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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
By August of 1829 Smith had rejoined his two partners in Montana, and during the next year they trapped with success the upper Missouri region and the Yellowstone and its tributaries. But Jed Smith had had his fill of the sudden death and desperate loneliness of the wilderness. His letters reveal a longing for family and friends, for the “distant quiet home” of his fevered dreams in the desert three years before; in his deeply felt, almost mystical religious conviction, he grievously missed “the care of a Christian Church.” When Smith returned to St. Louis on October 7, 1830, a moderately wealthy man, he had been away from civilization almost exactly five years.
Knowing the American West better than any man alive, he began to prepare his invaluable journals and maps for publication. But, fatefully, he took time out to invest in and join a trading caravan to Santa Fe that left St. Louis in April, 1831. It should have been a routine journey, but the train went astray in the deadly, arid plain between the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers and ran short of water. As he had done countless times before, Smith set out alone to find some, and the final tragedy overtook him.
The story was later pieced together from the accounts of Indian traders. He found water, but was apparently surrounded by a Comanche war party. The violent, one-sided encounter at the lonely water hole was quickly over, but the Comanche chief died with him. The date was May 27, 1831, and Jed Smith was just thirty-two years old.
An anonymous eulogist wrote that “though he fell under the spears of the savages, and his body has glutted the prairie wolf, and none can tell where his bones are bleaching, he must not be forgotten.” But he was forgotten; the denouement is as bitter as the climax. Unaccountably, no one stepped forward to preserve or publish his work, and the journals and letters and maps were either destroyed by fire or simply disappeared, to survive only in partial transcripts. Not until the 1840’s were his discoveries duplicated.
His biographer, Dale Morgan, writes that Smith “entered the West when it was still largely an unknown land; when he left the mountains, the whole country had been printed on the living maps of his trappers’ minds.” He calls Smith “an authentic American hero,” and it is a judgment hard to fault.
He had the sort of wide-ranging, inquiring mind that marks all great explorers. His careful maps apparently had a wide circulation before disappearing, and cartographic scholars have found striking evidence of their influence on the map makers of the 1830’s and 1840’s. He even found time to send seeds gathered on his travels to a botanist—hardly the act of a businessman seeking only “to make the whole profitable.” “It may perhaps be a pleasure to a lady of the atlantic,” he wrote, “to gather cherries or currants from a shrub whose parent stock is now growing by the bank of a stream that flows unmarked by the eye of civilized man to the calm pacific.”
The exploits of this remarkable man have been recognized and authenticated at last, and it is unlikely that such a heroic image will ever tarnish. That seems only fair, somehow, for Jedediah Smith, so quickly forgotten in his own time, certainly deserves to be remembered in ours.