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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
During the year since Smith’s first visit, the Mojaves had tangled painfully with trappers from Taos, and as the Americans crossed the Colorado the vengeful Indians struck without warning. With eight survivors, Smith took refuge in a copse of cottonwoods, opened fire, and “the indians ran off like frightened sheep …” Nonetheless, the situation was critical. All the horses and provisions, except fifteen pounds of dried meat, were gone; to defend themselves they had only their knives and five guns. There was no choice but to cross the desert on foot, and the indomitable Smith led them on.
“My men were much discouraged,” he wrote, “but I cheered and urged them forward as much as possible and it seemed a happy providence that lead us to the little spring in the edge of the Salt Plain …” They reached the San Bernardino Valley in late August, and immediately moved north to rejoin the party left on the Stanislaus, arriving just two days ahead of the September 20 deadline Smith had set for his return.
Nothing had gone right so far, and Jed Smith’s luck continued bad. Seeking supplies at San Jose Mission, he met with a reception in sharp contrast to the welcome of the previous fall at San Gabriel. Instead of offering supplies, the mission fathers clapped him into the guardhouse. Presently he was escorted to Monterey, where the thoroughly suspicious governor was disposed to ship him off to Mexico for judgment. After endless wrangling Smith signed a $30,000 bond pledging to leave the province, and was released.
If he had to depart California, Smith was determined not to go empty-handed. The beaver skins he and the California party had gathered were sold to a Yankee sea captain; with the proceeds Smith bought 250 horses and mules, giving him a total of over 300. These he intended to drive to the mountain rendezvous hundreds of miles to the east, where he could sell them at something like a 400 per cent profit.
The previous year his California explorations had touched on the Sacramento River, and local rumor had it that its upper reaches angled northeast through the Sierra Nevada. Perhaps here was the Buenaventura at last, a navigable connection with the Columbia River system and a new route to the Rockies bypassing the deserts and salt plains. And perhaps, too, here was a practical route by which the firm of Smith, Jackson & Sublette could gain a Pacific outlet to the fabulously rich fur trade with the Orient … It was Astor’s old dream—all very tenuous, but the stakes were high enough to gamble for.
It was not in the cards. The Sacramento was not the Buenaventura after all, and the northern California wilderness, while rich in beaver, proved incredibly difficult to drive horses through. The clerk recorded that the company “had a serious time running up and down the mountain after horses through the thickets of brush and briars.” The winter rains were constant, the geography confusing, and there were “plenty of muskeatoes, large horse flies, and small knats to bite us and pester us”; marauding Indians shot arrows into the herd, Smith was kicked by a mule and “hurt pretty bad,” and Rogers himself was seriously mauled by a grizzly. His entry for May 22, 1828, reads: “Oh! God, may it please the … to still guide, & protect us, through this wilderness of doubt & fear… . Oh! do not forsake us Lord, but be with us, and direct us through.” They struggled on northward, aiming for the Columbia.
On July 14 the nineteen-man party was at the Umpqua River, almost halfway up the Oregon coast, and Smith and two men went ahead to scout the route. Two days previously they had disciplined a Kelawatset chief for stealing an axe, but now Rogers, left in charge of the detachment and the horses, apparently felt secure because they were in well-ordered Hudson’s Bay territory. He freely admitted a large number of Kelawatset tribesmen to the camp—and the Indians murderously avenged the insult to their chief. Only one of the sixteen men escaped. Smith and his two companions and the lone survivor of the massacre managed to make their way on foot to the Hudson’s Bay Company base at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia, one hundred miles to the north.
The destitute Smith was welcomed by Dr. John McLoughlin, the benevolent dictator who ruled the Columbia district for the company. McLoughlin immediately dispatched an expedition to reinforce discipline and try to recover the goods of his erstwhile competitor. Smith went with them, and they gathered what they could—a few horses, part of the furs, a handful of guns and utensils, and, fortunately for history, the journals of Smith and Rogers. At the massacre site, according to a British observer, “a Sad Spectacle of Indian barbarity presented itself … the Skeletons of eleven of those Miserabl Sufferers lying bleaching in the Sun.”
The Hudson’s Bay Governor, George Simpson, generously gave Smith a fair price for his horses and skins and added a final, gracious note to the company’s record in the affair. He wrote Smith that “whatsoever we have done for you was induced by feelings of benevolence and humanity alone … the satisfaction we derive from these good offices, will repay the Honble Hudsons Bay Compy amply for any loss or inconvenience …” In return, Smith filled in Simpson on his extensive discoveries and made him a map that must have straightened out a prodigious amount of geographic confusion.