Was Jedediah Smith the greatest of the early Mountain Men of the Old West? Probably.
I was reminded again of this enigmatic fur trader/businessman/explorer when I ran onto one of my greatest Western history treasures, a small, aging paperback titled “Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West,” by Dale L. Morgan.
Originally published in 1953, my paperback copy is a 1964 printing. Both the book and the man it’s about have stood the test of time quite well and I would recommend this excellent volume to everyone who want’s to learn more about Smith and the other Mountain Men who ventured into the “untamed” wilderness of the Old West during the early 1800s.
Jedediah Strong Smith (1799-1831) was a self-effacing, unassuming man who did nothing short of spectacular when it comes to survival and exploration throughout the early years of the Old West. He was hired on by Gen. William H. Ashley in response to a St. Louis newspaper ad seeking 100 men to journey to the headwaters of the Missouri River. They were going to be exploring and primarily doing fur trading. At that point in the history of the nation, fur trading was a major source of commerce and wealth–and particularly served to boost the growth and economy of St. Louis as the main jumping off spot via the Mississippi-Missouri River system for that lucrative trade.
As Morgan explains it, Jedediah Smith was “… one of the rawest of the green hands recruited” for that 1822 venture. But within 2 years, according to Morgan, Smith had become Ashley’s business partner and in one year more had become the senior partner of a trading firm that dominated fur trade in the Rockies.
Morgan suggests that Smith was second only to Lewis and Clark in terms of his remarkable exploration of the West. In 8 years time, Jedediah Smith did all this: He discovered a major trail through the Rocky Mountains (South Pass); he was the first white man to reach California overland from the American frontier regions along the Mississippi-Missouri Rivers; he was the first white man to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains; the first to travel the length and width of the Great Basin region; and he was the first to reach Oregon by traveling up the California coast.
Smith accomplished all this and more from the time he was 22 years old until his death at the point of Comanche lances along the Santa Fe Trail when he was 32. He did it all with a stoic calm that endured the usual cold winters, baking summers, and all around deprivation known to all the Mountain Men–and he did it with considerably less “coarse” behavior. Smith was renowned as a man of genuine spirituality and good nature when others were cursing and carousing their way away from and then back into the “civilization” of the times. Again, Morgan speaks of Smith’s love of the Bible and his general character in contrast to many of the tall-tales told about the better known Mountain Men of Smith’s day: According to Morgan’s account, Smith “entered the West owning his rifle, his Bible, the clothes on his back and very little else.”
Was Smith counted among the hardiest or “toughest” of the Mountain Men? There was no doubt about his ability to survive the hard life in the Rockies. Early in his fur trading days on the Yellowstone River, Smith and his party were attached by a Grizzly bear. Smith himself bore the brunt of the huge animal’s mauling–and gave his companions detailed instructions for cleansing and reattaching his scalp with scissors, needle, and thread.
Details of Jedediah’s death are sketchy and somewhat contradictory. No one was present to record his actual slaying by a Comanche hunting party along the Santa Fe Trial in 1831. Smith left the trading party he was with to scout for water. As close as can be known, piecing together letters from Smith’s family members, the Mountain Man ran onto a party of probably between five and 20 Comanches. He was unable to communicate to them his peaceful intentions. Or perhaps they simply wanted his horse and rifle. Whatever the circumstances, Jedediah’s remains were never recovered, although his brother, Austin, eventually got his rifle and pistols back from the Mexican merchant who acquired them from the Comanche hunters.
Jedediah Smith remains one of the least known and perhaps most courageous of the Mountain Men who explored and pioneered the way for generations of settlers to make their way into the Old West, across the plains and mountains, and make America the continent wide nation it is today.