Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Jedediah Strong Smith:

"I wanted to be the first to view a country on which the eyes of a white man had never gazed and to follow the course of rivers that run through a new land."

No Mountain Man held more potential for enriching the world’s understanding of the American West than did Jedediah Smith.  His contribution, which was enormous, was still only a fraction of the full potential of what he might have revealed had not an encounter with Comanche warriors ended his life early.  For Jedediah Smith trapping was a means to fulfill his main interest which was exploration.  During his eight years in the mountains, no contemporary American (see David Thompson for the Canadian who outdid Jedediah Smith in exploration and mapping) traveled across more unknown western wilderness than he did.  He kept meticulous records and journals, and drew maps, which clarified the geography and history of the country through which he passed.

Jedediah Smith was an outstanding individual, within a group of outstanding men.  However Smith did not fit the stereotype of the typical mountain man.  He never drank, never used tobacco, never boasted and was rarely humorous.

Another rare quality was his strident faith.  Smith was very religious and often prayed and meditated.  Smith’s abilities as a leader and competence in the field easily gained the confidence of those around him, and he quickly rose to leadership of a brigade of mountain men, a group of self-reliant men who were seldom commanded, but would willing follow those in whom they had confidence.

Born in 1799 in Bainbridge, New York, the wandering spirit was planted in Jedediah as he and his family moved several times in an effort to stay on the edge of the frontier boundary.

By the year 1822, Jedediah found himself in St. Louis just as William Ashley and Andrew Henry were putting together their first expedition to the Upper Missouri River.  Jedediah signed on with the expedition as a hunter.  Following Ashley’s disastrous attempt to get by the Arikara villages in 1823, Jedediah was tasked as a captain, to lead one of two brigades by horseback, overland into the upper Yellowstone region.  In this year, 1823, Jedediah was attacked by a grizzly bear, nearly losing his scalp and an ear.  James Clyman would be tasked with “sewing” Smiths scalp and ear in place.  This is the same year that Hugh Glass encountered his grizzly bear while traveling with the brigade led by Andrew Henry.  A year later, in 1824, Jedediah led another of Ashley's brigades deep into the central Rockies where he rediscovered the forgotten South Pass, which was later to become key to the settlement of Oregon and California.

In 1825, William Ashley would take Jedediah as a partner in his fur company, as Andrew Henry had retired, nevermore to return to the mountains.  It was at this time that Ashley discovered that the real wealth in the Rockies was in supplying trade goods, necessities and foo-foo-raw to the annual mountain rendezvous.  In a complicated transaction in 1826, he sold out his share of the partnership to a new set of partners, Jedediah Smith, David Jackson and William Sublette.  Ashley would continue to provide the partners with the supplies they needed in the mountains, and would pack out their annual harvest of furs and skins.

Leaving the July, 1826 Rendezvous in Cache Valley, Jedediah Smith was to take a brigade into the unknown southwest to explore its potential for beaver.  In a grueling march, Smith and fifteen men would travel down along the Wasatch Range, follow the Virgin River down to the Seetes-kee-der (Colorado River) to the Mojave Indian villages.  From there he traveled westward through the Mojave desert, thence across the San Bernardino Mountains.  On November 26, 1826 he led his emaciated party down to the San Gabriel Mission where they were received with hospitality by the Franciscan Padre.

The Mexican Governor, José María Echeandía, however, viewed them with suspicion as either invaders or spies.  The concept of trapping beaver as a vocation was so foreign to the Governor that he persisted in calling Smith and his men “pescadores” or fisherman.  The Governor was unable to believe that Smith and his men had unintentionally crossed 1,000 miles of the desert buffer separating Mexican California from the United States. There followed two frustrating months for Smith and his men as the Governor waffled on whether to imprison the Americans, expel them, hold them pending instructions from Mexico City, send Smith to Mexico City, or even to decide to make a decision.

With the assistance of a friendly American sea captain, the Governor was persuaded to allow Smith and his men to leave California by the same route they entered.  To Smith this meant the populated portion of California, and once across the San Bernardino Mountains, he proceeded northward along the west flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, trapping and seeking the Rio Buenaventura River, which Smith expected to be able to follow back to the 1827 Rendezvous.  By late May the men had accumulated a considerable quantity of beaver, however, no route across the mountains was discovered.

