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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
In less than a month the junior partner was off again for the mountains, where he had a busy fall hunt ranging through the present states of Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho. When he next met Ashley at the summer rendezvous of 1826 at Cache Valley, northeast of Great Salt Lake, Smith, William Sublette, and David E. Jackson bought out Ashley. Jedediah Smith, after just four years in the mountains, became the senior partner of the firm that now dominated the American fur trade. He was twenty-seven.
The new partners realized that the beaver streams of the interior Rockies were becoming well enough known so that their productive future was limited. But there were still those legendary rivers of the West, hopefully thick with beaver, shown on the maps. Leaving Sublette and Jackson to handle matters in the mountains, Smith turned his face southwest toward an unknown country.
In August of 1826 his party—the self-styled South West Expedition—rode south along the Sevier River and got into what Smith called “a Country of Starvation—Sandy plains and Rocky hills once in 20 30 or 40 m[iles] a little pond or Spring …” Striking the Colorado River at what is now Lake Mead, they followed it southward. On foot, their horses worn out, they finally reached a haven in the Mojave villages not far from today’s Needles, California. The expedition had so far found no beaver and no Buenaventura River coursing westward, and Smith determined to make for the coast.
It took two painful weeks to cross the barren, blazing Mojave Desert, but at length they gained California’s San Bernardino Valley, where a warm welcome was tendered them at San Gabriel Mission. Smith’s clerk, Harrison Rogers, described it: “great feasting among the men. … I was introduced to the 2 Priests over a glass of good old whiskey—and found them to be very Joval friendly gentlemen… . Plenty of good wine during supper, before the cloth was removed sigars was introduced… . Friendship and peace prevail with us and the Spanyards.”
Smith was called to San Diego to be questioned closely by the Mexican governor, who was not pleased to see these unexpected visitors from the American frontier. Backed by Captain Cunningham of the Courier and other Yankee sea captains in the port, Smith eventually convinced the governor that he sought only beaver. Ordered to leave as he had come, he retraced his route as far as the edge of the desert, and then, in the spring of 1827, headed north into the San Joaquin Valley. He still searched for the Buenaventura, hoping it would lead him to the summer rendezvous near Great Salt Lake.
He pushed northward some 350 miles, but the looming presence of the Sierra Nevada formed a constant barrier to the east. There was no Buenaventura River. The fifteen-man party and its equipage was too cumbersome to cross the icy, snow-covered range; leaving most of his men behind to trap the waters of the Stanislaus River, Smith set out with two companions, Robert Evans and Silas Gobel.
They made the historic crossing of the Sierra, skirted Walker Lake, and struck out into central Nevada. On his map—the first ever to show this area with any accuracy—Smith recorded, “This plain is a waste of sand with a few detached mountains some of which are in the region of perpetual snow. … A few Indians are scattered over the plain, the most miserable objects in creation.”
Smith’s journal leaves a terrifying picture of the desert journey. “Ascending a high point of a hill,” he wrote, I could discover nothing but sandy plains or dry Rocky hills … I durst not tell my men of the desolate prospect ahead … With our best exertion we pushed forward, walking as we had been for a long time over the soft sand… worn down with hunger and fatigue and burning with thirst increased by the blazing sands…it then seemed possible and even probable we might perish in the desert unheard of and unpitied.… My dreams were not of Gold or ambitious honors but of my distant quiet home, of murmuring brooks of Cooling Cascades.
Evans collapsed, and Smith and Gobel pressed on to find water. They were successful, and Smith returned with a kettlefull. “Putting the kettle to his mouth he did not take it away until he had drank all the water, of which there was at least 4 or 5 quarts and then asked me why I had not brought more.”
At last they sighted Great Salt Lake and passed along its southern shore. To cross the flooded Jordan River, Smith cobbled together a raft for their belongings. Holding the towrope in his teeth, he swam acroos: “It was with great difficulty that I was enabled to reach the shore, as I was verry much strangled.” On July 3, 1827, having covered well over 600 miles in six weeks, most of it on foot, the three men reached the rendezvous at Bear Lake, on the Utah-Idaho border. Smith laconically remarked that “my arrival caused a considerable bustle in camp, for myself and party had been given up as lost. A small Cannon brought up from St Louis was loaded and fired for a salute.”
Sublette and Jackson had done well, putting the new firm on a solid footing, but Jed Smith could not help remembering that most of his own party was stranded in California. Ten days after his arrival, he was headed southwest again with eighteen men. Generally following the route of the previous fall, they reached the Mojave Indian villages about August 15; but this time it was no haven.