The Wild West of Yester-Year

Jedediah Smith
By Rachel Kovaciny

Jedediah Smith survived three massacres, got mauled by a bear, and led the first party of U. S. citizens cross the Mojave Desert. He was probably the first white American to reach California from the east, overland, rather than sailing around South America to get there. Smith and his companions were also the first U. S. citizens to travel overland from California to Oregon. He accompanied the first party that explored the Sierra Nevada from the west. His journals and maps helped settlers find the best spot to cross the Continental Divide while following the Oregon Trail. Oh, and Jedediah Smith accomplished all of that in just nine years, before dying at thirty-two.

Born in Jericho (now Bainbridge), New York, in 1799, Jedediah Strong Smith and family moved to Pennsylvania and Ohio in his youth. He learned to hunt and trap and felt keen to explore more widely. He also learned to read and write, skills that enabled him to record his later experiences and travels. In 1822, he journeyed to St. Louis, Missouri, where he joined an expedition bound for the Rocky Mountains. Smith fell in love with the wilderness. In fact, he never really rejoined civilization again. He spent the next year with fur trappers along the Yellowstone River, learning how to survive in the wild. In 1823, while exploring the Black Hills of South Dakota, a grizzly bear burst out from the other side of a dense thicket and surprised him. The bear attacked, smashing his ribs and mauling him. It took his head in its mouth and ripped off his scalp and one ear, but Smith played dead, and the bear lost interest and left instead of killing him. His friends found him and assumed he would die from his wounds, but he convinced them to sew his scalp and ear back on. After ten days of recovery, he resumed trapping and traveling. He wore his hair long for the rest of his life to cover his damaged ear and scars as well as he could.

The following winter, Smith led a party to explore Wyoming, where a friendly Crow tribe told them about a pass suitable for wagons through the Rocky Mountains. He made maps of what came to be known as South Pass, the gap the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trail all passed through. Thanks to his descriptions and maps, later settlers easily found the pass. The next spring, Smith became part owner of the fur trapping organization that had hired him as a scout and trapper. He did not stay in any towns or forts to run the business. Instead, he took a group west and found an overland route west to California, which was part of Mexico. The Mexican government did not want U. S. citizens entering their land that way, so they ordered Smith to leave, which he did. Instead of going back the way he had come, he went north, exploring more and more. Wherever he went, he made maps and wrote detailed descriptions of his findings in his journals.

Smith spent the next few years all over the west. In 1830, he returned to St. Louis and sold his share of the fur trapping business. His younger brothers, Peter and Austin Smith, joined him there, and they set out on the Santa Fe Trail with a wagon train of trade goods. The train left in April 1831, an unusually dry year. They encountered drought conditions and began losing animals and men in the desert when their water ran out. After three days with no water, he and several others rode off to find it, each going a different direction. None of them ever saw Smith again. It wasn’t until his brothers found his pistols and rifle up for sale in Santa Fe that they learned what had happened to him. Unfriendly Comanche warriors had surrounded him and killed him in battle. They never recovered his body.

Although he did not live to see his journals and maps published, they proved invaluable for later explorers. Many official maps simply copied him for large sections of the West. His records fueled the emerging interest in settling Oregon, and his maps helped make such a journey possible. Though the time he spent in the West was short, it made an immeasurable difference.