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Trail Blazer Of The Far West

June 2024
15min read

Long before Frémont, Jedediah Smith mapped huge regions between Salt Lake and California. He ranks beside Lewis and Clark in the annals of American exploration

In December of the year 1826 Captain William Cunningham, master of the ship Courier out of Boston, recorded with unstinting admiration a singular event in the quiet California port of San Diego where the Courier had called to trade. “There has arrived at this place,” he wrote, “Capt. Jedediah Smith with a company of hunters, from St. Louis, on the Missouri… . Does it not seem incredible that a party of fourteen men, depending entirely upon their rifles and traps for subsistence, will explore this vast continent, and call themselves happy when they can obtain the tail of a beaver to dine upon?”

The Captain had witnessed the completion of the first overland journey to California from the distant American frontier, led by a fellow Yankee just twentyseven years old. This in itself was a solid achievement, but Jed Smith contributed much else worthy of note during his nine-year western odyssey. In addition to pioneering the way to California, he opened the historic gateway to the Far West—South Pass, in Wyoming; filled in an immense geographic void with the discovery of the arid vastness of the Great Basin; grasped the existence of the Sierra Nevada mountain barrier to California and made the initial crossing of that imposing range; and, finally, was the first white man to traverse virtually the entire length of America’s Pacific coast, from southern California to the Columbia River in Oregon. All of this he accomplished before he was thirty.

By almost any standard, Jedediah Smith, not John C. Frémont, ought to be remembered today as the West’s “Pathfinder.” Yet for some reason—perhaps the irony of history, or perhaps simply his incredibly bad luck—his name never quite became impressed upon the American consciousness. Only in the last few decades have the dedicated researches of western historians, particularly Maurice Sullivan and Dale Morgan, restored Jedediah Strong Smith to something like his rightful place: alone with Lewis and Clark in the first rank of America’s explorers.

Luck was with him at first. Arriving in St. Louis early in 1822 at the age of twenty-three, Jed Smith sought a career in the mountains at precisely the moment when the long-restrained American assautt on the western fur trade burst loose. As far back as 1807 Manuel Lisa had tried to tap the rich beaver country of the upper Missouri River, only to be driven out within a few years by the vicious Blackfeet Indians. Others had sought the prize, among them John Jacob Astor. “Our enterprise is grand, and deserves success,” Astor wrote, but Great Britain gobbled up his Pacific outpost, Astoria, in the War of 1812. Now, in the 1820’s, the postwar depression had subsided, venture capital was again available, and the Blackfeet showed signs of being amenable to trade.

If the time was ripe, the competition was also prepared. In 1821 the giants of the British fur trade, the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, had ended their long, ruinous warfare and merged. In addition to this Hudson’s Bay monopoly, the American challengers faced the fact that virtually nothing was known of what lay on the far side of the Rockies.

The map makers of 1820 depended on a misty web of myth and legend to fill the great blank between the Rockies and the Pacific. There was supposed to be a huge inland sea called Timpanogos about which the Franciscan explorers Escalante and Domingue/ had written back in 1776. The maps further supposed, in various combinations, a series of major westward-flowing rivers: the Timpanogos, the Multnomah, the Los Mongos, and, most enduring, the fabled Buenaventura. It was a certainty that the headwaters of the Missouri and the rivers of the far Northwest contained beaver in quantity. Why not the valleys of these mighty rivers farther south? The hardhanded, resourceful Americans intended to find out.

Jed Smith was later to write of his motives for showing up in St. Louis that important year of 1822: “I started into the mountains with the determination of becoming a first-rate hunter, of making myself thoroughly acquainted with the character and habits of the Indians, of tracing out the sources of the Columbia River, and following it to its mouth”—to which he added, since he was a New England Yankee at heart—“and of making the whole profitable to me.”

Smith was born in 1799 of deeply religious New England parents in the Susquehanna Valley at what is now Bainbridge, New York. The family drifted westward to Erie County, Pennsylvania, where a local doctor took a liking to the boy, helped him with an education, and introduced him to the published narrative of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The family was soon on the move again, to Ohio’s Western Reserve. Coming of age, Jedediah Smith struck out for the frontier.

