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Jedediah Smith

Jedediah Smith
Born January 6, 1799 (1799-01-06)
Bainbridge, New York, U.S.
Died May 27, 1831 (1831-05-28) (aged 32)
south of Ulysses, Kansas, U.S.
Nationality American
Other names Jedidiah Smith
Jedidiah Strong Smith
Ethnicity French-American Basque
Occupation Explorer, Hunter, Trapper, Fur trader
Known for Exploration of Rocky Mountains, American West Coast, American Southwest and crossing of Nevada

Jedediah Strong Smith (born January 6, 1799[1] or June 24, 1798[2] — presumed date of death May 27, 1831) was a hunter, trapper, fur trader, trailblazer, and explorer of the Rocky Mountains, the American West Coast and the Southwest during the nineteenth century. He was the fourth of twelve children. " Jedediah Smith's explorations were significant in opening the American West to expansion by white settlers. According to Maurice Sullivan:

Smith was the first white man to cross the future state of Nevada, the first to traverse Utah from north to south and from west to east; the first American to enter California by the overland route, and so herald its change of masters; the first white man to scale the High Sierras, and the first to explore the Pacific hinterland from San Diego to the banks of the Columbia River.

Prospectors and settlers later poured in to the areas that "Old Jed" Smith had trail-blazed as a trapper and fur trader, during the subsequent Gold Rush.


Birth and accomplishments

The exploration of the West by Jedediah Smith

Smith was born in Jericho, New York (now known as Bainbridge) on January 6, 1799. His early New England ancestors include Thomas Bascom, constable of Northampton, Massachusetts, who came to America in 1634. Thomas Bascom was of Huguenot and French Basque ancestry.

Smith is best known for leading the party of explorers who rediscovered South Pass when the Crows, with the use of a unique map (buffalo hide and sand) made by one of Smith's men during an exploritory expedition in 1824, showed the Americans where to shorten the time needed to get to the west slope of the Rocky Mountains from St. Louis, Missouri.[3] He was the first explorer to reach Oregon overland by traveling up the California coast.[4] Smith was often recognized by significant facial scarring due to a grizzly bear attack along the Cheyenne River. Members of his party witnessed Smith fighting the bear, which ripped open his side with its claws and took his head in its mouth. The bear suddenly retreated and the men ran to help Smith. They found his scalp and ear nearly ripped off, but he convinced a friend to sew it loosely back on. The trappers fetched water, bound up his broken ribs, and cleaned his wounds.

Smith was also a devout Christian from a Methodist background. His Bible and his rifle were said to be his closest companions. In his lifetime, Smith traveled more extensively in unknown territory than any other mountain man.


First trip to California, 1826–1827

Smith made two expeditions to California in 1826 and 1827, which landed him in trouble with the Mexican authorities.[5] As with the Zebulon Pike expedition two decades earlier, the authorities saw Smith's party as a harbinger of future trouble with the United States. Unlike Pike's expedition, which was commissioned by the United States Army, the Smith party was a private commercial venture. Although five members of the 1826 party carried United States passports, the excursion deep into Mexican territory was unauthorized by the United States government and without permission from the Mexican government.

In its first trip, the Smith party followed the Colorado River deep into the west in search of new beaver hunting grounds, and ended up in harsh territory. To gather supplies for the return trip, the group chose to travel to California. After an arduous pass through the mountains into the Mojave Desert, the party was attacked by a group of Mohaves, and lost several men. Finding shelter with a friendly Mojave village, the men recuperated and met two Tongva men, who offered to guide them to San Gabriel Mission. The guides led them through the desert via a path that avoided Death Valley and which more or less follows the route of today's Interstate 15. From Soda Lake they followed the intermittent Mojave River into the San Bernardino Mountains, which they crossed, emerging at the point where today the Community of Etiwanda is, and into a vastly different environment, the paradisal California that sailors and newspapers talked about on the East Coast. Rather than head to the nearby mission ranch, they quickly made their way west (following the path of the future Route 66), arriving at the Mission on November 27, 1826.

They were received warmly by the President of the Missions, José Bernardo Sánchez, who managed to hide any misgivings he might have had. (Several of the Smith party remembered Sánchez fondly in their journals.) Sánchez advised Smith to communicate with Jefe Político (governor) José María Echeandía, who was at San Diego, about his party's status in the country. On December 8, Echeandía ordered Smith to San Diego, apparently under arrest (there was one symbolic soldier accompanying the party of mission priests and a British sea merchant escorting Smith). The rest of the party remained at the mission. Badly needing supplies, they quickly found work to do around the mission under the supervision of Joseph "José" Chapman, a former impressed sailor in crew of Hippolyte de Bouchard, who had become a naturalized citizen of Mexico. In San Diego Smith was interviewed several times by Echeandía, who never became convinced that Smith was only looking for food and shelter. Smith asked for permission to travel north to the Columbia River, where known paths could quickly take his party back to United States territory. Smith even handed over his journals in an attempt to prove his intentions. However Echeandía delayed a quick resolution, forwarding the issue for the authorities in Sonora to review, much to Smith's displeasure. After being hounded by Smith for a month, Echeandía released Smith and his men on the promise that they leave California by the path they entered and never return. Nevertheless, once released the party made their way to the San Joaquín Valley, which they explored.

