Walter Jenny Jr.
EDMOND — As we celebrate Oklahoma’s statehood centennial, we often overlook the fact that life existed on these plains before the Land Runs began in 1889. One of the most interesting characters of the 1800s in present-day Oklahoma was a Lenni Lenape (Delaware) Indian named Black Beaver.
Phil Pruner, who lives in Oklahoma City, is a great-great-grandson of Black Beaver. He spoke recently at the Chisholm Trail Museum in Kingfisher about his ancestor.
Born in 1806 in Illinois, not far from St. Louis, Black Beaver began trapping and trading beaver pelts as a teenager. During his life he saw the Pacific Ocean seven times as well as New York City and Washington.
In his 1859 guide book “The Prairie Traveler,” Randolph Marcy wrote that Black Beaver “had visited nearly every point of interest within the limits of our unsettled territory. He had set his traps and spread his blanket upon the head waters of the Missouri and Columbia; and his wanderings had led him south to the Colorado and Gila, and thence to the shores of the Pacific in Southern California.
His life had been that of a veritable cosmopolite, filled with scenes of intense and startling interest, bold and reckless adventure.
“He was with me two seasons in the capacity of guide, and I always found him perfectly reliable, brave, and competent. His reputation as a resolute, determined, and fearless warrior did not admit of question, yet I have never seen a man who wore his laurels with less vanity.
“The truth is,” Marcy added, “my friend Beaver was one of those few heroes who never sounded his own trumpet; yet no one that knows him ever presumed to question his courage.”
Black Beaver spoke fluent English, French, Spanish and about 10 American Indian languages, and was able to communicate with even more tribes through sign language. His skills became invaluable to white settlers and military expeditions. When Marcy escorted the first 500 emigrants to California during the gold rush days of 1849, he engaged Black Beaver as his guide. On the way back, Black Beaver, anxious to return home, took a shortcut across the prairie that reduced the two-month trip to two weeks. Thousands of future emigrants followed his California Trail west.
By 1860 Black Beaver was the wealthiest and most famous Lenape Indian in America, and was living comfortably at present-day Anadarko. But that was soon to change. In May 1861, General W. H. Emory, stationed at Fort Arbuckle, learned that 6,000 Confederate troops were advancing toward him from Texas and Arkansas. He gathered the soldiers from Forts Washita, Cobb and Arbuckle near Minco, but to escape to Kansas he would need a guide.
All the other Indian guides turned him down because they knew the advancing rebels would punish them for aiding the Union troops. Desperate, Emory guaranteed Black Beaver the government would reimburse him for any losses, so he agreed to help. He scouted the approaching Confederate troops and provided information for Emory to capture their advance guard, the first prisoners captured during the Civil War. Black Beaver then guided more than 800 Union soldiers, their prisoners, 200 teamsters, 80 wagons and 600 horses and mules in a mile-long train across 500 miles of open prairie to safety at Fort Leavenworth without the loss of a single man, horse or wagon.
Sure enough, the Confederate Army destroyed Black Beaver’s ranch and placed a bounty on his head that kept him in Kansas for the rest of the war.
After the war, Black Beaver and his friend Jesse Chisholm returned and converted Black Beaver’s escape route into what we now call the Chisholm Trail. Three million head of stray Texas cattle were herded to railheads in Kansas.
Black Beaver resettled at Anadarko, building the first brick home in the area. He had 300 acres of fenced and cultivated land as well as cattle, hogs and horses. He died May 8, 1880, and was buried on his ranch. In 1976 his grave was moved to Fort Sill.
He was the first inductee in the American Indian Hall of Fame in Anadarko, which was only fitting because it is on part of his ranch.
Pruner has good reason to be proud of his legacy. It’s a story that should not be forgotten.
WALTER JENNY JR., an Edmond resident, is secretary of the Oklahoma Democratic Party and chairman of the Edmond Democrats.