Jedediah Strong Smith was an early American explorer. He and his party were the first Americans, in 1826, to cross the continent into Southern California and what is now San Bernardino County.
Born in Jericho, now Bainbridge, New York, on January 6, 1799, to Puritan descendants Jedediah, 1st and Sally Strong, Jedediah Smith was relatively well educated, particularly with regard to English and Latin and was averred a good writer. Smith’s father owned a general store and in 1810 became involved in a problem involving counterfeit currency, and thereafter moved his family to Erie County, Pennsylvania. At the age of 13, Jedediah Smith worked as a clerk on a Lake Erie freighter, picking up skill in business practices and became acquainted with traders. A friend of the Smith family, Dr. Titus G. V. Simons is believed to have given young Jedediah a copy of Meriwether Lewis’s and William Clark’s 1814 book recounting their 1804–1806 expedition to the Pacific. Legend has it that Smith packed this journal along on all of his travels throughout the American West. In 1817, the Smith family moved westward to Ohio, settling Green Township, or what is present-day Ashland County.
The six foot tall, blue-eyed Jedediah in 1822 had moved on his own to St. Louis, where he responded to an advertisement in the Missouri Gazette placed by General William H. Ashley, seeking “enterprising young men” interested in participating in the fur trade as junior partners to General Ashley and Major Andrew Henry, two veterans of the War of 1812. Ashley and Henry dispatched him up the Missouri River on the keelboat Enterprize, which sank three weeks into the journey. Smith and the other men waited at the site of the wreckage for a replacement boat, hunting and foraging for food until Ashley brought up another boat with an additional 46 men. Continuing upriver, Smith encountered Sioux and Arikara during his first foray into the western frontier, reaching the recently-built Fort Henry, named after his employer, at the mouth of the Yellowstone River on October 1. Smith and some other men continued up the Missouri to the mouth of the Musselshell River in central Montana, establishing a fur trapping camp there.
In the spring of 1823, Major Henry instructed Smith to descend the Missouri to the Grand River and have Ashley buy horses from the Arikaras, who had recently engaged in hostilities with Missouri Fur Company traders, in some measure because they were upset over the white trappers having displaced Indians as fur suppliers, as well as the Anglos’ recent intercession on behalf of several Sioux warriors that the Arikara had encircled and were about to annihilate. Smith met Ashley, who was bringing provisions upriver by boat, and some 70 men accompanying him at the Arikara village near Riccaree on May 30. A trade was arranged with the Arikara for a number of horses and 200 buffalo robes. Though both entities were amenable to the trade and the deal was consummated, tension between the red men and the palefaces was high and Ashley’s intent of departing at once was delayed by inclement weather. The vulnerable trappers were attacked by a war party of some 600 Arikara Indians. Ashley would later recount that the majority of the Indians were, “armed with London Fuzils [muskets] that carry a ball with great accuracy, and force, and which they use with as much expertness as any men I ever saw handle arms.” The remaining Arikara without firearms utilized bows and arrows and war axes. This would become known as the Arikaras Massacre, as the Arikara warriors overwhelmed the mountain men, 12 of whom were killed and many more wounded. In the face of the attack, Smith stood his ground and burnished his reputation as a courageous mountain man.
“When his party was in danger, Mr. Smith was always among the foremost to meet it, and the last to fly; those who saw him on shore, at the Riccaree fight, in 1823, can attest to the truth of this assertion,” one of those who came through the ordeal said. Survivors of the attack included Hugh Glass, Jim Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Giles Roberts. Ashley dispatched Smith and another man to return to Fort Henry on foot to inform Major Henry of what had occurred. The remainder of the survivors headed downstream. A less than successful campaign against the Arikaras followed, in which 80 of Ashley and Henry’s men, 250 men from Fort Atkinson, 60 men of the Missouri Fur Company and a band of Lakota Sioux warriors, who were dire enemies of the Arikaras, participated. Henry and Ashley elevated Smith to the status of a captain during this effort, a title he would keep thereafter. The Arikaras proved successful in their resistance to the efforts to subdue them and eventually a truce was had under the terms of a negotiated peace treaty.