By early May 1827 Smith and his party had accumulated over 1500 pounds of beaver; getting these furs to the mountain man rendezvous near Great Salt Lake was clearly a problem. He had traveled 350 miles north but had seen no break in the wall of the Sierra. He turned up the rugged canyon of what would later be called the American River (named after his party). The snow was too deep. Had he completed his crossing this far north, it is possible he could have found Lake Tahoe and the Humboldt River in Nevada, the vital route across the Great Basin later used by California immigrants. But the heavy snow forced Jed into a decision: he would save his horses, and his men, by heading back west to the central valley and the Stanislaus River and re-establish camp there. Then he took only two men, and some extra horses, and began what would become his epic crossing of the Sierra Nevada somewhat further south, crossing in the vicinity of Ebbets Pass. His plan was to get to rendezvous as quickly as he could and return to his California trapping party with more men later in the year.

After crossing the Sierra, Smith likely saw Walker Lake and continued east across central Nevada. His route was straight through some of the most difficult desert in North America. One man, Robert Evans, collapsed and could go no further. Jed and Silas Gobel briefly left Evans and pressed on to the foot of a mountain. Finding some water, Jed went back and rescued Evans. The three eventually reached Great Salt Lake, a beautiful sight to Smith as he called it “my home of the wilderness”. Local Indians told him the whites were gathered further north at “the Little Lake” (Bear Lake). The three de facto explorers reached the rendezvous on July 3. The mountain men celebrated Jed's arrival with a cannon salute (the first wheeled vehicle ever brought this far west) for they had given up Jed and his party for lost.

Second trip to California, 1827-1828

Despite Echeandía's warning, Smith returned to California the next year with eighteen men and two women following the Colorado River and Mojave Desert route he now knew well. At the Colorado River, the party was attacked by the Mojave, killing ten men and taking the two women. Smith and the other survivors were again well received in San Gabriel. The party moved north to meet with the group that had been left in the San Joaquin Valley. Unlike in San Gabriel, they were coolly received by the priests at Mission San José, who had already received warning of Smith's renewed presence in the area. Echeandía, who was at the time in Monterey attending business, once again arrested Smith, this time along with his men. Yet despite the breach of trust, the governor once again released Smith on the same promise to leave the province immediately and not to return, and as before, Smith and his party remained in California hunting in Sacramento Valley for several months, before heading north to use the Columbia River to return to their headquarters. However, his second run-in with the authorities, in addition to the extreme hardships his parties experienced in both trips, convinced him never to return to California, and he devoted his next years to building up his fur company.

Trip to the Oregon Country

In the Oregon Country, Smith' s party fell into conflict over a stolen ax with the Umpqua people near the Umpqua River. Smith's party had threatened to execute the man they accused of stealing the ax. Later, Smith's group was attacked and fifteen of Smith's nineteen men were killed. Smith managed to reach the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) post at Fort Vancouver, where he received aid. HBC governor George Simpson happened to be at Fort Vancouver at the time, and he both sympathized with Smith and chastised him for treating the Indians harshly. Simpson sent Alexander McLeod south to rescue the remnants of Smith's party and their goods. McLeod returned to Fort Vancouver with 700 beaver skins and 39 horses, all in bad condition. John McLoughlin, in charge of Fort Vancouver, paid Smith $2,600 for the goods.[6] In return, Smith assured that the Rocky Mountain Fur Company would confine its operations to the region east of the Great Divide.[7]


Later in his career, Smith became involved in the fur trade in Santa Fe. Smith was leading a trading party on the Santa Fe Trail in May, 1831 when he left the group to scout for water.[4] He never returned to the group. The remainder of the party proceeded on to Santa Fe hoping Smith would meet them there, but he never arrived. A short time later, members of the trading party discovered a Mexican merchant at the Santa Fe market offering several of Smith's personal belongings for sale. When questioned about the items, the merchant indicated that he had acquired them from a band of Comanche hunters.[4] The Comanches told the merchant they had taken the items from a white man they had killed near the Cimarron River, south of present day Ulysses, Kansas.[citation needed] Smith's body was never found.

A further account in Give Your Heart to the Hawks: A Tribute to the Mountain Men by Winfred Blevins, cites details of Smith's encounter with the Comanches in a box canyon. By their account, four braves trapped Smith in the canyon.

