California’s Mountain Man: Jedediah Smith

Jedediah Strong Smith was born in New York in 1799. His New England ancestors came to America in 1634. Growing up Smith’s close family friend, a pioneer physician, mentored his love of nature and adventure. Smith was raised hunting and trapping in the forests of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. He had also learned to read and write, skills that not many had learned on the American frontier. Aside from his Bible, which he usually carried wherever he went, Smith had also read and got inspiration from the Lewis and Clark Expedition.By age 22 Smith was an accomplished, ambitious outdoorsman, hunter and trapper. Smith desired to be the first to view a country on which the eyes of a white man had never gazed and to follow the course of rivers that ran through a new land. According to Morgan (1964) Smith’s deep wandering and adventurous spirit would lead in him in his lifetime to travel more extensively in unknown territory than any other mountain man. He was the first American to travel overland to California through the southwest in the Central Rockies, then down Arizona and across the Mojave Desert into California from the American Frontier.He was the first to reach Oregon by journey up the California coast. His most amazing journeys started at age 22 when Smith signed on with General William Ashley’s expedition to travel to the Upper Missouri and trap beaver. In 1822 General Ashley’s men were attacked by the Arikaras Natives. Ashley lost 13 men. Jedediah fought bravely and his conduct was noted by General Ashley who then appointed Jedediah as Captain of his men. It was a year later when Jedediah would lead Ashley’s men on a beaver trapping party discovering the South Pass to California.In the 1826 California Expedition Smith and 17 men pushed south and west of the Great Salt Lake to investigate trapping potential. They followed the Virgin River to its merging with the Colorado River continuing south along the Colorado to the Mojave  [pic] villages. In Smith’s Journal he described the conditions as deigning as by the time they reached the Mojave crossing they had lost many horses. His men and the remainder of his horses were worn out with fatigue and hardship and emaciated with hunger.After several days of rest Smith and his men started a 138 mile journey across the Mojave Desert. After two weeks of crossing the desert they reached San Bernardino Valley. Spanish Priests awaited them and there was great feasting among men. The Mexican Government perceived Smith and his men to be spies and ordered them to leave California the way they came rather than north. It was another tumultuous journey back and Smith recorded himself the possibility of perish through the Sierra Nevada’s unheard and unpitied. He and his comrades almost died of thirst.At one point they buried their comrade in the sand to protect him because he was so weak. Smith hiked two more miles to retrieve water to revive his comrade. For 600 miles they struggled through the desert wasteland but they did survive and later reached a pre-arranged rendezvous at the Sweet Lake (Bear Lake) on July 3, 1827. Shortly after returning in 1827 Smith and a new group of trappers were off again to trace the route back to California and the men left waiting there. At the Colorado River, the Mojave Indians (who had befriended him a year earlier) attacked and killed most of Smith’s party.According to author Harold Reed (2008) the attack was provoked by the Ohio trapping party approximately a month beforehand that shot and killed the Mojave Chief and 16 other Indians who wanted horses in exchange for allowing them to trap on their lands. It is recorded that hundreds of Indians attacked on Smith’s party killing and taking prisoner half his men including two women. Smith and a few others barely escaped causing the Indians to retreat after shooting two from across the river as they closed in. Smith then guided the remaining men across the desert on foot on meager supplies after losing most the supplies during the attack.They made it back to the camp and assembled in the San Francisco Bay region. Knowing that from the previous year how treacherous the trail could be Smith led his trappers north. They journeyed up the Sacramento River valley. Turning west near the headwaters of the Sacramento, Smith and his crew ventured or bushwhacked their way to the Pacific coast. They then headed north for Fort Vancouver, owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and located on the Columbia River, near today’s Portland, Oregon. Unfortunately after more than six months of effort, and just a few days short of safe travel, his party was attacked in central Oregon.Just four men escaped, Smith included by diving into a river and swimming to safety. This was second Indian attack in just 11 months. The attack was provoked by unfriendly Indians. After a winter’s stay at Fort Vancouver, Smith traveled up the Columbia