Trail Blazer Of The Far West


In December of the year 1826 Captain William Cunningham, master of the ship Courier out of Boston, recorded with unstinting admiration a singular event in the quiet California port of San Diego where the Courier had called to trade. “There has arrived at this place,” he wrote, “Capt. Jedediah Smith with a company of hunters, from St. Louis, on the Missouri… . Does it not seem incredible that a party of fourteen men, depending entirely upon their rifles and traps for subsistence, will explore this vast continent, and call themselves happy when they can obtain the tail of a beaver to dine upon?”

The Captain had witnessed the completion of the first overland journey to California from the distant American frontier, led by a fellow Yankee just twentyseven years old. This in itself was a solid achievement, but Jed Smith contributed much else worthy of note during his nine-year western odyssey. In addition to pioneering the way to California, he opened the historic gateway to the Far West—South Pass, in Wyoming; filled in an immense geographic void with the discovery of the arid vastness of the Great Basin; grasped the existence of the Sierra Nevada mountain barrier to California and made the initial crossing of that imposing range; and, finally, was the first white man to traverse virtually the entire length of America’s Pacific coast, from southern California to the Columbia River in Oregon. All of this he accomplished before he was thirty.

By almost any standard, Jedediah Smith, not John C. Frémont, ought to be remembered today as the West’s “Pathfinder.” Yet for some reason—perhaps the irony of history, or perhaps simply his incredibly bad luck—his name never quite became impressed upon the American consciousness. Only in the last few decades have the dedicated researches of western historians, particularly Maurice Sullivan and Dale Morgan, restored Jedediah Strong Smith to something like his rightful place: alone with Lewis and Clark in the first rank of America’s explorers.

Luck was with him at first. Arriving in St. Louis early in 1822 at the age of twenty-three, Jed Smith sought a career in the mountains at precisely the moment when the long-restrained American assautt on the western fur trade burst loose. As far back as 1807 Manuel Lisa had tried to tap the rich beaver country of the upper Missouri River, only to be driven out within a few years by the vicious Blackfeet Indians. Others had sought the prize, among them John Jacob Astor. “Our enterprise is grand, and deserves success,” Astor wrote, but Great Britain gobbled up his Pacific outpost, Astoria, in the War of 1812. Now, in the 1820’s, the postwar depression had subsided, venture capital was again available, and the Blackfeet showed signs of being amenable to trade.

If the time was ripe, the competition was also prepared. In 1821 the giants of the British fur trade, the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, had ended their long, ruinous warfare and merged. In addition to this Hudson’s Bay monopoly, the American challengers faced the fact that virtually nothing was known of what lay on the far side of the Rockies.

The map makers of 1820 depended on a misty web of myth and legend to fill the great blank between the Rockies and the Pacific. There was supposed to be a huge inland sea called Timpanogos about which the Franciscan explorers Escalante and Domingue/ had written back in 1776. The maps further supposed, in various combinations, a series of major westward-flowing rivers: the Timpanogos, the Multnomah, the Los Mongos, and, most enduring, the fabled Buenaventura. It was a certainty that the headwaters of the Missouri and the rivers of the far Northwest contained beaver in quantity. Why not the valleys of these mighty rivers farther south? The hardhanded, resourceful Americans intended to find out.

Jed Smith was later to write of his motives for showing up in St. Louis that important year of 1822: “I started into the mountains with the determination of becoming a first-rate hunter, of making myself thoroughly acquainted with the character and habits of the Indians, of tracing out the sources of the Columbia River, and following it to its mouth”—to which he added, since he was a New England Yankee at heart—“and of making the whole profitable to me.”

Smith was born in 1799 of deeply religious New England parents in the Susquehanna Valley at what is now Bainbridge, New York. The family drifted westward to Erie County, Pennsylvania, where a local doctor took a liking to the boy, helped him with an education, and introduced him to the published narrative of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The family was soon on the move again, to Ohio’s Western Reserve. Coming of age, Jedediah Smith struck out for the frontier.

William H. Ashley, the lieutenant governor of Missouri, was eager for a share in the fur-trade riches. In partnership with a veteran trader named Andrew Henry, Ashley advertised in the St. Louis Missouri Gazette for “Enterprising Young Men” who would be hired “to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two or three years.” Smith quickly signed on. The young hunter spent his first mountain winter (1822-23) with one of Henry’s trapping parties high up the Missouri, in present-day Montana. He quickly made his mark, and in the spring Henry dispatched him as an “express” to tell Ashley to bring up more horses. It was with Ashley that Smith was first brushed by violent death.