Jedediah S. Smith

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Jedediah S. Smith

Jedediah S. Smith (1799-1831), trapper, fur trader, and explorer in the American West, was one of the most skillful of the mountain men, although most of his accomplishments were recognized only recently.

Jedediah Smith's activities in the West occurred between 1822 and 1831, a period of rapid American penetration into the Rocky Mountain area and of phenomenal growth in American fur trading and trapping. He was the first reported American to travel overland to California, the first to cross the Sierra Nevada from the west, the first to travel across the Great Basin, north and south as well as east and west, the first to travel north up the California coast to Oregon, and the first to provide a usable description of South Pass.

The fourth of 12 children, Smith was born on Jan. 6, 1799. As a child, he roamed the wooded hills in southwestern New York, and when he was 12, the family moved into Erie County, Pa. From there they moved to the Western Reserve in northern Ohio. Jedediah's activities between 1816 and 1821 are unknown to historians. One author suggests that he got a reasonably good education and then became a clerk on a Lake Erie freighter, learning some business methods and perhaps even meeting Canadian trappers and fur traders. But this is mere conjecture.

By 1821 Smith had arrived in Illinois, still a frontier state. He spent that winter along the Mississippi River. Hearing about Gen. William Ashley's proposed expedition to the Rocky Mountains, he traveled to St. Louis to volunteer. When the keelboat Enterprise left St. Louis in May 1822, Smith went along as a hunter. The party reached the mouth of the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana in October. They built a log-surrounded camp called Ft. Henry, which served as their base of supply for the following trapping season. It was here that Smith began his decade of travel in the West.

Trapper and Fur Trader

The winter of 1822/1823 provided a rugged apprenticeship for Ashley's men. After building Ft. Henry, they traveled farther up the Missouri River to trap along its tributary streams. The difficulties of travel through the mountains convinced Maj. Henry that his party needed horses as pack animals, and in spring of 1823 he sent Smith back down the Missouri to tell Ashley. When or where Smith met his employer is not known, but when Ashley's party reached the Arikara Indian villages in late May, Smith was in their company.

Ashley's effort to buy horses from the Arikara led to one of the worst disasters in fur trade history. Because the trappers considered these Indians to be treacherous, Ashley kept part of his 90-man force aboard two keel-boats in the middle of the river. In the afternoon of June 1, one of the chiefs invited the traders to his lodge and there warned Ashley that the braves intended to attack his party. Ashley tried to get his men and horses aboard the keelboats but was unable to do so that evening, and at dawn the following morning the Indians attacked and killed or wounded nearly a third of the party. The remainder retreated downstream.

In September 1823, while Smith was leading a small band of trappers west overland from the Missouri River toward the mountains, a grizzly bear nearly killed him. The beast broke several of his ribs, tore away one eyebrow, gashed his scalp in numerous places, and practically destroyed one of his ears. Smith's companions hurriedly attended to his wounds, but because deep scars remained, Smith wore shoulder-length hair for the rest of his life. After he recovered enough for travel, the party continued west.

The following year Smith and his men traveled with the large Hudson's Bay Company trapping party led by Peter Ogden into the Snake River Valley. Ogden and his superiors wanted to turn the area into a vast fur desert by trapping all of the beaver, thereby discouraging American interest. Smith, however, got ahead of the Canadian trappers and not only gathered large numbers of furs himself but also induced more than 20 of Ogden's party to desert and join the Americans.

During the winter of 1824/1825 Ashley brought trade goods to the mountains, and the next summer Smith accompanied his employer down the Missouri with the fur bundles. That year Ashley decided that he needed a partner who would remain in the mountains and chose Smith. Smith led another party of trappers to the area around the Great Salt Lake. Late in 1826 Ashley sold his interest in the fur trade to Smith, David Jackson, and William Sublette, and these three men dominated American trapping and trading efforts in the northern Rockies until 1830.

In 1830 Smith and his partners sold their holdings to a group of traders called the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Smith realized that most of the West had been denuded of fur-bearing animals and that increasing competition from rival fur brigades and the need to trap in the Blackfoot Indian country reduced profits and increased the danger. He headed back to St. Louis, where he bought a home and appeared ready to settle down. Instead he soon rejoined Jackson and Sublette and prepared to enter the Santa Fe trade. It was on his first trip west to Santa Fe that a hunting party of Comanche braves surprised Smith alone at a water hole. The Indians ignored his signs of peace, surrounded him, and killed him on May 27, 1831.

Accomplishments as an Explorer

Smith's explorations and his fur trade efforts were interrelated. In 1824 he crossed South Pass, the most important single gap through the Rocky Mountains. Although he was not the first discoverer of this route, his report that wagons could cross there was of major significance because earlier knowledge of the pass had not survived. In 1826, leading a party of trappers south and west across the Great Basin from the Great Salt Lake to the Colorado River and then west to southern California, Smith became the first recorded American to enter California overland from the east. Official suspicion and harassment made his stay unpleasant, so in early 1827 he traveled east across the Sierras, leaving some of his men and all of the furs in California.

Later that same year Smith made a second trip to California. This time he suffered two of the worst defeats in fur trade history. In August 1827 the Mohave Indians attacked his party, killing and capturing most of his men. The remainder struggled on to southern California, where they encountered renewed suspicion and hostility from the Mexican authorities and only with great difficulty finally got permission to leave. They traveled north to Oregon, and in May 1828, while Smith was absent from camp, the Indians killed all but three of his men. Fleeing from this disaster, Smith completed his journey to the Oregon Country. In spite of these defeats, his journeys proved valuable because he provided descriptions of his routes and thus paved the way for later, more extensive travel and exploration in the West.

The Man

Smith was a slender man, perhaps 6 feet tall, with brown hair, blue eyes, and noticeable scars from his encounter with the grizzly. A practicing Methodist, he not only carried a Bible into the mountains but, unlike many of his companions, abstained from liquor and tobacco. His associates liked and respected him for his skill and his courage under fire.

Further Reading

The definitive work on Smith is Dale L. Morgan, Jedediah Smith, and the Opening of the West (1953), which also examines his career in the context of the fur trade and international rivalry for the wealth of the Far West. A good recent study, Alson J. Smith, Men against the Mountains: Jedediah Smith and the Southwest Expedition of 1826-1829 (1964), concentrates mainly on that expedition. Smith is discussed in Gerald Rawling's popularly written The Pathfinders: The History of America's First Westerners (1964).

Works including documents on the fur trade and explorations of the period are Harrison C. Dale, The Ashley-Smith Explorations and the Discovery of a Central Route to the Pacific, 1822-1829 (1918); Maurice S. Sullivan, The Travels of Jedediah Smith (1934); and Dale L. Morgan, The West of William H. Ashley: The International Struggle for the Fur Trade of the Missouri, the Rocky Mts. and the Columbia (1954). □