With rendezvous less than two months away, it was imperative that Smith find a way to cross the mountains.  Smith decided to leave most of his men in camp on the Stanislaus River, while he, Robert Evans and Silas Goble would take word back to his partners at rendezvous.  After forcing a passage across the snow bound mountains, Smith and his men crossed the barren basin and range country.  Smith described a land of “High rocky hills afford the only relief to the desolate waste… The intervals between are sand barren Plains.”  Tormented by thirst and heat, the horses giving out, exhausted by their struggles through the loose sand, even the confident Smith lost hope of surviving.

However, on June 27th the men glimpsed the Great Salt Lake to the northeast, and by July 3, 1827 had arrived at the place of rendezvous on the south shore of Bear Lake.  Smith and his men had been given up as lost, and his arrival in camp caused a considerable commotion.

To see a map showing the path traveled by Jedediah Smith from July 1826 to June 1827 click here, but be patient, this takes a while to load.

In less than ten days, Jedediah was on the trail back to California.  He had told his men on the Stanislaus River to wait for him no longer than September 20, giving him only nine weeks to get back.  With 18 men he set off on July 13, 1827.

Certain that his men and horses would not survive the basin and range crossing, he led them on the longer route which he had taken in 1826, guiding his party down the Colorado River to the villages of the Mojave Indians.

The Mojave Indians were not friendly this time, having recently had a violent encounter with trappers out of Mexican Santa Fe which had gone badly for the natives..  At a time when Smith and his men were vulnerable ferrying horses and equipment across the river, several hundred Indians attacked.  Ten men were immediately killed.  The remaining nine survivors had only five guns and their knives to fight off several hundred Indians. Smith and his men prepared for a last ditch stand in a grove of cottonwood trees near the edge of the river.  As the Indians closed in, Smith had his two best marksmen fire at extreme range. The first shots killed two and wounded a third.  At this the Indians withdrew in panic and Smith and his survivors were able to escape into the Mojave Desert.

The outlook was still grim, with one badly wounded man, no horses, little food, and not even a container for water.  Smith decided to again test the hospitality of the Mexican Californians in the San Bernardino Valley. There, he was able to obtain horses and supplies.  Moving to the north he rejoined the camp on the Stanislaus River on September 18, only two days before his promised return.

Needing additional horses and supplies to move the entire party, Smith was once more time forced to test the hospitality of the Californians.  Again Smith found himself under the power of Governor Echeandía, where he was subjected to three months of bureaucratic and legal torment.  More than ever, the Governor was convinced that Smith must be a spy.  Finally, towards the end of December, Smith was able to break loose from the Mexican bureaucracy and turn his path northwards up the Central Valley.

Not finding a pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Smith and his men continued north traveling along the coast of northern California and into the Klamath Mountains.  Traveling became increasingly difficult with jagged mountains and sheer cliffs.  The ocean provided no relief as the forested slopes fell steeply to the waters edge with no beach.

By mid-July, Smith’s party had reached the Umpqua River and were camping on its banks.  Kuitsh Indians came to trade.  They seemed to be friendly, however, previous encounters with these Indians were less than congenial and Smith was wary.  On July 14, while Smith and one men were scouting a river crossing, about a hundred Indians came into camp, ostensibly to trade, but with the intension of attacking.  Only one man was able to escape the massacre at the camp, the remaining fifteen men were axed to death.

Once again, alone and destitute, Smith and his surviving men decided to seek aid from the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver.  By August 8th, all of the survivors of the massacre on the Umpqua River had arrived in Fort Vancouver. Although the Hudson’s Bay Company was fighting an economic war on behalf of Britain against the Americans with the goal of control of the Columbia basin, John McLoughlin, Chief Factor at Fort Vancouver treated the survivors with respect and generosity.  McLoughlin sent a brigade to accompany Smith and his survivors back to the massacre site.  There they were able to recover 26 horses, most of the furs, various items of equipment, and most importantly the journals and records of Jedediah Smith and his clerk, Harrison Rogers.  Eleven bodies were buried, the remaining four were never found.  On returning to Fort Vancouver, the Hudson’s Bay Company purchased Smith’s horses and furs and extended the hospitality of the fort through the winter months.

