"THE FIRST WORK IN AMERICAN LITERATURE TO RELAY THE STORY OF AN AFRICAN AMERICAN ON THE WESTERN FRONTIER": FIRST EDITION OF LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF JAMES P. BECKWOURTH, 1856, IN ORIGINAL CLOTH
(BECKWOURTH, James P.) BONNER, T.D. The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians. With Illustrations. Written from his own Dictation. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1856. Octavo, original blind-stamped brown cloth, gilt-lettered spine. $2000.
First edition of "a classic of pioneer days in the West," the dramatic life of Black western explorer and pioneer James Beckwourth, born the enslaved son of a white overseer and an African woman, whose history, like that of thousands of African American pioneers, "raises a different lens to an old tale," with engraved frontispiece and twelve full-page engraved illustrations, in original cloth.
African Americans have been largely removed from America's western past. Yet they "rode every wilderness trail," and their vital history "raises a different lens to an old tale" (Katz, Black West, xi-xv). Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth (alt Beckwith), published before his death, is "the first work in American literature to relay the story of an African American on the western frontier" (Allmendinger, Imagining the African American West, 1). Beckwourth, who remains "one of the most interesting fur trappers and traders… emerges as one of the most enigmatic" (Oswald, in Trappers of the Far West, 162). Born enslaved to a white plantation overseer and an enslaved woman, his father (and master) moved the family, his slaves, and the young boy west in 1810 and at 14, after he was apprenticed to a violent apprenticeship, he is believed to have been freed by his father. Beckwourth's Life "is a classic of pioneer days in the West" (Graff 347). For decades he crisscrossed the West as he "scaled the Rockies… pushed westward to the Pacific, north to Canada and south to Florida, where he served as an Army scout" (Katz, 36-9). In 1824 he joined Ashley's expedition to the Rocky Mountains, "which initiated the famous Green River fur trading rendezvous in the summer of 1825" (Lamar, 89), and he later was adopted by members of the Crow nation, marrying a Crow woman.
In 1851 he discovered Beckwourth Pass, which "secured him an honored place in the history of the West." Following publication of this work, which side-steps his African heritage, "Beckwourth was forced at gunpoint to accompany Col. Chivington's Colorado Volunteers to a sleeping Cheyenne camp at Sand Creek," where the entire camp was murdered. "When the U.S. Congress investigated the massacre, Beckwourth, summoned as a witness, described the horror and tragedy." At his death, he was buried as a Crow on a treetop platform (Katz, 36-8). This work, said to be dictated to Thomas Bonner, was long viewed as unreliable. Yet "new research indicates that Beckwourth's basic narrative is true… [it] records the way in which a Black man succeeded in the dangerous and demanding life of the Far West between 1825 and 1865. His firsthand acquaintance with the greatest of the fur trappers, Ashley, Smith, McKenzie, Vasquez and others, and his life with the Crow make him a useful source for the fur-trade period" (Lamar, 90). Beckwourth was honored in 1993 when his image was featured on a commemorative U.S. stamp honoring "Legends of the West." Black director Jeymes Samuel's 2021 film, The Harder They Fall, contains a main character based on Beckwourth and other "Black cowboys, frontiersmen and lawmen who have largely been written out of Hollywood's cinematic depictions of the Old West. In actuality, at least one in four cowboys was Black. 'Black cowboys were some of the very first cowboys on the cattle trails because many of them used the skills they already had from handling cows as slaves' (Gloria Austin, co-founder of National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum)" (Los Angeles Times). Containing woodcut-engraved frontispiece of "James P. Beckwourth in Hunter's Costume" with twelve full-page in-text illustrations. Number of in-text illustrations undetermined; no priority established. Bibliographic sources generally do not state number of illustrations, or otherwise list eleven (Wagner-Camp); Streeter lists twelve. This copy with in-text illustration titled "A-Ra-Poo-Ash": not in Wagner-Camp. Bound without rear leaf of publisher's advertisement; with excised front free endpaper, likely due to a signature. Field 149. Graff 347. Blockson 3235. Howes B601. Sabin 4265. Wagner-Camp 272:1. Streeter 2101. Contemporary owner inscription of Casper Shunk, dated "Va Sept. 1857."
Interior quite fresh with minimal scattered foxing, light edge-wear mainly to spine head of bright gilt-stamped original cloth. A very handsome near-fine copy.