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Efforts to protect Plumas National Forest offer reminder of African-American explorer

Story by Ryan Henson, Senior Policy Director

The Friends of Plumas Wilderness (FPW), a non-profit conservation organization based in Plumas County, is currently developing a National Monument proposal for some of the wildest remaining portions of the Feather River watershed in the Plumas National Forest (PNF).  FPW works to conserve and restore the so-called “Lost Sierra” region in the Plumas, southern Lassen, and northern Tahoe National Forests.

North Fork of the Feather River | Bob Wick

FPW’s development of this proposal includes extensive engagement with affected Tribes such as the Maidu people. Tribes are being offered opportunities to review and adjust the proposed Monument’s draft boundaries and management objectives. FPW hopes that there will be interest among one or more Tribes in developing a collaborative stewardship arrangement with the Forest Service to help manage the Monument once it is established. The Feather River’s deep canyons shelter a wealth of ecological, historical, scenic, Indigenous cultural, and recreational values. CalWild will feature an article from FPW on the proposal in our newsletter in the near future.

African-American trapper, explorer, and icon of the west, James Pierson Beckwourth

James P. Beckwourth, circa 1856

While visiting the Feather River watershed recently and meeting with FPW supporters, CalWild staff were reminded of the importance Nineteenth-Century African-American explorer and entrepreneur James Beckwourth had to the region.

James Pierson Beckwourth was most likely born in 1800 into American slavery in Fredrick County, Virginia. Beckwourth’s father, Jennings Beckwith, was a slaveholder that legally “owned” Beckwourth and his mother. According to records, his father eventually filed a Deed of Emancipation with the court in 1824-1826 which legally granted Beckwourth his freedom.

In 1824 Beckwourth joined the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Beckwourth became known as a prominent trapper and explorer. Beckwourth adopted Native clothing and married the daughter of a chief of the Crow Tribe. Beckwourth lived with a Crow band for eight years. By 1848 and the start of the Gold Rush, Beckwourth went to California where he ran a store in Sonoma and worked as a professional card player in Sacramento before he ventured back into the mountains to work as a guide. In 1850, Beckwourth learned from local Indigenous people about the existence of a low-elevation gap in the eastern Sierra north of Reno. According to the local inhabitants, this gap offered a path between the forbidding, rugged wall of the eastern Sierra and the headwaters of the west-flowing stream now called the Feather River. In 1851, Beckwourth improved the ancient trail through this gap, now called Beckwourth Pass, by widening the trail for horses and eventually wagons.

West of Beckwourth Pass, his improved route which became known as the “Beckwourth Trail,” passed through the vast Sierra Valley, the headwaters of the Middle Fork Feather River, and followed ridges above the Feather, down to what is now the city of Marysville on the edge of California’s great Central Valley. Along the way, the Beckwourth Trail provided access to numerous gold mines operating in what would later become the Plumas National Forest. The Beckwourth Trail spared the settlers and gold seekers about 150 miles of distance and several steep grades and dangerous passes compared to the Donner Pass route through the Sierra Nevada to the Central Valley. Beckwourth Pass is now known to be the lowest pass through the Sierra Nevada.

Beckwourth began ranching in Sierra Valley and opened a hotel in a small community now known as Beckwourth. He died in 1866 while serving as a scout for the U.S. Army.

In 1906 the Western Pacific Railroad built tracks through Beckwourth Pass and constructed a line down the Feather River canyon to Marysville. State Highway 70 now uses Beckwourth Pass and makes what was a hazardous wagon journey from Sierra Valley to Reno relatively short and easy by modern car.

In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 29-cent commemorative postage stamp honoring Beckwourth as a “Legend of the West.” In 1996, the city of Marysville renamed its largest park Beckwourth Riverfront Park to commemorate his contributions to the development of the city.