William H. Ashley, the lieutenant governor of Missouri, was eager for a share in the fur-trade riches. In partnership with a veteran trader named Andrew Henry, Ashley advertised in the St. Louis Missouri Gazette for “Enterprising Young Men” who would be hired “to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two or three years.” Smith quickly signed on. The young hunter spent his first mountain winter (1822-23) with one of Henry’s trapping parties high up the Missouri, in present-day Montana. He quickly made his mark, and in the spring Henry dispatched him as an “express” to tell Ashley to bring up more horses. It was with Ashley that Smith was first brushed by violent death.

Pulling up the Missouri with supplies, the party stopped to trade for horses with the Arikaras. Instead of trade they got bullets. Smith and the shore party were pinned down on an exposed sand spit under a murderous fire, and before they could escape twelve were dead and eleven wounded, two of them mortally. Trapper Hugh Glass undertook the melancholy task of writing to one victim’s parents: “My painful duty it is to tell you of the death of yr Son wh befell at the hands of the Indians 2d of June in the early morning… . Mr. Smith, a young man of our company, made a powerful prayer wh moved us all greatly, and I am persuaded John died in peace.”

Jed Smith hastened upriver to Henry’s outpost with the news of the disaster, then returned to serve in a punitive military expedition against the Arikaras. Ashley’s losses had been considerable, but at least the Missouri artery was open again.

For the fall beaver hunt, Smith, now a veteran at twenty-four, was given his first command. It was a party of exceptional quality, including Thomas Fitzpatrick, Jim Clyman, William Sublette, Thomas Eddie, and Edward Rose, all of whom became famous mountain men in their own right. They set off west from the Missouri toward the Dakota Badlands and the Black Hills, breaking a new trail to the mountains. At one point, after the party had nearly succumbed for want of water, Smith was attacked by the mountain man’s dreaded enemy, a grizzly bear. Clyman left a vivid description of the encounter:
Grissly did not hesitate a moment but sprang on the cap t taking him by the head first pitc[h]ing sprawling on the earth … breaking several of his ribs and cutting his head badly… . the bear had taken nearly all his head in his cap[a]cious mouth close to his left eye on one side and clos to his right ear on the other and laid the skull bare to near the crown of the head… . one of his ears was torn from his head out to the outer rim …

The bear was killed, and under Smith’s cool direction Clyman somehow stitched up the gaping wounds, even saving the ear. His doctoring done, the redoubtable Clyman remarked that “this gave us a lisson on the charcter of the grissly Baare which we did not forget.”

The trappers forged on into the Rockies, taking beaver and wintering with a tribe of friendly Crow Indians on the Wind River in present-day Wyoming. On the spring hunt of 1824 they found a practical way west through the Divide via the wide gap that became famous as South Pass, and set about trapping the beaver-rich Green River valley. Instructing Fitzpatrick to report these developments to Ashley, Smith and six of his men plunged deep into the mountains to the northwest. Exactly where they trapped is not known, but suddenly, in September, 1824, they appeared in the middle of what the Hudson’s Bay Company liked to consider its own private preserve.

The company had devised an admirably direct method of keeping its American competitors out of the Oregon country, the ownership of which was a matter of dispute between England and the United States: it simply trapped to extinction as many beaver streams as could be reached. Alexander Ross, Hudson’s Bay agent, was on such a mission in the Snake River region when Smith made contact with one of his parties of Indian trappers. This band of transplanted Iroquois, quavering from a skirmish with the Snakes, offered its beaver pelts for safe conduct to Ross’ base. As a Yankee, Smith promptly snapped up this bargain.

Ross remembered it as “That damn’d all cursed day” when his Iroquois showed up under convoy of the smug Americans. Smith wintered at the company’s Flathead Post in northwestern Montana, absorbing every detail of the British operations. When he and his men finally departed in the spring of 1825 to seek out Ashley, a British diarist tartly remarked, “One Jedidiah S. Smith is at the head of them, a sly cunning Yankey.”

