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Trail Blazer Of The Far West
Long before Frémont, Jedediah Smith mapped huge regions between Salt Lake and California. He ranks beside Lewis and Clark in the annals of American exploration
June 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 4
Pulling up the Missouri with supplies, the party stopped to trade for horses with the Arikaras. Instead of trade they got bullets. Smith and the shore party were pinned down on an exposed sand spit under a murderous fire, and before they could escape twelve were dead and eleven wounded, two of them mortally. Trapper Hugh Glass undertook the melancholy task of writing to one victim’s parents: “My painful duty it is to tell you of the death of yr Son wh befell at the hands of the Indians 2d of June in the early morning… . Mr. Smith, a young man of our company, made a powerful prayer wh moved us all greatly, and I am persuaded John died in peace.”
Jed Smith hastened upriver to Henry’s outpost with the news of the disaster, then returned to serve in a punitive military expedition against the Arikaras. Ashley’s losses had been considerable, but at least the Missouri artery was open again.
For the fall beaver hunt, Smith, now a veteran at twenty-four, was given his first command. It was a party of exceptional quality, including Thomas Fitzpatrick, Jim Clyman, William Sublette, Thomas Eddie, and Edward Rose, all of whom became famous mountain men in their own right. They set off west from the Missouri toward the Dakota Badlands and the Black Hills, breaking a new trail to the mountains. At one point, after the party had nearly succumbed for want of water, Smith was attacked by the mountain man’s dreaded enemy, a grizzly bear. Clyman left a vivid description of the encounter: Grissly did not hesitate a moment but sprang on the cap t taking him by the head first pitc[h]ing sprawling on the earth … breaking several of his ribs and cutting his head badly… . the bear had taken nearly all his head in his cap[a]cious mouth close to his left eye on one side and clos to his right ear on the other and laid the skull bare to near the crown of the head… . one of his ears was torn from his head out to the outer rim …
The bear was killed, and under Smith’s cool direction Clyman somehow stitched up the gaping wounds, even saving the ear. His doctoring done, the redoubtable Clyman remarked that “this gave us a lisson on the charcter of the grissly Baare which we did not forget.”
The trappers forged on into the Rockies, taking beaver and wintering with a tribe of friendly Crow Indians on the Wind River in present-day Wyoming. On the spring hunt of 1824 they found a practical way west through the Divide via the wide gap that became famous as South Pass, and set about trapping the beaver-rich Green River valley. Instructing Fitzpatrick to report these developments to Ashley, Smith and six of his men plunged deep into the mountains to the northwest. Exactly where they trapped is not known, but suddenly, in September, 1824, they appeared in the middle of what the Hudson’s Bay Company liked to consider its own private preserve.
The company had devised an admirably direct method of keeping its American competitors out of the Oregon country, the ownership of which was a matter of dispute between England and the United States: it simply trapped to extinction as many beaver streams as could be reached. Alexander Ross, Hudson’s Bay agent, was on such a mission in the Snake River region when Smith made contact with one of his parties of Indian trappers. This band of transplanted Iroquois, quavering from a skirmish with the Snakes, offered its beaver pelts for safe conduct to Ross’ base. As a Yankee, Smith promptly snapped up this bargain.
Ross remembered it as “That damn’d all cursed day” when his Iroquois showed up under convoy of the smug Americans. Smith wintered at the company’s Flathead Post in northwestern Montana, absorbing every detail of the British operations. When he and his men finally departed in the spring of 1825 to seek out Ashley, a British diarist tartly remarked, “One Jedidiah S. Smith is at the head of them, a sly cunning Yankey.”
Fitzpatrick’s report of South Pass and the rich Green River valley persuaded Ashley to try to recoup his losses. He made the difficult march to the Green River, arriving in April, 1825, and set about trapping—but under a new system. His instructions read, “The place of deposite as aforesaid, will be The place of rendavoze for all our parties on or before the 10th July next …” Thus was born the effective rendezvous system that became the cornerstone of the American fur trade. No longer need the mountain man make the annual trek to civilization with his furs. Now supply caravans would come to him, buy his pelts, and sell to him in return—at astronomical prices—the powder, lead, and traps, the staples and trade goods he needed to be selfsufficient the year round. The rendezvous became a wild carnival of gambling, races, monumental drunks, cavorting Indians, wenching, and storytelling, and the average trapper left it hung-over and broke to return to his lonely beaver streams.
Smith was at that first rendezvous (quiet by later standards) where the logistics of the new practice were worked out. Andrew Henry had passed from the trade, and Ashley needed a new partner to represent him in the mountains. The obvious choice was Smith, and the bargain was struck. The new partners took their $50,000 haul of furs back to St. Louis in October of 1825.