After the Arikaras campaign, Smith and several other of Ashley’s men traveled downriver to Fort Kiowa in the fall of 1823. From there, Smith and at least ten of the men made their way overland to the Rocky Mountains, intent on meeting the Crow tribe, whom they intended to bargain with for fresh mounts and obtain direction on how to make their way further westward. Along the way, Jedediah encountered and was attacked by a large grizzly bear. After the bear knocked Smith to the ground and pounced on him as horrified members of his party looked on, Smith sought to fight back, whereupon the bear broke Smith’s ribs, ripped his side open and clawed his head, which it then took into its mouth. Of a sudden, the bear inexplicably retreated, at which point the men in the party came to his assistance. Smith’s scalp and ear were nearly ripped off. Smith importuned one of the men, Jim Clyman, to loosely sew the mauled piece of flesh back into place. His fellow trappers fetched water and cleaned up his wounds and then bound up his broken ribs. Upon recovery, Smith wore his hair long to cover the large scar from his eyebrow to his ear.
After wintering in the Wind River Valley at the end of 1823 and the beginning of 1824, Smith undertook an exploratory expedition to find a route through the Rocky Mountains. Smith was able to communicate with the Crow Indians by means of a buffalo hide map on which the natives were able to show Smith and his men a route to the South Pass, a secret passage first encountered in 1812 by Canadian trapper Robert Stuart while traveling overland back from the Pacific Coast while he was working on behalf of John Jacob Astor’s fur company. With his men, Jedediah Smith crossed through the pass westward, reaching the Green River near the mouth of the Big Sandy River in what is now Wyoming. After dividing into separate parties to trap both upstream and downstream on the Green River, the men reunited in July on the Sweetwater River, and Thomas Fitzpatrick and two others traveled back to St. Louis and Ashley, bearing the furs and word of a route through the Rockies. Smith would later inform Secretary of War John Eaton in 1830 of the location and mode of access to the South Pass.
After Fitzpatrick left, Jedediah and his men again passed through South Pass, arriving at Flathead Post in Montana in November 1824. Shortly thereafter Major Henry would retire from the fur trading partnership with Ashley, and Ashley some time later took on Smith as his partner. Ashley left St. Louis late in 1824 and after an exploratory expedition through Wyoming and Utah, met up with Smith on July 1, 1825, offering him a full partnership in the company. Smith then returned to St. Louis where he recruited Robert Campbell to serve as the company’s clerk.
Smith had a second rendezvous in the summer of 1826 with Ashley, at which time Ashley withdrew from the direct harvesting of furs, agreeing that he would return to St. Louis to broker the sale of furs sent there and to arrange for the delivery of supplies to the fur gatherers. Leaving a cache of furs near the rendezvous site at what would become known as Cache Valley in northern Utah, Smith and Ashley traveled north to meet David E. Jackson of Virginia and William L. Sublette of Kentucky near present-day Soda Springs, Idaho. Ashley sold his fur gathering position in his and Smith’s partnership to the newly created partnership of Smith, Jackson & Sublette.
Fixated on finding the legendary Buenaventura River, reputed to be a navigable waterway to the Pacific Ocean providing an alternative to packing loads of furs back to St. Louis, Smith had searched for rivers flowing to the Pacific west and northwest of the Great Salt Lake. Such a find had been elusive, and he was unable to locate the Humboldt River, the likely source of the legend of the Buenaventura, even after he made it to eastern Nevada. Adducing that the Buenaventura must lie further south if it existed at all, Smith made plans for an exploratory expedition to Alta California, now a state of Mexico following that country’s newfound independence from Spain.