River eventually re-united with his business partners and surviving friends in Southern Idaho. Jedediah Smith’s accomplishments during his thirty-two years absolutely earned him an uppermost rank as a United States explorer. According to Morgan (1964) he led the first overland party from the east to California and was the first to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains going east.He discovered South Pass from the east and was the first to bring wagons through it to the west encouraging the Oregon Trail wagons to follow his exploit. [pic] Smith covered southern route and a central route to the west coast and the Snake River from Oregon to the Great Salt Lake and Western Wyoming north to Montana had been journeyed by his pen and viewed by his eyes. His maps and oral stories were shared with many people but he did not live long enough to have his journals and maps published. Jed helped a new expedition leading a wagon train taking goods to California down the Santa Fe Trail in May of 1831.A couple weeks into the trip they were caught in a fifty-mile stretch of sandy hills and desert. The wagons became stuck in the sand and the animals were dying because of lack of water. Smith rode to the southwest in search of water and that was the last that his friends saw of him. Mexican traders in Santa Fe later told the tragic story of Smith’s death falling at the hand of Comanche Indians. While he was scooping water from a small water hole, the unfriendly Comanche Indians came upon him. It is said he shot the chief with his pistol after trying to make friends thinking that would scare them away.Instead he died on the spot by a Comanche lance thrust in his back. Jedidiah Strong Smith’s accomplishments were heroic. Adversity did not deter him from following his heart and in the end making a profound impact. He wrote about the challenges of his travels in his journal that at different times suffered the extremes of hunger and thirst. Hard as it is to bear for successive days the knawings of hunger was light in comparison to the agony of burning thirst. Smith observed that a man reduced by hunger is some days in recovering his strength.A man equally reduced by thirst seems renovated almost instantaneously. Hunger can be endured more than twice as long as thirst. To some it may appear surprising that a man who has been for several days without eating has a most incessant desire to drink. Smith was almost entirely scalped, lost an ear and incurring several rib injuries because he was mauled viciously by a grizzly bear. He ordered the men to get water, clean his wounds and sew up the cuts on his head. His men also bound up his broken ribs and sewed his ear back on as best they could.After just 10 days of recovery he continued leading his men through new territory. He also survived three Indian massacres in which all three survivors were few. On his second trip to California (as if once wasn’t enough after being kicked out by the Mexican Governor) Smith took two women and 18 men. Both of the women and 10 men were killed by an attack from the Mojave Indians. Smith was not a typical mountain man. He lived a much disciplined life refraining from alcohol, tobacco and crude humor. It is said he carried two books on him at all times, “Lewis and Clark” and the “Bible”.Ironically, Smith’s travels were over twice the distance of Lewis and Clark covering a broader territory. This mountain man was on a mission and it paid off. Smith took 33 men with him total on his expeditions to California and of these, 26 had been killed. Kevin Starr, the author of California (2005) has argued that Smith’s heroic journey – the double encirclement of the Far West – was the physical, moral, and geopolitical equivalent of the great voyages of exploration off the California coast in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.The Spaniards linked California to the sea and Smith linked California to the interior of the North American continent. Dan L. Thrapp, a chronicler of the American west and World War 2 veteran, argues that Smith contributions to geographical knowledge of the west, and his pioneering expeditions were of great value as at 6 feet tall he was a man of great courage, vision, dedication and persistence. His journals and records suggest that he intended at some time to publish his findings, but his early and lamented death aborted that plan.Bibliography Dale, Harrison Clifford (2013). The Expeditions of Jedidiah Strong Smith. Retrieved from http://www. americanjourneys. org/aj-112/summary/ Rawls, J. , Bean, W. (2012). California: An Interpretive History. New York, NY: The McGraw- Hill Companies, Inc. Reed, Harold (2008). Northwest Arizona Coast. Retrieved from http://www. rootsweb. ancestry. com/~azcanvtsgs/JSmithbyHaroldReed. htm Morgan L. Dale (1964). Jedidiah Smith and the Opening of the West. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln/London.

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