Jedediah Smith

Jedediah Smith

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."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) William Ashley, diary entry (8th May, 1825)

Jedediah Smith, a very intelligent and confidential young man, who had charge of a small detachment, stated that he had, in the fall of 1824, crossed from the headwaters of the Rio Colorado to Lewis fork of the Columbia and down the same about one hundred miles, thence northwardly to Clark's fork of the Columbia, where he found a trading establishment of the Hudson Bay company, where he remained for some weeks. Mr. Smith ascertained from the gentleman who had charge of that establishment, that the Hudson Bay company had then in their employment, trading with the Indians and trapping beaver on both sides of the Rocky mountains, about 80 men, 60 of whom were generally employed as trappers and confined their operations to that district called the Snake country, which Mr. Smith understood as being confined to the district claimed by the Shoshone Indians. It appeared from the account, that they had taken in the last four years within that district eighty thousand beaver, equal to one hundred and sixty thousand pounds of furs.

You can form some idea of the quantity of beaver that country once possessed, when I tell you that some of our hunters had taken upwards of one hundred in the last spring hunt out of streams which had been trapped, as I am informed, every season for the last four years.

(2) Jedediah Smith, diary entries in 1826.

22nd June: My course was nearly parallel with a chain of hills in the west, on the tops of which was some snow and from which ran a creek to the north east. On this creek I encamped. The Country in the vicinity so much resembled that on the south side of the Salt Lake that for a while I was induced to believe that I was near that place. During the day I saw a good many antelope, but could not kill any. I however, killed 2 hares which, when cooked at night we found much better than horse meat.

23rd June: Moving on in the morning I kept down the creek on which we had encamped until it was lost in a small Lake. We then filled our horns and continued on our course, passing some brackish as well as some very salt springs, and leaving on the north of the latter part of the days travel a considerable Salt Plain. Just before night I found water that was drinkable, but continued on in hopes of finding better and was obliged to encamp without any.

24th June: I started very early in hopes of soon finding water. But ascending a high point of a hill I could discover nothing but sandy plains or dry Rocky hills with the exception of a snowy mountain off to the N E at the distance of 50 or 60 Miles. When I came down I durst not tell my men of the desolate prospect ahead, but framed my story so as to discourage them as little as possible. I told them I saw something black at a distance, near which no doubt we would find water.

While I had been up on the hill one of the horses gave out and had been left a short distance behind. I sent the men back to take the best of his flesh, for our supply was again nearly exhausted, whilst I would push forward in search of water.

I went on a shorter distance and waited until they came up. They were much discouraged with the gloomy prospect, but I said all I could to enliven their hopes and told them in all probability we would soon find water. But the view ahead was almost hopeless.

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.

At about 4 o'clock we were obliged to stop on the side of a sand hill under the shade of a small Cedar. We dug holes in the sand and laid down in them for the purpose of cooling our heated bodies. After resting about an hour we resumed our wearisome journey, and traveled until 10 o'clock at night, when we laid down to take a little repose. Previous to this and a short time after sun down, I saw several turtle doves, and as I did not recollect of ever having seen them more than 2 or 3 miles from water I spent more than an hour looking for water, but it was in vain. Our sleep was not repose, for tormented nature made us dream of things we had not and for the want of which it then seemed possible, and even probable, that we might perish in the desert unheard of and unpitied.

In those moments how trifling were all those things that hold such an absolute sway over the busy and the prosperous world. My dreams were not of gold or ambitious honors, but of my distant, quiet home, of murmuring brooks, of Cooling Cascades. After a short rest we continued our march and traveled all night. The murmur of falling waters still sounding in our ears and the apprehension that we might never live to hear that sound in reality weighed heavily upon us.

25th June: When morning came it saw us in the same unhappy situation, pursuing our journey over the desolate waste, now gleaming in the sun and more insupportably tormenting than it had been during the night. At 10 o'clock Robert Evans laid down in the plain under the shade of a small cedar, being able to proceed no further. (We could do no good by remaining to die with him and we were not able to help him along, but we left him with feelings only known to those who have been in the same situation and with the hope that we might get relief and return in time to save his life.)

The mountain of which I have before spoken was apparently not far off, and 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. Goble plunged into it at once, and I could hardly wait to bath my burning forehead before I was pouring it down regardless of the consequences.

Just before we arrived at the spring I saw two indians traveling in the direction in which Evans was left, and soon after the report of two guns was heard in quick succession. This considerably increased our apprehension for his safety, but shortly after a smoke was seen back on the trail and I took a small kettle of water and some meat and going back, found him safe. He had not seen the Indians and had discharged his gun to direct me where he lay, and for the same purpose had raised a smoke.

He was indeed far gone, being scarcely able to speak. When I came the first question he asked me was, have you any water? I told him I had plenty and handed him the kettle, which would hold 6 or 7 quarts, in which there was some meat mixed with the water. Oh says he, why did you bring the meat and putting the kettle to his mouth he did not take it away until he had drank all the water, of which there was at least 4 or 5 quarts, and then asked me why I had not brought more. This, however, revived him so much that he was able to go on to the spring.

I cut the horse meat and spread it out to dry, and determined to remain for the rest of the day that we might repose our wearied and emaciated bodies. 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.

In the course of the day several Indians showed themselves on the high points of the hills, but would not come to my camp.

26th June: 10 miles along a valley and encamped at some brackish water, having passed during the day several salt springs and one Indian lodge. The lodge was occupied by 2 Indians, one squaw and 2 children. They were somewhat alarmed, but friendly, and when we made signs to them of being hungry they cheerfully divided with us some antelope meat. They spoke like the Snake Indians and by enquiry I found that they were Pahnakkee's from Lewis's River. They had some pieces of Buffalo Robes and told me that after a few days travel to the North East Buffalo were plenty. Although they knew the Shoshones I could not learn any thing from them in relation to the Salt Lake. In the evening I discovered from a high piece of ground what appeared to be a large body of water.

