American explorer and mountain man
Born Jedediah Strong Smith on January 6, 1799 at Jericho, New York. Young Jedediah's family moved frequently, staying on the edge of the expanding American frontier. The family first moved to Pennsylvania, then to Ohio.
Man of Faith
He was raised a Wesleyan and his faith was one of his hallmarks. He was not given to boasting but was rather a quiet man, full of strength and ability.
Jedediah was inspired by the 1814 Biddle journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and set his heart on living his life in the wilderness.
Into the wild
At the age of 22, Jedediah signed up for General William Ashley's Upper Missouri Expedition. This 1822 expedition was to ascend the Missouri, then up the Grand River in present day South Dakota, then across into the Yellowstone River valley. The expedition wintered on the Yellowstone and the following spring saw Smith sent back down the Missouri to meet up with a party led by General Ashley. They met at the Grand River and there ensued a battle with an Arikaree Indian party. The loss of 13 of Ashley's men was a heavy blow, but Smith's bravery in battle led to an appreciation of the quiet mountain man.
On the first Ashley expedition Smith's fellow trapper Hugh Glass was mauled by a grizzly bear. In an eerie replay of that event Smith, on his second expedition, had the same happen to himself. The bear smashed his ribs and ripped his scalp off, leaving it attached only by the remains of a tattered ear. Smith had Jim Clyman sew his scalp back on as best he could. Following this impromptu surgery, Smith rested for two weeks then resumed his duties as leader of the expedition.
Leader of men
Proving himself a capable leader, Smith was to lead other expeditions in 1823-1830 as senior partner of the fur trading firm of Smith, Jackson, and Sublette .
Long distance explorer
Smith ranged not only through the Rocky Mountains but all through the southwest, into Arizona and the Mojave desert, onward into California and then back through the Great Basin.
In his historic 1826 journey in search of new trapping grounds, he became the first white man to travel overland to California. On his journey he rediscovered the South Pass, a relatively easy route through the Rockies and onward to the west. This route had originally been discovered by Robert Stuart along with 6 companions while trapping for the American Fur Company. Despite giving good detail of the route, Stuart's discovery went unused until Jedediah Smith found the route again. The rediscovery of the South Pass was instrumental in founding the Oregon Trail. This route made it possible for emigrants to enter the previously inaccessible region.
The expedition of 1826 was a terrible test of Smith and his men. The farther west his party went the harder the trek became. Their horses died and they finished the journey on foot. Arriving at Mission San Gabriel near present day Los Angeles, half starved, ragged and weary, they were succored by a kindly padre named Joseph. His rescue was memorialized when in 1828, on his second California trip, Jedediah Smith discovered what is present day Mount Lassen. He named the peak Mount Joseph, and it held that name for a generation.
In the 1840's a Danish adventurer named Peter Lassen extensively explored the area. His discoveries were instrumental in opening northern California to emigrants and Smith's Mount Joseph was renamed Mount Lassen.
Back to California
In 1827 Smith, along with 18 trappers, 2 Indian women and 2 years worth of supplies set out to retrace his journey of a year earlier. While ferrying supplies and horses across the Colorado River, 10 members still on shore were attacked and killed by Mojave Indians. The 9 survivors were on the opposite shore and set about making temporary fortifications. They survived another attack and managed to escape that night under cover of darkness. They crossed the Mojave Desert on foot.
Making their way to Mission San Jose, Smith was arrested and accused of trying to claim the lands he had trapped for the United States. Smith was vouched for by Captain John Cooper, a former Bostonian who had settled in the area. Smith was given 2 months to return east of the Rockies. In December, with a herd of over 300 horses they had bought, Smith and his party set out on their return. They went north but the terrain was so harsh they turned west and proceeded up the coast.
Into the Pacific Northwest
In early 1828 Jedediah Smith was the first white man to make the journey up California's Central Valley, turn west to cross the coastal mountains and follow the Pacific coast north into Oregon. He recorded the appearance of Mount Shasta in his journal. He explored from San Diego all the way north to the Columbia River. On this second expedition Smith's party was assailed by Umpqua Indians and he, along with three fellow survivors, arrived at the outpost of the Hudson Bay Company located at Fort Vancouver, Canada. They were to spend that winter of 1828 at Fort Vancouver.
In March 1829 Jedediah Smith set forth, traveling east to arrive at Pierre's Hole in August for the Mountain Man Rondezvous.
Bucking the trend
Though he was an excellent trapper and accomplished outdoorsman, Smith didn't fit the mold of the stereotypical mountain man. He didn't indulge in profanity, tobacco, or alcohol, and was known to studiously read his Bible, pray, and meditate.
Time to quit
In 1830 Smith's world was shaken by the death of his mother. In remorse he decided to call it quits with the wilderness and purchased a farm and townhouse in Saint Louis. He sold his interest in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, but agreed to help procure supplies for the new owners.
On trip too many
On May 27, 1831, while fulfilling that commitment, he was scouting for water along the Sante Fe Trail when he was attacked and killed by a band of Comanche Indian warriors near the Cimarron River. His death was discovered when his associates noticed Smith's possessions being sold by a Mexican trader. Inquiring into how he came to be in possession of Jedediah Smith's worldly goods, the Mexican revealed that he had traded for them with the Comanches.
Jedediah Smith had planned to make a comprehensive map of the southwest, but his extensive knowledge died along with him. His journal and notes survived and made important additions to the base of knowledge concerning the Rockies and areas to the west.
Jedediah Smith, though less reknowned than earlier explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, was as significant in his contributions to opening the American West. His list of accomplishments is staggering considering his short career of only 8 years. He, along with his fellow mountain men, lay the foundation needed to bring others through the Rockies and the northwest in relative safety. In a time where it took months to travel large distances, the saving of 50 miles gave a huge advantage. That 50 miles could be the difference in being caught in a high mountain blizzard or reaching more hospitable areas to winter. The mountain men adapted to the changing conditions, whether they were economic, political, or social. They were survivors, and they taught those who followed in their footsteps to survive also.