Map Adventures ⟴ Beckworths Pass the maps 180 (almost) year journey

For this week’s map adventure we took a journey through history on the eastern portion of Beckwourth’s Pass. Starting in Sparks NV and ending our journey in Blairsden CA. Cheating a little this week, this is a drive I am very familiar with (my parents live in Graeagle/Blairsden) yet I’ve never taken the time to learn about this historic stretch of Highway. I’ve often found myself wondering about the little historic hamlets that dot the landscape of this scenic drive. How long have they been there, who lived in these historic towns and what is the Beckwourth's pass exactly. So this week I decided to use my 1866 Plumas County map, take some roadside stops and see what new adventures through history I could find.


Originally, I was going to use the 1866 map of Plumas County but quickly realized none the towns or place names make an appearance on it. Out of curiosity I set out to do a little research, I had no idea how much rich, and important, history this beautiful valley holds. Being the map nerd that I am I ended up deciding to switch it up this week and use not 1 but 17 maps on my journey. A map from every decade starting in the 1853 until 2022 making this a 179-year map adventure.


Soooo, without further adieu I present the


Almost 180 Year History (in a nut shell) of Beckwourth’s Pass.


Beckworths pass  benchmark maps 2022
Beckworths Pass as it looks 2022

The Myth, the Man, the Legend:

We can't talk about Beckwourth’s pass without talking about its namesake James P. “Jim” Beckwourth. Who is this amazing man? Well let me tell you...


Jim Beckwourth was a trapper, trader, trail blazer, mountaineer, horse wrangler, Crow Indian Chief, pioneer, soldier, rancher, storekeeper, blacksmith, slave and the first African American to document his life. Whew that’s a mouth full, but he is best known (at least in these parts) as the pioneer who trailblazed his way from the Truckee Meadows NV to Bells Bar CA paving the way for those coming out west with a dream of gold.


Honestly, I could do an entire post on this remarkable man but in the order of staying on topic I will give you the oversimplified version of Jim’s life (but I highly recommend you read more about this hunk of a man).

Name: James P. (A.K.A Jim, A.K.A Bloody Arm) Beckwourth

Born: Virginia in 1798 or 1800

Mother: unnamed African slave woman

Father: Sir Jennings Beckwourth, white plantation owner Early Life: Moved as a young boy to Missouri with his family.

Slave Status: legally considered a slave by birth. His father made 3 attempts in 1824, 1825 & 1826 to declare “the execution of a Deed of Emancipation from him to James, a mulatto boy." his 3rd appearance in open court in 1826 was successful. From there on his status became “free Negro.”

Man of all trades:

Horse wrangler: 1822 he took a job as a horse wrangler on an expedition to the lead mines in the Fever River area.

Blacksmith: 1824 at the urging of his father he moved to St. Louis and apprenticed as a blacksmith.

Trapper: 1824 signed on to work for General William Ashley on his trapping expedition in the Rocky Mountains.

Crow Indian Chief: While working in the Rocky’s he ended up living among the crow Indians, who believed him to be the chiefs long lost son. During his 6 years with them he learned the language, took on several wives and eventually earned the title Chief.

Solder: 1846 he signed on to fight in the Mexican War.

Pioneer: 1850 he came out west in search of glory and gold.

Trail blazer: 1851 noticing a would be pass through an old Indian route he petitioned the city of Marysville for funding. They agreed upon $10,000 to be paid upon completion of his new pass. With his own money he began the grueling work and in the Summer of 1852 Jim personally led the first wagon train from The Truckee Meadows to Marysville. Upon arriving successfully he went to collect his $10,000 only to find out the town couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pay. The reason? They had gone for broke due to 2 recent fires (also knowing they didn’t legally have to pay a black man).

⥇ On a side note: Marysville benefited greatly throughout the years thanks to Jim’s efforts and posthumously "honored" their agreement by dedicating a park to him.


Obituary James P. Beckwourth

Store owner: 1852 he built the first cabin and way stop in what would soon become the town of Beckwourth.

