With the success of The Revenent as a film, and the rebirth of all things fur trade oriented, I thought it might be interesting to focus a blog post on Jedediah Strong Smith, probably the quintessential Mountain Man. Born on January 6, 1799, in Bainbridge, New York, Smith was the sixth child of Jedediah and Sally Strong Smith. In 1822 he traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, seeking employment that would take him into the Oregon country where he wanted to become a trapper.
Beginning in 1822 Smith began employment with the William H. Ashley Company, one of the largest fur trading companies of the Rocky Mountain West. For the next four years Smith rose through the ranks of the Ashley company, worked the streams of the Rockies for beaver, fought in the Arikara battle where 13 traders were killed, and was mauled by a bear and scarred for life. Thereafter, he wore his hair long to hide the scars. In February-March 1824 travels down the Sweetwater River to the mouth of the Big Sandy and over South Pass, the effective discovery of the most significant route over the continental divide for it provided an easy route to the mountain hunting grounds without using the Missouri River.
In 1826 Smith, along with David E. Jackson and William L. Sublette buy out Ashley and form their own company, Smith, Jackson, and Sublette. Thereafter, Smith concentrates on exploration of the American West, specifically to identify and open up new places were trapping of beaver might be accomplished.
Smith’s explorations of the Rockies and Far West in the 1820s rank as some of the most significant exploring expeditions of the nineteenth century. His skill as a frontiersman, as well as his undeniable ambition to develop a preeminent position for his company in the fur trade, combined with these expeditions to establish Smith as an heroic figure in the American West. In addition, his stoic persona and religious countenance became a role model for his fellow traders.
In Smith’s expeditions, his 1824 effective discovery of South Pass in present-day Wyoming was the most significant; although it had earlier been traversed by returning Astorians it has been forgotten in the ensuing years. The importance of this discovery cannot be overestimated. It provided a much easier route for trappers to cross the Rockies into the Great Basin without using the Missouri River. It also meant that settlers using wagons could take an easy route along the Platte and Sweetwater Rivers, then over the mountains using South Pass, and on to Oregon or California. It made possible the great overland migrations along the Oregon Trail beginning in the 1840s.
Jedediah Smith’s 1826-1827 expedition traveled overland from the Great Basin to California and back. Undertaken to locate new trapping grounds, the expedition explored in a bull boat the Great Salt Lake and moved southward onto the Colorado Plateau. Pioneering along the Colorado River, Smith journeyed to the Mohave Desert and visited San Gabriel, California, there making contact with Spanish officials. He explored northward through the San Joaquin valley and then turned eastward across the Sierra Mountains, the first people recorded to have crossed eastward, via the American River. By the time of Smith’s return to the rendezvous the next summer, he had acquired more geographical knowledge about the far west than any other American.
Smith’s last great expedition took place in 1827-1828 when he retraced his route to southern California. There he renewed contacts with officials of New Spain. He then moved northward along the American west coast, travelling by ship from San Gabriel to San Francisco, and eventually reached Fort Vancouver, the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost in the Oregon territory under the command of Dr. John McLoughlin. In the summer of 1828 he returned to the Great Basin trappers’ rendezvous. Once again, Smith’s efforts led to the rapid expansion of geographical knowledge about the American West, but he also ascertained and gave to U.S. authorities much about the strength of Spanish and British claims on the region.
In summary, Jedediah Smith must be credited with being the first to find and recognize the natural gateway to the Oregon country through South Pass; the first overland traveler to reach California; the first white man to cross the Sierra Nevada; and the first to travel overland from California to the Columbia. Unlike most other explorers of the nineteenth century, Smith’s expeditions were not underwritten by the federal government but were the byproduct of efforts to further his company’s fur trading business.
Smith chose in 1830 to end his work in the fur trade, instead deciding that the Santa FeTtrade between Missouri and New Mexico would be more lucrative and less rigorous. On April 10, 1831, he left Independence, Missouri, with a wagon train bound for Santa Fe, New Mexico. The trip was difficult and dangerous; on May 27, 1831, Smith was killed by Comanche Indians while searching for water for the wagon train on the Santa Fe trail.