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James Beckwourth - The Most Famous Black Pioneer

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In the 19th century, the freedom of black people living in the US was still limited by slavery. Some of them managed to free themselves, but they kept living on the margin of society.

It is true that president Abraham Lincoln officially ended slavery in the US in 1863, but it didn't actually save the Afro-Americans from racism and hatred. Both before and after the president's act the White Americans simply citizens did not trust the (ex-)slaves. James Pearson Beckwourth, was a Black freed man, the hero of our story, was born in 1798, who and spent most of his life among people who treated him like an object. The only place he could run turned out to be the Wild West. There, he became famous as one of the greatest pioneers in history.

When we think of Beckwourth's family situation, it might seem to us that he didn't really have to look for happiness in the wild. He was born a slave indeed, but he was also a son of sir Jennings Beckwith, an old English immigrant of high social status. Although James was owned by sir Jennings, the latter took good care of the boy and thought of him as his real son – a thing very uncommon back then. Therefore, young Jim received a good education and practiced at the local blacksmith. His father freed him when he was 24, but James, instead of starting his own business, found a job as a person responsible for cleaning and looking after horses, and joined General William Ashley who was on his way to Missouri to hunt for animal furs.

The companies operating in those times (like the General Ashley's Rocky Mountain Fur Company) were like armies. Setting out on an expedition meant not only hunting for furs, but also fighting bandits and unfriendly Indians. While serving under Ashley, James proved his courage and fitness by saving the General from being killed by an enraged buffalo. Since that moment the General trusted James so much that he sent him on a mission to the Indian Crow Nation. According to his orders he was only supposed to start a trade exchange between the Crow and the Ashley's company, but James joined the Crow Nation for nine years. During that time he became a warrior and a chief of one of the Crow tribes.

When the fur trade declined, Beckwourth decided to move on. The year 1837 he spent fighting with the Seminole tribe in Florida, and later became an independent trader. Together with his co-workers he established a place for buying and selling goods in the state of Colorado which he called 'Pueblo'. Nowadays, Pueblo is one of the state's biggest cities.

From Colorado James moved to the south, to Old Spanish Trail in Mexico. In 1844, when the Mexican-American war started, Beckwourth came back to the US with 1800 stolen horses. Later, he traveled to California, encouraged by the gold rush which took place there.. There he discovered many roads which helped the miners looking for gold get to the Sierra Nevada mountain range safely. Soon, he decided to settle somewhere permanently and occupy himself with raising cattle, trading, and playing cards. However, he didn't manage to stay anywhere for long, and, as a 60-year old man, he became a trapper again.

Beckwourth died in 1866 in the Crows' village where he used to be a chief. He wasn't the only black trapper in the Wild West, but he was the only whose memories were written down in a book by Thomas D. Bonner. Today, they are a valuable source of historical knowledge about slavery, trapping, the white-Native American relations and, above all, the role the Black Americans played in creating the American state.
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