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. 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 waited, 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.
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.