Beckwourth Pass (No. 336 California Historical Landmark)
California Historical Landmarks Program
Historical Landmarks are sites, buildings, features, or events that are of statewide significance and have anthropological, cultural, military, political, architectural, economic, scientific or technical, religious, experimental, or other value. Historical Landmarks are eligible for registration if they meet at least one of the following criteria:
1) Is the first, last, only, or most significant of its type in the state or within a large geographic region
2) Is associated with an individual or group having a profound influence on the history of California
3) Is a prototype of, or an outstanding example of, a period, style, architectural movement or construction or is one of the more notable works or the best surviving work in a region of a pioneer architect, designer or master builder.
California’s Landmark Program began in the late 1800s with the formation of the Landmarks Club and the California Historical Landmarks League. In 1931, the program became official when legislation charged the Department of Natural Resources—and later the California State Chamber of Commerce—with registering and marking buildings of historical interest or landmarks. The Chamber of Commerce then created a committee of prestigious historians, including DeWitt Hutchings and Lawrence Hill, to evaluate potential landmark sites.
In 1948, Governor Earl Warren created the California Historical Landmarks Advisory Committee to increase the integrity and credibility of the program. Finally, this committee was changed to the California Historical Resources Commission in 1974. Information about registered landmarks numbered 770 onward is kept in the California Register of Historical Resources authoritative guide. Landmarks numbered 669 and below were registered prior to establishing specific standards, and may be added to the California Register when criteria for evaluating the properties are adopted.
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James Beckwourth was an African American pioneer, mountain man, fur trader and scout. He was the only African American to ever document his own life story.
Beckwourth was instrumental in opening one of four mountain passes through the Sierra Nevada for emigrants as they headed west.
He spent many months preparing a trail through the lowest of the mountain passes (an elevation of 5,212 feet) to Marysville. Beckwourth brought his wagon train of emigrants in the fall of 1851. To honor Beckwourth’s contributions to pioneers, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp bearing his face.
Ina Coolbrith was 11 years old when her parents traveled through the pass with Beckwourth leading the way. Many years later, in 1927, a luncheon honoring her as California’s first poet laureate, Coolbrith remembered Beckwourth and her experience.
“Ours was the first of the covered wagon trains to break the trail through Beckwourth Pass into California. We were guided by the famous scout, Jim Beckwourth, who was an historical figure, and to my mind, one of the most beautiful creatures that ever lived. He was rather dark and wore his hair in two long braids, twisted with colored cord that gave him a picturesque appearance. He wore a leather coat and moccasins and rode a horse without a saddle.
When we made that long journey toward the West over the deserts and mountains, our wagon train was driven over ground without a single mark of a wagon wheels until it was broken by ours. And when Jim Beckwourth said he would like to have my mother’s little girls ride into California on his horse in front of him, I was the happiest little girl in the world.”
Beckwourth told many colorful stories, “He could spin a good yarn,” according to those who knew him well. Additional research on Beckwourth’s life revealed that indeed many of the stories he wrote were not tall tales. They really happened.
The Beckwourth Pass was used so frequently, the wagons wore a trail into the ground. After the transcontinental railroad was completed, wagon trains were no longer the preferred method of transportation, and the pass lost its appeal. Today, modern “emigrants" drive through the mountain pass on State Highway 70 or ride through it on the train.
The pass is about 15 miles east of the town of Beckwourth. To celebrate Beckwourth’s life, Marysville presents Frontier Days, with living history programs the first weekend of October every year.
The California Historical Marker is located at a roadside rest area on Beckwourth’s Pass on State Highway 70 (P.M. 95.8), 1.5 miles east of Chilcoot.
El Rio de las Plumas, “The river of feathers,” lends its name to Plumas County. Captain Luis Arguello named the river, having been impressed by the many floating feathers on the water. Plumas County also contains Beckwourth Pass, the lowest summit of the High Sierra, which quickly became a favorite route of wagon trains.
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