Scout/Interpreter/Patriot: 1864 he served as a guide and interpreter for the U.S. troops, in the Cheyenne War.

Author: 1853 Jim met Thomas D. Bonner a wandering journalist when he stayed at His stage stop. He then recounted his remarkable life story Which became the 1856 book The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians. Boone had promised 1/2 the proceeds to Jim but following Marysville lead never paid him any of the money earned.

Death: After leaving Sierra Valley he eventually returned to life amongst the Crow Indians. It is here the take of Jim a Beckwourth ends when he was poisoned at the hands of a former wife.

The road: then, now and all the tid bits in between - presented through 180 (almost) years in maps.


1850's The decade of options

Prior to 1852 if you were making your way out West seeking wealth and infamy your route options were rather limited.

You had the Henness Pass created in 1849. Although this had become the preferred route (the Truckee/Donner pass had just received a bit of bad press) it was not without its hardships. Travelers endured the blistery cold Sierras, steep hills, tough terrain and increased risk for highway bandits.


The other option was the Truckee (Donner) pass created in 1844. This pass over the Sierra's was very difficult, dangerous and could only be attempted during certain times of the year.




Enter 1852, when life became a little bit easier for those headed West chasing a dream. This year saw the opening of not 1, but 2 new passes.


Nobles Pass to the far north and the much lower Beckwourth pass.






The oldest map I could find (not to say there aren’t older, just within my resources) that shows Beckwourth pass is the super pretty 1853 Map of California by Trask.


Tracks 1853 State Map of California

This map shows the (unnamed) pass located in Butte County, later to be Plumas County.


↠Note: Notice the lack of settlements, towns, mining camps, communities, housing developments, T.P.s. or shanty shacks. The beautiful valley that within a years' time would be filled with fortune seekers was still baren, quiet and in its natural state.


Jim Beckwourth house; Beckwourth, CA

1860's

Life in the Valley

The maps from the 1860's begin to reflect a busy change in the valley. The scars of human activity begin to take hold in the form of towns and settlements. We see Jim Beckwourth's house show up on the map. Our pioneer friend laid claim to a ranch and built a hotel, stage stop and shop. In Jim’s own words...


The first real town to be deemed worthy of mapping is Summit, which became an important town in the valley and will be a mainstay on the maps through the rest of the 1800’s.

Authors Holt, Warren; Gibbes, C.D.
1869 California and Nevada

Summit: Town ➝Year: 1859 seasonable cabin built by the Ross & Evans party ➝Post office: 4th Class Post office established 5/24/1864 ➝Stats, Buildings & notable events: Summit House Hotel, run by C. T. Adams; Odd Fellows Lodge; Public School, dairy, blacksmith shop, grocery, and even a doctors office. ➝Note: The original grocery is still in business operating as Wiggins General store in Chilcoot.


1870's

A growing Valley

1879 State map of California

The Maps in this decade show a steady flow of growth and change that we will continue to see into the 20th century. The settlements of Junction, Swixxer, Beckwourth (town), something called settlements, Delaney, Sulphur Springs and Mohawk Valley are added to the map in this decade. ➝ One interesting note: some of the settlements that begin to show up in the maps of 1870's were in fact older (some by 20 years) but failed to make any discernible appearance on the maps previously

photo courtesy of Sierranevadageotourism.org
Site of Junction; the original Beckwourth trail seen to the right

Junction

Junction sat at a very advantageous spot. It’s hotel and way stop Junction House was on the famous Reno to Oregon trail, as well as sitting at the begining of Beckwourth Pass. Later years the crossroads would become the Nevada-California-Oregon Railway & the Sierra & Mohawk Railway. This little hamlet had the Junction House, built in 1859 and the Junction Hotel, built in 1863 by C.M. West & Albert S. Wright (who ran the hotel for 25 years). Junction would weigh in importance based on the season and number of travelers. This shaky status is reflected in the multiple openings and closings of its post office.


The colorful and eventful history of the Junction Post Office: