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“The Harder They Fall” and the real James Beckwourth

By Bob Conrad
Published: Last Updated on

Netflix’s new “revisionist western,” “The Harder They Fall” by Jeymes Samuels, is clear at the beginning of the movie that the story is fiction. 

Its characters, however, are based on real people. One in particular was a pioneer who created a wagon trail for gold miners heading from what is now the Reno area northwest into California.

James Beckwourth as depicted in his book.
James Beckwourth as depicted in his book.

The stretch of Highway 395 north from Reno to the California state line was originally a trail constructed for wagon travel by James Beckwourth, who is played by RJ Cyler in “The Harder They Fall.” The movie’s popularity has news sources identifying the historical role of its characters.

Beckwourth was born into slavery in Virginia about 1798. His father was a white slave owner, and his mother a slave. He was emancipated in about 1826. Being of mixed race was something that allowed a him to pass as indigenous. He was even as member of the Crow Nation for about a decade and had Indigenous wives.

He was known as Bloody Arm’ because of his skill as a fighter.” In the movie, he is characterized as a fast gunfighter. In real life this was also likely true, as he is known to have killed people given his stints on raiding parties of other Indigenous tribes, in addition to serving time as a soldier. 

Local history

Our Story Inc., a Reno-based nonprofit, has a mission to “seek out, collect, preserve and exhibit the contributions, heritage, and culture of people whose experiences are not well represented in Northern Nevada history.” The organization has a page devoted to Beckwourth’s contributions to Northern Nevada.

Beckwourth’s renown is in part because a book of his experiences was written and published in the mid-1800s.

“Beckwourth was a man of his times, and for the early fur trappers of the Rockies, the ability to ‘spin a good yarn’ was a skill valued almost as highly as marksmanship or woodsmanship,” the Our Story website notes. “And while Beckwourth certainly had a tendency to exaggerate numbers or to occasionally make himself the hero of events that happened to other people, later historians have discovered that much of what Beckwourth related in his autobiography actually occurred.”

His book (read it online) was written by a judge — also reported to have been a journalist — who stayed at Beckwourth’s hotel in what is now known as Sierra Valley, Calif. The judge, Thomas Bonner, transcribed Beckwourth’s tales, edited the book and it was published in 1856 by Harper & Brothers in New York. (Beckwourth was to receive half of the book’s royalties. He never received a dime.)

A passage from his book was excerpted in Harpers: 

“[Beckwourth] is evidently, but unconsciously to himself, losing all sympathy with the restraints of civilized society… He combines the superior intelligence of the white man (and that of a high order) with the cunning of the aborigines, and he is soon bedecked with war paint, clothed in robes, and engaged in innumerable adventures.”

Our Story’s website says Beckwourth’s book was regarded “as something of a joke.”

“Beckwourth’s role in American history was often dismissed by historians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many were quite blatant in their prejudices, refusing to give any credence to a ‘mongrel of mixed blood.’”

Beckwourth’s life experiences are incredibly diverse. He was an explorer, trapper, trailblazer, rancher, member of the Crow Nation (ultimately becoming a “war chief”), a Confederate commander, a volunteer soldier in the Second Seminole War, a U.S. Army courier, a small-business owner and a professional card player.

Reno Evening Gazette, 1905 clipping about the naming of Beckwourth Pass.
Source: Reno Evening Gazette, Dec. 30, 1905.

He also notoriously stole 1,800 horses from Mexico “as spoils of war” during the Mexican War.

The Colorado Magazine in 1928 wrote the following about Beckwourth:

“A column editorial in the Rocky Mountain News, of December 1, 1859, is devoted to Beckwourth. From it we quote: ‘We had formed the opinion, as has, we presume, almost everyone, that Captain Beckwourth ‘’as a rough, illiterate backwoodsman, but were most agreeably surprised to find him a polished gentleman, possessing a fund of general information which few can boast.’”

Beckwourth Pass

His namesake locally reflects his role as a rancher, innkeeper and guide to gold miners heading to California via the Beckwourth Trail, now designated in part as Beckwourth Pass. He was reportedly the first settler in Sierra Valley.

According to Our Story, “the trail left the California Trail from the Truckee River about where Reno, Nevada is now situated. The trail went north and west from there (roughly along the route now followed by Highway 395), then turned west through the Beckwourth Pass.”

The Beckwourth Trail “spared the settlers and gold seekers about 150 miles … and several steep grades and dangerous passes, such as Donner Pass.”

Trails West, another local nonprofit, maintains trail markers and has a trail guide in honor of Beckwourth.

“Thousands of wagons used the route from 1851 well into the 1860s, avoiding the infamous Donner Pass,” Grayson and Carol Sorrels wrote in a Trails West newsletter after taking a field trip visiting the trail markers.

Beckwourth’s cabin on Highway 70 and other structures still stand near Portola, Calif. The Beckwourth Trail can still be followed today; though, it remains, as it was in the 1800s, treacherous in parts. 

When watching “The Harder They Fall,” Beckwourth’s character, not unlike in his own book, is embellished — however, it’s important to keep in mind the man was incredibly accomplished and nuanced in real life. 

He died in 1867 while with a Crow band in Montana. He was given a traditional Crow funeral in Laramie, Wyo.

Learn more

Watch an interview with “The Harder They Fall” actors.