Absaroka War Chief

Written by Bryan Ney
Review by B. J. Sedlock

James Beckwourth’s name was in the news in 2021, when a wildfire sprang up near the California town named for him. I hadn’t heard of him before, but this book enlightened me on why a town and mountain pass were named for this African American pioneer.

Beckwourth was born into slavery, later freed by his white father. In 1820s Missouri, Beckwourth likes the idea of going west as a trapper, where he will not be required to show his emancipation papers on demand. He joins William Ashley’s expedition, although he resents not being made a partner due to his race. After winning the respect of the other mountain men, James is captured by people of the Crow nation. He learns Crow ways and becomes a leader in raiding and war parties, adapting himself to their customs, sometimes reluctantly: he tries to persuade them that certain traditions are bad, such as cutting off one’s finger when grieving. After several years with the Crow, the band’s torture of a Blackfoot captive starts James wondering whether he should return to the whites’ world.

Ney bases his tale on an 1856 interview of Beckwourth by Thomas Bonner, and provides notes correlating the two books. He compresses Beckwourth’s timeline and does not cover his later years. The notes section does not mention whether any Crow sources were consulted.

I appreciated learning about a lesser-known figure in Western history and the Crow way of life. However, Beckwourth’s appeal as a character is affected by some of his actions, like the treatment of his own Crow wives and the stealing of another man’s. But Ney notes that historically, wife-stealing was common among the Crow. Perhaps I’m guilty of judging a historical character by today’s standards, but the novel would not make my list of repeat reads.