Fitzpatrick’s report of South Pass and the rich Green River valley persuaded Ashley to try to recoup his losses. He made the difficult march to the Green River, arriving in April, 1825, and set about trapping—but under a new system. His instructions read, “The place of deposite as aforesaid, will be The place of rendavoze for all our parties on or before the 10th July next …” Thus was born the effective rendezvous system that became the cornerstone of the American fur trade. No longer need the mountain man make the annual trek to civilization with his furs. Now supply caravans would come to him, buy his pelts, and sell to him in return—at astronomical prices—the powder, lead, and traps, the staples and trade goods he needed to be selfsufficient the year round. The rendezvous became a wild carnival of gambling, races, monumental drunks, cavorting Indians, wenching, and storytelling, and the average trapper left it hung-over and broke to return to his lonely beaver streams.

Smith was at that first rendezvous (quiet by later standards) where the logistics of the new practice were worked out. Andrew Henry had passed from the trade, and Ashley needed a new partner to represent him in the mountains. The obvious choice was Smith, and the bargain was struck. The new partners took their $50,000 haul of furs back to St. Louis in October of 1825.

In less than a month the junior partner was off again for the mountains, where he had a busy fall hunt ranging through the present states of Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho. When he next met Ashley at the summer rendezvous of 1826 at Cache Valley, northeast of Great Salt Lake, Smith, William Sublette, and David E. Jackson bought out Ashley. Jedediah Smith, after just four years in the mountains, became the senior partner of the firm that now dominated the American fur trade. He was twenty-seven.

The new partners realized that the beaver streams of the interior Rockies were becoming well enough known so that their productive future was limited. But there were still those legendary rivers of the West, hopefully thick with beaver, shown on the maps. Leaving Sublette and Jackson to handle matters in the mountains, Smith turned his face southwest toward an unknown country.

In August of 1826 his party—the self-styled South West Expedition—rode south along the Sevier River and got into what Smith called “a Country of Starvation—Sandy plains and Rocky hills once in 20 30 or 40 m[iles] a little pond or Spring …” Striking the Colorado River at what is now Lake Mead, they followed it southward. On foot, their horses worn out, they finally reached a haven in the Mojave villages not far from today’s Needles, California. The expedition had so far found no beaver and no Buenaventura River coursing westward, and Smith determined to make for the coast.

It took two painful weeks to cross the barren, blazing Mojave Desert, but at length they gained California’s San Bernardino Valley, where a warm welcome was tendered them at San Gabriel Mission. Smith’s clerk, Harrison Rogers, described it: “great feasting among the men. … I was introduced to the 2 Priests over a glass of good old whiskey—and found them to be very Joval friendly gentlemen… . Plenty of good wine during supper, before the cloth was removed sigars was introduced… . Friendship and peace prevail with us and the Spanyards.”

Smith was called to San Diego to be questioned closely by the Mexican governor, who was not pleased to see these unexpected visitors from the American frontier. Backed by Captain Cunningham of the Courier and other Yankee sea captains in the port, Smith eventually convinced the governor that he sought only beaver. Ordered to leave as he had come, he retraced his route as far as the edge of the desert, and then, in the spring of 1827, headed north into the San Joaquin Valley. He still searched for the Buenaventura, hoping it would lead him to the summer rendezvous near Great Salt Lake.

He pushed northward some 350 miles, but the looming presence of the Sierra Nevada formed a constant barrier to the east. There was no Buenaventura River. The fifteen-man party and its equipage was too cumbersome to cross the icy, snow-covered range; leaving most of his men behind to trap the waters of the Stanislaus River, Smith set out with two companions, Robert Evans and Silas Gobel.

They made the historic crossing of the Sierra, skirted Walker Lake, and struck out into central Nevada. On his map—the first ever to show this area with any accuracy—Smith recorded, “This plain is a waste of sand with a few detached mountains some of which are in the region of perpetual snow. … A few Indians are scattered over the plain, the most miserable objects in creation.”

Smith’s journal leaves a terrifying picture of the desert journey. “Ascending a high point of a hill,” he wrote,
I could discover nothing but sandy plains or dry Rocky hills … I durst not tell my men of the desolate prospect ahead … With our best exertion we pushed forward, walking as we had been for a long time over the soft sand… worn down with hunger and fatigue and burning with thirst increased by the blazing sands…it then seemed possible and even probable we might perish in the desert unheard of and unpitied.… My dreams were not of Gold or ambitious honors but of my distant quiet home, of murmuring brooks of Cooling Cascades.

