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Celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation: Two former slaves and Nevada Territory


By Our Story, Inc.

Manumitted by his father, Sir Jennings Beckwith, after four years in a St. Louis school and an unsuccessful four-year apprenticeship to a blacksmith, James Beckwourth (b. April 6, 1798) joined Gen. William Ashley’s fur trapping company as a wrangler on an expedition to explore the Rocky Mountains. Within a few years, Beckwourth became known as a prominent trapper, mountain man, Indian fighter and storyteller. He worked with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and lived with the Crow for eight or nine years.

Another decade plus saw more adventure, trading and soldiering; Beckwourth joined the Gold Rush emigration to California. After stints as a store owner (Sonoma) and professional card player (Sacramento), Beckwourth is credited with discovering Beckwourth Pass in 1850. He improved the path which started near Pyramid Lake, climbed the mountain, rode the ridge between two forks of the Feather River and came into the gold fields at Marysville, being safer and having less steep grades than the Donner Trail. His ranch/trading post/hotel on the trail were the start of the Beckwourth settlement. Over 10,000 travelers and many persons who contributed to the evolution of both California and Nevada received assistance from Jim Beckwourth.

Ben Palmer, born into slavery in South Carolina around 1817, and his sister, Charlotte (married to white D.H. Barber) were among the first settlers in the Carson Valley. Originally bound from Missouri to California, reaching the well-watered Carson Valley, they decided to adjust their flight, settle and raise cattle to sell to other emigrants on the California Trail.

Palmer and Barber made side by side land claims of 320 acres and 400 acres on the west side of Carson Valley in 1853.

Ben Palmer claimed homestead water rights. He sold grazing rights to emigrants who took their livestock through the area and harvested grass to provide feed for those who crossed in early spring or late autumn. Palmer and Barber constructed ditches and dams to control area water.

Famous for hospitality, the Palmer operation was widely known for quality of livestock and especially fine horses. Their home was often used as a lodging house for travelers and new settlers in the Carson Valley.

By the 1860s, illiterate Palmer had became one of the most successful ranchers in the area. The Territorial Enterprise listed him as one of the largest taxpayers in Douglas County as did the Carson Valley News, eight years later, in publishing a list of the 47 largest taxpayers. Later Palmer was listed again, as the 10th largest taxpayer with assessed real and personal property totaling $17,380, ahead of most prominent white landholders in Douglas County. He was included in a ranking that was topped by lumber companies and a railroad. He was partners with rancher H. F. Dangberg and the Genoa postmaster and surveyor, C. P. Young, in the Douglas Consolidated Mill and Mining Company.

For the years 2012-2013, Our Story, Inc. will be be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Project and its legacy in Nevada. This article is part of a series that will be published during that time. Please feel free to circulate and share (credited), comment or submit your own articles.

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