June 27th: North 10 Miles along a valley in which were many salt springs. Coming to the point of the ridge which formed the eastern boundary of the valley I saw an expanse of water Extending far to the North and East. The Salt Lake, a joyful sight, was spread before us. Is it possible, said the companions of my sufferings, that we are so near the end of our troubles. For myself I durst scarcely believe that it was really the Big Salt Lake that I saw. It was indeed a most cheering view, for although we were some distance from the depo, yet we knew we would soon be in a country where we would find game and water, which were to us objects of the greatest importance and those which would contribute more than any others to our comfort and happiness.

Those who may chance to read this at a distance from the scene may perhaps be surprised that the sight of this lake surrounded by a wilderness of More than 2000 miles diameter excited in me those feelings known to the traveler, who, after long and perilous journeying, comes again in view of his home. But so it was with me for I had traveled so much in the vicinity of the Salt Lake that it had become my home of the wilderness.

After coming in view of the lake I traveled East, keeping nearly parallel with the shore of the lake. At about 25 Miles from my last encampment I found a spring of fresh water and encamped. The water during the day had been generally Salt. I saw several antelope, but could not get a shot at them.

(3) Jedediah Smith, letter to William Clark (11th October, 1827)

About the 22nd of August, 1826, I left the Great Salt Lake, accompanied with a party of fifteen men, for the purpose of exploring the country to the south west, which was then entirely unknown to me, and of which I could obtain no satisfactory information, from the Indians who inhabit the country on its north east borders. My general course on leaving the Lake, was S.W. and W., passing the Little Uta Lake, and ascending Ashley's River, which empties into it, where we found a nation of Indians, calling themselves Sumpatch, who were friendly disposed towards us.

After leaving the Little Uta Lake, I found no further sign of Buffalo - there were, however, a few of the Antelope and Mountain Sheep, and an abundance of Black Tailed Hares. Leaving Ashley's River, I passed over a range of mountains, S.E. and N.W., and struck a river, running SW, which I named Adams River, in compliment to our President. The water of the river is of a muddy cast, and somewhat brackish. The country is mountainous to the east, and on the west are detached rocky hills and sandy plains. Passing down this river some distance, I fell in with a nation of Indians, calling themselves Pa Utches. These Indians, as well as the Sumpatch, wear robes made of rabbet skins; they raise corn and pumpkins, on which they principally subsist - except a few hares, very little game of any description is to be found. About ten days march further down, the river turns to the SE, where, on the SW of it, there is a remarkable cave, the entrance to which is about ten or fifteen feet high, and five or six feet in width: after descending about fifteen feet, it opens into a large and spacious room, with the roof, walls and floor of solid rock salt, (a piece of which I send you, with some other articles which will be hereafter described.) I followed Adams river two days travel further, where it empties into the Seeds Keeder, which I crossed and went a south course down it, through a barren, rocky and mountainous country. In this river are many shoals and rapids. Further down, a valley opens, from five to fifteen miles in width. The land on the river bank is fertile and timbered. I here found another tribe of Indians, who call themselves Ammuchiebes. They cultivate the soil, and raise corn, beans, pumpkins and mellons in abundance, and also a little wheat and cotton. I was now nearly destitute of horses, and had learned what it was to do without food; I therefore concluded to remain here fifteen days, to recruit my men; and in the mean time, succeeded in changing my few remaining horses, and was enabled to purchase others, from a party of runaway Indians, who had stolen them from the Spaniards. I here obtained some information respecting the Spanish country - obtained two guides - recrossed the Seeds Keeder, and travelled a west course fifteen days, over a country of complete barrens, and frequently travelling from morning until night without water. Crossed a salt plain eight miles wide and twenty long. On the surface of the ground is a crust of white salt, underneath is a layer of yellow sand, and beneath the sand a few inches, the salt again appears. The river Seeds Keeder, I have since learned, empties itself into the Gulf of California, about 80 miles from the Amuchiebes and is there called the Colorado.

I afterwards arrived at a river, which I named (after a tribe of Indians residing on its banks) Wim-mel-che. I found here a few beaver and elk, deer and antelopes in abundance. I made a small hunt, and then attempted, with my party, to cross Mount Joseph, and join my partners at the Great Salt Lake. In this, however, I was disappointed. I found the snow so deep on the mountain, that my horses could not travel. Five of my horses having already perished for want of food, I was compelled to return to the valley. Here leaving my party, I set out on the 20th May, accompanied by two men, and taking with us seven horses and two mules, which were laden with hay, and provisions for ourselves, and in eight days we succeeded in crossing Mount Joseph, with the loss of only two horses and one mule. The snow on the top of this mountain, was from four to eight feet deep, but so solid that our horses only sunk into it from six to twelve inches.

After travelling twenty days from the east side of Mount Joseph, I struck the SW corner of the Great Salt Lake. The country between the mountain and this Lake, is completely barren, and entirely destitute of game. We frequently travelled two days, without water, over sandy deserts, where no sign of vegetation was to be seen. In some of the rocky hills we found water, and occasionally small bands of Indians, who appeared the most miserable of the human race. They were entirely naked, and subsisted upon grass seeds, grasshoppers, fee. On arriving at the Great Salt Lake, we had but one horse and one mule remaining, and they so poor, they could scarcely carry the little camp equipage we had with us. The balance of the horses we were compelled to eat as they gave out.