Evans collapsed, and Smith and Gobel pressed on to find water. They were successful, and Smith returned with a kettlefull. “Putting the kettle to his mouth he did not take it away until he had drank all the water, of which there was at least 4 or 5 quarts and then asked me why I had not brought more.”

At last they sighted Great Salt Lake and passed along its southern shore. To cross the flooded Jordan River, Smith cobbled together a raft for their belongings. Holding the towrope in his teeth, he swam acroos: “It was with great difficulty that I was enabled to reach the shore, as I was verry much strangled.” On July 3, 1827, having covered well over 600 miles in six weeks, most of it on foot, the three men reached the rendezvous at Bear Lake, on the Utah-Idaho border. Smith laconically remarked that “my arrival caused a considerable bustle in camp, for myself and party had been given up as lost. A small Cannon brought up from St Louis was loaded and fired for a salute.”

Sublette and Jackson had done well, putting the new firm on a solid footing, but Jed Smith could not help remembering that most of his own party was stranded in California. Ten days after his arrival, he was headed southwest again with eighteen men. Generally following the route of the previous fall, they reached the Mojave Indian villages about August 15; but this time it was no haven.

During the year since Smith’s first visit, the Mojaves had tangled painfully with trappers from Taos, and as the Americans crossed the Colorado the vengeful Indians struck without warning. With eight survivors, Smith took refuge in a copse of cottonwoods, opened fire, and “the indians ran off like frightened sheep …” Nonetheless, the situation was critical. All the horses and provisions, except fifteen pounds of dried meat, were gone; to defend themselves they had only their knives and five guns. There was no choice but to cross the desert on foot, and the indomitable Smith led them on.

“My men were much discouraged,” he wrote, “but I cheered and urged them forward as much as possible and it seemed a happy providence that lead us to the little spring in the edge of the Salt Plain …” They reached the San Bernardino Valley in late August, and immediately moved north to rejoin the party left on the Stanislaus, arriving just two days ahead of the September 20 deadline Smith had set for his return.

Nothing had gone right so far, and Jed Smith’s luck continued bad. Seeking supplies at San Jose Mission, he met with a reception in sharp contrast to the welcome of the previous fall at San Gabriel. Instead of offering supplies, the mission fathers clapped him into the guardhouse. Presently he was escorted to Monterey, where the thoroughly suspicious governor was disposed to ship him off to Mexico for judgment. After endless wrangling Smith signed a $30,000 bond pledging to leave the province, and was released.

If he had to depart California, Smith was determined not to go empty-handed. The beaver skins he and the California party had gathered were sold to a Yankee sea captain; with the proceeds Smith bought 250 horses and mules, giving him a total of over 300. These he intended to drive to the mountain rendezvous hundreds of miles to the east, where he could sell them at something like a 400 per cent profit.

The previous year his California explorations had touched on the Sacramento River, and local rumor had it that its upper reaches angled northeast through the Sierra Nevada. Perhaps here was the Buenaventura at last, a navigable connection with the Columbia River system and a new route to the Rockies bypassing the deserts and salt plains. And perhaps, too, here was a practical route by which the firm of Smith, Jackson & Sublette could gain a Pacific outlet to the fabulously rich fur trade with the Orient … It was Astor’s old dream—all very tenuous, but the stakes were high enough to gamble for.

It was not in the cards. The Sacramento was not the Buenaventura after all, and the northern California wilderness, while rich in beaver, proved incredibly difficult to drive horses through. The clerk recorded that the company “had a serious time running up and down the mountain after horses through the thickets of brush and briars.” The winter rains were constant, the geography confusing, and there were “plenty of muskeatoes, large horse flies, and small knats to bite us and pester us”; marauding Indians shot arrows into the herd, Smith was kicked by a mule and “hurt pretty bad,” and Rogers himself was seriously mauled by a grizzly. His entry for May 22, 1828, reads: “Oh! God, may it please the … to still guide, & protect us, through this wilderness of doubt & fear… . Oh! do not forsake us Lord, but be with us, and direct us through.” They struggled on northward, aiming for the Columbia.

