With the agility of a cat I sprung over the counter, and commenced passing tumblers faster than they had been in the habit of receiving them. I had felled one or two of my assailants, and I saw I was in for a serious disturbance.

A friend (and he is still living in St. Louis, wealthy and influential) stepped behind the bar, and, slapping me on the shoulder, said, "Look out, Beckwourth, you will hurt some of your friends."

I replied that my friends did not appear to be very numerous just then.

"You have friends present," he added; and, passing an enormous bowie-knife into my hand, stepped out again.

Now I was all right, and felt myself a match for the five ruffians. My practice with the battle-axe [tomahawk], in a case where the quickness of thought required a corresponding rapidity of action, then came into play.

I made a sortie from my position on to the open floor, and challenged the five bullies to come on; at the same time (which, in my excited state, was natural enough) calling them by the hardest names.

My mind was fully made up to kill them if they had only come at me; my arm was nervous; and my friends, who knew me at that time, can tell whether I was quick-motioned or not. I had been in situations where I had to ply my battle-axe with rapidity and precision to redeem my own skull. I was still in full possession of my belligerent powers, and I had the feeling of justice to sustain me.

I stood at bay, with my huge bowie-knife drawn, momentarily hesitating whether to give the Crow war-whoop or not, when Sheriff Buzby laid hands on me, and requested me to be quiet. Although boiling with rage, I respected the officer's presence, and the assassins marched off to the body of the theatre. I followed them to the door, and defied them to descend to the street with me; but the sheriff becoming angry, and threatening me with the calaboose, I straightway left the theatre.

I stood upon the steps, and a friend coming up, I borrowed a well-loaded pistol of him, and moved slowly away, thinking that five men would surely never allow themselves to be cowed by one man. Shortly after, I perceived the whole party approaching, and, stepping back on the sidewalk in front of a high wall, I waited their coming up. On they came, swaggering along, assuming the appearance of intoxication, and talking with drunken incoherency. When they had approached near enough to suit me, I ordered them to halt, and cross over to the other side of the street.

"Who are you?" inquired one of them.

"I am he whom you are after, Jim Beckwourth; and if you advance one step farther, I will blow the tops of your heads off."

"You are drunk, aren't you?" said one of the party.

"No, I am not drunk," I replied; "I never drink anything to make a dog of me like yourselves."

I stood during this short colloquy in the middle of the sidewalk, with my pistol ready cocked in one hand and my huge bowie-knife in the other; one step forward would have been fatal to any one of them."

Oh, he's drunk," said one; "let's cross over to the other side." And all five actually did pass over, which, if any of them is still living and has any regard for truth, he must admit to this day.

I then proceeded home. My sister had been informed of the rencounter, and on my return home I found her frightened almost to death; for Forsyth (one of the party) had long been the terror of St. Louis, having badly maimed many men, and the information that he was after me led her to the conclusion that I would surely be killed.

A few days after I met two of the party (Forsyth and Kinney), when Forsyth accosted me, "Your name is Beckwourth, I believe?"

I answered, "That is my name."

“I understand that you have been circulating the report that I attempted to assassinate you?"

“I have told that you and your gang have been endeavouring to murder me," I replied, "and I repeat it here."

"I will teach you to repeat such tales about me," he said, fiercely, and drew his knife, which he called his Arkansas tooth-pick, from his pocket.

The knife I had provided myself with against any emergency was too large to carry about me conveniently, so I carried it at my back, having the handle within reach of my finger and thumb. Seeing his motion, I whipped it out in a second. "Now," said I, "you miserable ruffian, draw your knife and come on! I will not leave a piece of you big enough to choke a dog."

"Come," interposed Kinney, "let us not make blackguards of ourselves; let us be going." And they actually did pass on without drawing a weapon. I was much pleased that this happened in a public part of the city, and in open day; for the bully, whom it was believed the law could not humble, was visibly cowed, and in the presence of a large concourse of men. I had no more trouble from the party afterward.

In connection with this affair, it is but justice to myself to mention that, when Captain Sublet, Fitzpatrick, and myself happened to meet in the office of Mr. Chouteau, Captain Sublet interrogated Fitzpatrick upon the cause of his hostility toward me, and represented to him at length the open absurdity of his trumping up a charge of robbery of his party in the mountains against me.
I like Beckwourth's line, "I will not leave a piece of you big enough to choke a dog." Someone should put that in a Steven Seagal movie.

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