Jedediah Smith, the son of a general store owner, was born at Bainbridge, New York, on 6th January, 1799. His parents were Methodists and as a young man he developed strong religious beliefs. In 1810 His family moved to Erie County, Pennsylvania. He developed an interest in travel after reading about the travels of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, overland to the Pacific Ocean.
Smith moved to St. Louis in search of work. On 13th February, 1822, William Ashley placed an advertisement in the Missouri Gazette and Public Adviser where he called for 100 enterprising men to "ascend the river Missouri" to take part in the fur collecting business. Those who agreed to join the party included Smith, Tom Fitzpatrick, Hugh Glass, Jim Beckwourth, David Jackson, William Sublette and James Bridger.
On 30th May, 1823, William Ashley and his party of 70 men were attacked by 600 Arikara. Twelve of Ashley's men were killed and the rest were forced to retreat. Smith volunteered to contact Andrew Henry and bring back reinforcements. A message was sent back to Colonel Henry Leavenworth of the U.S. Sixth Infantry and later 200 soldiers and 700 Sioux allies attacked the Arikara villages.
In 1824 Smith led a small group of men south of the Yellowstone to open up new trapping grounds. During the journey he discovered the South Pass through the Rocky Mountains at Wyoming. Smith was also badly mauled by a bear. The animal ripped Smith's scalp open and for the rest of his life he brushed his hair forward to conceal the scar. The trip was a great success and Smith returned to St. Louis in 1825 with 9,000 pounds of beaver skin.
A devout Methodist, it was said of Smith that "his Bible and his rifle were his inseparable companions." Another mountain man, William Waldo, said that Smith was "a bold, outspoken, professing, and consistent Christian, the first and only one known among the early Rocky Mountain trappers and hunters." Smith was also an outstanding trapper and the 668 pelts he took in the 1824-1825 season was a record haul.
William Ashley, who described Smith as a "a very intelligent and confidential young man", now made him a partner in his business and together they pioneered the Oregon Trail to the mountains. In 1826 Smith joined forces with David Jackson and William Sublette to buy out Ashley. Whereas Sublette and Jackson worked the central Rockies, Smith decided to search out new trapping grounds in the southwest. In August 1826, Smith and a 15 men team headed for the Wasatch Mountains. During this journey they became the first American pioneers to meet the Wintu.
He wrote about his travels in his journal: "I have at different times suffered the extremes of hunger and thirst. Hard as it is to bear for successive days the knawings of hunger, yet it is light in comparison to the agony of burning thirst and, on the other hand, I have 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, and although he can drink but little at a time, yet he wants it much oftener than in ordinary circumstances."
After crossing the Colorado River the men entered the Black Mountains of Arizona. Smith was unable to find "beaver water" and instead of retracing his steps decided to cross the Mojave Desert in California. It took the party 15 days to cross this flat, salt-crusted plain under a blazing sun. Eventually they arrived at what is now Los Angeles. As Kevin Starr has pointed out that "the Smith party constituted the first American penetration of California overland from the east."
This area was under the control of Mexico and Smith and his party were arrested and kept at San Diego until January, 1827. The group then wintered in the San Joaquin Valley. In May, Smith took his men across the Sierra Nevada mountains. The deep snow halted the first attempt and when he tried for a second time, Smith only had two companions. This time he managed to cross the mountains through what is now known as Ebbetts Pass. The three men therefore became the first white men to achieve this feat.
The desert east of the Sierra caused Smith and his companions serious problems. On 24th June Smith wrote in his diary: "With our best exertion we pushed forward, walking as we had been for a long time, over the soft sand. That kind of traveling is very tiresome to men in good health who can eat when and what they choose, and drink as often as they desire, and to us, worn down with hunger and fatigue and burning with thirst increased by the blazing sands, it was almost insupportable."
On 25th June one of the men, Robert Evans, did not have the strength to continue. Smith and the other man went on ahead. Smith wrote in his diary: "We left him and proceeded onward in the hope of finding water in time to return with some in season to save his life. After traveling about three miles we came to the foot of the mountain and there, to our inexpressible joy, we found water."
The three men eventually reached Bear Lake. Smith now wrote to William Clark about his trip and what he had discovered. In his letter he explained how he had discovered "a country which has been, measurably, veiled in obscurity, and unknown to the citizens of the United States."On 13th June Smith assembled a new party of 18 men and two women to go back to California. He decided to use the same route as before. While crossing the Colorado River the party was attacked by members of the Mojave tribe. Ten of the men were killed and the two women were captured. Smith and the seven remaining men reached California in late August. Once again Smith was arrested by the Mexican authorities. He was eventually released after he promised he would leave California and not return.
Smith and his party now explored northward into Oregon in search of promising beaver trapping areas. On 14th July, 1828, while Smith and two other members of his party were off on a scouting trip on the Umpqua River, the Kelawatset tribe attacked the camp and killed 15 of his men. Alexander Roderick McLeod returned and recorded the poignant scene in his journal: “... at the entrance of the North Branch, where Mr. Smith's party were destroyed, and a sad spectacle of Indian barbarity presented itself to our view, the skeletons of eleven of those miserable sufferers lying bleaching in the sun.”
Smith and what remained of his party eventually reached Fort Vancouver in Canada. During a three year period Smith had taken 33 men with him on his expeditions to California. Of these, 26 had been killed. Kevin Starr, the author of California (2005) has argued: "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; Smith linked California to the interior of the North American continent."
Smith spent the winter of 1828-29 at Fort Vancouver. In March, his party, that included James Bridger, journeyed east to meet up with David Jackson and his trappers on the Clark Fork River. The two trapping parties reached Pierre's Hole in August. The following year Smith and his partners sold their business to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
Smith returned to St. Louis in 1830 with the idea of making maps of the areas he had explored. He found it impossible to settle and in 1831 he agreed to guide 22 wagons on a trading expedition to Sante Fe. Smith made a crucial mistake of not making sure that the party had taken sufficient supplies of water. On 27th May 1831, Jedediah Smith decided to travel ahead in search of water. He was set upon by 20 Comanches and was killed.
Dan L. Thrapp has argued: "Smith was more than 6 feet tall, spare, a man of great courage, vision, dedication and persistence... His contributions to geographical knowledge of the west, and his pioneering expeditions were of great value; his journals and records suggest that he intended at some time to publish his findings, but his early and lamented death aborted that plan."