On July 14 the nineteen-man party was at the Umpqua River, almost halfway up the Oregon coast, and Smith and two men went ahead to scout the route. Two days previously they had disciplined a Kelawatset chief for stealing an axe, but now Rogers, left in charge of the detachment and the horses, apparently felt secure because they were in well-ordered Hudson’s Bay territory. He freely admitted a large number of Kelawatset tribesmen to the camp—and the Indians murderously avenged the insult to their chief. Only one of the sixteen men escaped. Smith and his two companions and the lone survivor of the massacre managed to make their way on foot to the Hudson’s Bay Company base at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia, one hundred miles to the north.

The destitute Smith was welcomed by Dr. John McLoughlin, the benevolent dictator who ruled the Columbia district for the company. McLoughlin immediately dispatched an expedition to reinforce discipline and try to recover the goods of his erstwhile competitor. Smith went with them, and they gathered what they could—a few horses, part of the furs, a handful of guns and utensils, and, fortunately for history, the journals of Smith and Rogers. At the massacre site, according to a British observer, “a Sad Spectacle of Indian barbarity presented itself … the Skeletons of eleven of those Miserabl Sufferers lying bleaching in the Sun.”

The Hudson’s Bay Governor, George Simpson, generously gave Smith a fair price for his horses and skins and added a final, gracious note to the company’s record in the affair. He wrote Smith that “whatsoever we have done for you was induced by feelings of benevolence and humanity alone … the satisfaction we derive from these good offices, will repay the Honble Hudsons Bay Compy amply for any loss or inconvenience …” In return, Smith filled in Simpson on his extensive discoveries and made him a map that must have straightened out a prodigious amount of geographic confusion.

By August of 1829 Smith had rejoined his two partners in Montana, and during the next year they trapped with success the upper Missouri region and the Yellowstone and its tributaries. But Jed Smith had had his fill of the sudden death and desperate loneliness of the wilderness. His letters reveal a longing for family and friends, for the “distant quiet home” of his fevered dreams in the desert three years before; in his deeply felt, almost mystical religious conviction, he grievously missed “the care of a Christian Church.” When Smith returned to St. Louis on October 7, 1830, a moderately wealthy man, he had been away from civilization almost exactly five years.

Knowing the American West better than any man alive, he began to prepare his invaluable journals and maps for publication. But, fatefully, he took time out to invest in and join a trading caravan to Santa Fe that left St. Louis in April, 1831. It should have been a routine journey, but the train went astray in the deadly, arid plain between the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers and ran short of water. As he had done countless times before, Smith set out alone to find some, and the final tragedy overtook him.

The story was later pieced together from the accounts of Indian traders. He found water, but was apparently surrounded by a Comanche war party. The violent, one-sided encounter at the lonely water hole was quickly over, but the Comanche chief died with him. The date was May 27, 1831, and Jed Smith was just thirty-two years old.

An anonymous eulogist wrote that “though he fell under the spears of the savages, and his body has glutted the prairie wolf, and none can tell where his bones are bleaching, he must not be forgotten.” But he was forgotten; the denouement is as bitter as the climax. Unaccountably, no one stepped forward to preserve or publish his work, and the journals and letters and maps were either destroyed by fire or simply disappeared, to survive only in partial transcripts. Not until the 1840’s were his discoveries duplicated.

His biographer, Dale Morgan, writes that Smith “entered the West when it was still largely an unknown land; when he left the mountains, the whole country had been printed on the living maps of his trappers’ minds.” He calls Smith “an authentic American hero,” and it is a judgment hard to fault.

He had the sort of wide-ranging, inquiring mind that marks all great explorers. His careful maps apparently had a wide circulation before disappearing, and cartographic scholars have found striking evidence of their influence on the map makers of the 1830’s and 1840’s. He even found time to send seeds gathered on his travels to a botanist—hardly the act of a businessman seeking only “to make the whole profitable.” “It may perhaps be a pleasure to a lady of the atlantic,” he wrote, “to gather cherries or currants from a shrub whose parent stock is now growing by the bank of a stream that flows unmarked by the eye of civilized man to the calm pacific.”

The exploits of this remarkable man have been recognized and authenticated at last, and it is unlikely that such a heroic image will ever tarnish. That seems only fair, somehow, for Jedediah Smith, so quickly forgotten in his own time, certainly deserves to be remembered in ours.

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