Jedediah Strong Smith
January 6, 1799 - May 27, 1831
1799 - Born in Jericho, New York on the Susquehanna River.
1822 - Joined Ashley-Henry Expedition in St. Louis.
1824 - Led trapping brigade on first east to west crossing of South Pass, Wyoming.
1826-1830 - Senior Partner in Fur Trading Company of Smith, Jackson & Sublette.
1826-1827 - First American to enter California by overland route.
1827 - First to cross the Sierra Nevada and the Nevada Desert.
1826-1828 - First to explore the Pacific Coast States from San Diego to the Columbia River.
1831 - Killed on the Santa Fe Trail.
Jedediah Smith (1799-1831) is known as one of America’s greatest explorers. During the 1820’s, he was the first to travel to California by land from the settled areas of the United States. Later, he blazed the first trails to the Pacific Northwest as an owner of a fur-trapping enterprise.
Born in Western New York State, Smith came from a family that had deep roots in the adventurous spirit of western migration. In 1822, he was hired by William Ashley in St. Louis, as a hunter for his fur-trapping expedition up the Missouri River. During an early westward journey as a brigade leader, he was mauled by a grizzly bear, not far from today’s Mount Rushmore.
In 1824, he was the leader of a group that used South Pass, in today’s Wyoming, for the first east to west travel through the Rocky Mountains. This would later become the main road for the pioneers who used the Oregon Trail. In 1826, after crossing the Mojave Desert, Smith, and his Southwest Expedition, were the first Americans to enter California from the east.
California was governed by Mexico at this time and Smith was treated as a spy and ordered to leave. He tried to return east with his large trapping brigade but the snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains blocked him. Leaving most of his brigade in a camp in California, Smith and two others were the first to cross the Sierra Nevada and the first to travel east from California across the Nevada desert. The trio almost died of thirst but miraculously arrived at the pre-arranged rendezvous site near Great Salt Lake only one day late.
After only ten days rest, 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 his party; leaving Smith to guide the remaining men across the desert on foot. They made it back to the camp where the earlier group was waiting, and soon all of them assembled in the San Francisco Bay region. Knowing from the previous year how treacherous the mountains could be, Smith led his trappers north, up the Sacramento River valley. This brigade included over 250 head of wild horses that Smith hoped to sell in the Rocky Mountains for 5 times what he paid for them in California.
Turning west near the headwaters of the Sacramento, they bushwhacked their way to the Pacific coast and headed north for Fort Vancouver, owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, and located on the Columbia River, near today’s Portland, Oregon. After more than six months of effort, and just a few days short of safe travel, his party was attacked near the mouth of the Umpqua River, in central Oregon. Only four men escaped, including Smith, who had survived his second Indian attack in just 11 months. After a winter’s stay at Fort Vancouver, he traveled up the Columbia River and was eventually re-united with his surviving friends and business partners in Southern Idaho.
After only eight years in the mountains, Smith retired from the Rocky Mountain fur trade in 1830. He returned to St. Louis with a large amount of harvested fur pelts, which earned him enough money to purchase property and generously help his friends and family. Apparently, the lure of adventure and profit in the Santa Fe trade was strong enough to motivate him, in the spring of 1831, to set out with a large caravan from St. Louis. More than half way to their goal, in today’s southwest Kansas, the caravan ran out of water. Smith, and his old friend, Thomas Fitzpatrick, went out ahead to search for a water hole. After seeing dry springs, they decided that Fitzpatrick would wait while Smith ranged on ahead, continuing to search for the precious water the caravan desperately needed.
Days later, when the caravan finally reached Santa Fe, the story of Jedediah Smith’s death at the hands of a wandering tribe of Commanches was told by a trader who had Jed’s pistols in his possession.
His journeys through the west covered more miles than Lewis & Clark, without any monetary support from the government, over an eight- year period. So why isn’t Jed Smith as famous as Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, or Lewis and Clark? The main reason for Smith’s relative obscurity is that his story remained hidden for so many years before it was romanticized after his tragic demise. Facts about his life and travels were slow to surface. It wasn’t until a hundred years after his death that a truly scholarly biography was written about Smith by Maurice L. Sullivan, in 1931.