Leaving Fort Vancouver in the spring of 1829, Smith made his way back to the Rocky Mountains where he rejoined David Jackson at Flathead Lake. From there the two partners turned to the south, meeting William Sublette at rendezvous at Pierre’s Hole.  

With two disastrous years behind him, Smith had not yet contributed to the success of company of Smith, Jackson and Sublette.  For the fall/spring hunts of 1829-1830 Smith would lead a strong brigade into Blackfoot country. Harassment by the Blackfeet drove the trappers out, but not before they had amassed a large quantity of beaver.  In St. Louis the value of the companies catch for the year exceeded $84,000.  

A map showing the track of Jedediah Smith from the Rendezvous of 1827 to the Rendezvous of 1829 is shown here, but be patient this takes a while to load.

At this time the company of Smith, Jackson and Sublette was dissolved, selling out to Tom Fitzpatrick, Milton Sublette, Jim Bridger, Henry Fraeb and Jean Baptiste Gervais, who named themselves the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.

Smith, Jackson and Sublette dissolved for a combination of business and personal reasons.  Beaver were becoming increasingly scarce, and competition with other fur companies, particularly John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, was becoming fierce.  Jedediah’s mother had died in 1830 and he was feeling his neglect of his parents.  He provided a large sum from his share of the profits as a pension for his father.  He purchased a house and farm in St. Louis.  His intentions were to publish a book and maps, laying before the public his vast store of geographical knowledge. But first he had one gap to fill in, the country between St. Louis and Mexican Santa Fe.

In the spring of 1831, a pack train to Santa Fe was organized by Smith, Jackson and Sublette.  Of that fateful trip Dale Morgan writes:

"South of the Arkansas lay a plain, forty or fifty miles wide, which had to be crossed to the Cimarron – a river as inconstant as the Mojave.  This plain, “the water scrape”, was not only dry but flat, utterly featureless, and the more bewildering for the maze of buffalo trails which furrowed its surface.  No discernible trace marked the course of the wagon road across this desert and Jedediah’s party struck it at an especially bad time, when the country was parched by drought. They had been three scorching days without water, and the teams were on the point of perishing when, on May 27, a last desperate effort was made to find water.  Men were sent out in various directions, and Jedediah in company with Fitzpatrick headed south, to a deep hollow which should have provided water, but the hole was dry. Instructing Fitzpatrick to dig for water, Jedediah pushed on south toward some broken ground, perhaps three miles off.

None of his friends ever saw Jedediah again.  What became of him was learned only after the search was given up and the party went on to Santa Fe.  Mexicans who traded among the Comanche rode into the city carrying his pistols and rifle, and from their understanding of what the Comanche said come the details of Jedediah Smith’s death.

Apparently a Comanche hunting party, numbering fifteen or twenty men, lying in wait for buffalo at one of the water holes along the Cimarron, saw Jedediah approach and kept themselves concealed until he was too close to escape.  Jedediah had seen too much of the West, and knew too well the reputation of this most savage of all the Shoshonean tribes not to be able to appraise his chances.  A brave front was his only hope, and he rode directly up to the red men.  A brief colloquy followed, but neither could understand the other, and they paid no attention to his signs of peace.

The Comanche began to spread out.  Watchfully Jedediah tried to keep them from getting behind him.  His horse danced nervously, and was suddenly startled into wheeling.  Instantly the Comanche fired at Jedediah’s exposed back, a musket ball entering his body near the left shoulder.  Gasping at the impact, Jedediah turned his horse and leveled his rifle at the chief, killing him with the single shot he had time to fire. Before he could draw his pistols, the rest rushed on him with their lances, thrusting and stabbing.”

Thus ended the life of Jedediah Smith at age 32.

For more information regarding Jedediah Smith see also:

A Life Wild and Perilous: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific, by Robert M Utley, published 1997 Henry Holt and Company. 392 pages.

Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West, by Dale Morgan, published 1953, Bobbs-Merrill Co.  

Dale, Harrison Clifford (Editor):  The Ashley-Smith Explorations and the Discovery of a Central Route to the Pacific 1822-1829, with the original journals of William Ashley, Jedediah Smith and Harrison Rogers.  1941, Published by the Arthur H. Clark Company, Glendale California.  This book is listed with primary sources because it contains transcriptions of the original journals of William Ashley, Jedediah Smith and Harrison Rogers, Smiths clerk on his second expedition to California.  

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