According to Dale L. Morgan, Jedediah Smith's biographer, Jedediah was looking for water for the 1831 expedition when he came upon an estimated 15-20 Comanches. There was a brief face to face stand off until the Comanches scared his horse and shot him in the left shoulder. After gasping from the injury, Jedediah wheeled his horse around and with one rifle shot was able to kill their chief. The Comanches then rushed on Jedediah, who did not have time to use his pistols, and stabbed him to death with lances. Austin Smith, Jedediah's brother, was able to retrieve Jedediah's rifle and pistols that the Indians had taken and traded to the Mexicans.[8]

Honors and namesakes

Jedediah Smith's explorations were the main basis for accurate Pacific-West maps; all the travels and discoveries of the trappers and fur traders since Ashley went into the map of the western United States he prepared in the winter of 1830-31. This map has been called “a landmark in mapping of the American West”.[9] In an eulogy for Smith printed in the Illinois Magazine for June 1832 the unknown author claimed “This map is now probably the best extant, of the Rocky Mountains, and the country on both sides, from the States to the Pacific.”[10] The original map is lost, its content was superimposed probably by George Gibbs on a base map by John C. Frémont, which is on file at the American Geographical Society of New York. His expeditions also raised doubts about the legendary Buenaventura River from maps.[11]

Smith's exploration of northwestern California is commemorated in the names of the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park and the Smith River.

Most of the western slope of Wyoming's famous Teton Range is named the Jedediah Smith Wilderness after him. And the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail runs between Folsom and Sacramento, California, through the former gold-dredging fields that are now the American River Parkway.

In the Frontiersman Camping Fellowship of Royal Rangers, New Mexico is designated the Jedediah Smith Chapter.

A street in Temecula, California is named for him.

A road in Colorado Springs, Colorado is named for him.

References in popular culture

  • In the 1984 WW III production of Red Dawn, the main character, Jed Eckert portrayed by Patrick Swayze, says that he was named after Smith by his father and states that he studied Smith's exploits along with other mountainmen of the era such as Jim Bridger.
  • Mentioned in the 1998 Novel by Tom Clancey called "Rainbow Six" in the chapter "The Games Continue". The character "Foster Hunnicutt" wondered what it was like to be Jim Bridger or Jedediah Smith.


  1. ^ American National Biography, Vol. 20, 1999, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, ISBN 0-19-520635-5
  2. ^ Harrison Clifford Dale: The explorations of William H. Ashley and Jedediah Smith – 1822–1829. Arthur H. Clark Company, Glendale 1941, reprinted by University of Nebraska Press, 1991, ISBN 0-8032-6591-3, p. 175
  3. ^ Dale L. Morgan, Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West, pg 90, Bison Book, 1953
  4. ^ a b c "Jedediah Smith Route 1828". Historic Oregon City. Retrieved 2007-03-11. 
  5. ^ This account of his California trips is based on Beth Gibson, "Jedediah Smith", accessed on 2008-08-02; Bil Gilbert, The Trailblazers (Time-Life Books, 1973), 96-100, 107; and Alson J. Smith, Men Against the Mountains: Jedediah Smith and the South West Expedition of 1826-1829 (New York: John Day Co., 1965).
  6. ^ Mackie, Richard Somerset (1997). Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British Fur Trade on the Pacific 1793-1843. Vancouver: University of British Columbia (UBC) Press. pp. 65. ISBN 0-7748-0613-3.  online at Google Books
  7. ^
  8. ^ Dale L. Morgan, Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West, pg 330, Appendix pgs 362-366, Bison Book, 1953|Letter from Austin Smith to Jedediah Smith, Senior, September 24, 1831|Letter from Austin Smith to Ira G. Smith, September 24, 1831|Austin Smith got the information from Spanish traders in the nearby area.
  9. ^ Carl Hays: David E. Jackson, in: LeRoy R. Hafen (Ed.), The Mountain men and the fur trade of the Far West, Clark Co., Glendale, California, 1956–72, Vol. 9, p. 224
  10. ^ Captain Jedediah Strong Smith, A Eulogy, in Illinois Magazine, June 1832, as reprinted in Edwin L. Sabin: Kit Carson Days, New York, 1935 edition, p. 823 (cited after Carl Hays: David E. Jackson, in: LeRoy R. Hafen (Ed.), The Mountain men and the fur trade of the Far West, Clark Co., Glendale, California, 1956–72, Vol. 9, p. 225)
  11. ^ C. Gregory Crampton: The San Buenaventura – Mythical River of the West. In: Pacific Historical Review. Berkeley Cal 25.1956,2 (May), p.163–171


  • Blevins, Winfred. Give Your Heart to the Hawks: A Tribute to the Mountain Men. New York, Forge, [1973] 2005. ISBN 978-0765-31435-2
  • Time-Life Books and Bil Gilbert. The Trailblazers. Time-Life Books, 1973, 96-100, 107
  • Morgan, Dale L. Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the American West. Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 1964. ISBN 0803251386
  • Maurice S. Sullivan, The Travels of Jedediah Smith. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1992, 13.
  • Maurice S. Sullivan, "Jedediah Smith, Trader and Trail Breaker", in New York Press of the Pioneers, 1936.
  • Smith, Alson J. Men Against the Mountains: Jedediah Smith and the South West Expedition of 1826-1829. New York, John Day Co., 1965.
  • Smith, Jedediah S., [Harrison G. Rogers], and George R. Brooks (ed.). The Southwest Expedition of Jedediah S. Smith: His Personal Account of the Journey to California, 1826-1827. Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, [1977] 1989. ISBN 9780803291973

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