Smith, in a party totaling 16 men, left the Bear River on August 7, 1826, and after retrieving the cache he had left earlier, headed south through present-day Utah. The party left northern Utah on August 22, 1826 and continued southerly into Nevada and on to the Colorado River, encountering extremely forbidding territory and harsh traveling conditions. Upon crossing into California near present-day Needles, Smith and his men were able to take temporary refuge in a friendly Mojave village while they and their horses recuperated. While there, Smith met two runaway Indians from the Spanish missions in California and persuaded them to guide him and his men west. After leaving the river, Smith’s party and the two guides pressed out into the Mojave Desert, moving along the Mohave Trail, what would later become known as the Old Spanish Trail’s western portion, including passing by Soda Lake at the terminus of the Mojave River. They reached the San Bernardino Valley in November of 1826. Among Smith’s party was Abraham LaPlant, who spoke a smattering of Spanish. They were able to get a loan of some horses from a rancher in San Bernardino and rode to the San Gabriel Mission on November 27, 1826, presenting themselves to the pastor at the mission, Father José Bernardo Sánchez. Bernardo Sanchez was very hospitable. The next day, when the rest of Smith’s men arrived at the mission, the head of the garrison at the mission confiscated all the Smith party’s guns.
Smith’s men were obliged to remain at Mission San Gabriel for seven weeks while Governor José María Echeandía satisfied himself as to the reason for the arrival of these foreigners into his state. On December 8, Smith was summoned to San Diego for an interview with Governor Echeandía regarding his party’s status in the country. LaPlant accompanied Smith south while the rest of the party remained at the mission. Echeandía detained Smith in San Diego until December 22, during which time he had Smith turn over his journal and maps. Smith asked for permission to travel northward through California on El Camino Real so he could eventually reach the Columbia River, where a route back to United States territory existed. The wary Echeandía forbade Smith traveling up the coast to Bodega, and ordered him and his men to exit California by the same route by which they had come in, but he did grant Smith permission to purchase or trade for needed supplies for that overland return journey. It so happened that an American sea captain, W.H. Cunningham of Boston, had put into San Diego at that time on the ship Courier. Cunningham convinced Echeandía to release Smith and LaPlant to him, and he ferried the pair from San Diego to San Pedro.
On January 17, 1827 the party was given permission to depart Mission San Gabriel. Over the next few days, Smith’s men packed up and headed back to the San Bernardino Valley. There they laid over for more than a week, camping at “Jumuba”, an Indian village located a few miles west of San Gabriel Mission’s Rancho San Bernardino, in the vicinity of what is today’s Mission Road in Loma Linda.
Smith and his men would use their time in San Bernardino to store up on provisions and break wild horses, which they would need for their continuing journey. Among those in Smith’s expedition was Harrison G. Rogers, who kept a journal of the sojourn. Rogers thus became the first American to describe the San Bernardino Valley in writing, offering an account of the weather and climate in general, and chronicling the travails of breaking wild horses, keeping them corralled without a proper corral and encounters with local Indians.
Some passages from Rogers’ journal touching on San Bernardino include:
“Sunday 21st–“All hands were up early and getting their horses packed, we were under way in pretty good season, in the morning, and had an Ind (Indian) boy as a pilot, we started and traveled, a N.E. and By East course, 25 or 30 m and reached an Ind (Indian) farm house, about 4 m. distant from San Bernardo (Bernardino), where we have an order from old Father Joseph Sanchus (Sanchez), at the mission of San Gabriel, for all the supplyes we stand in need of the country quit (quite) mountainous and stony.
“Monday 22nd–Mr. S (Smith) and the Interpreter started early this morning up to San Bernardino for to see the Steward, and get supplies we intend killing some beef here and drying meat. I expect we shall remain here two or three days –all hands get milk this morning– ”
We have killed two Beeves and cut the meat, and drying it. Mr. S. has got corn, peas, parched meal, Sanchus has been the greatest friend that I ever met in all my travels, he is worthy of being called a Christian as he possesses charity in the highest degree–and a friend to the poor and distressed. I ever shall hold him as a man of God”, taking us when in distress feeding and clothing us –and may god prosper him and all such men, when we left the mission, he gave Mr. S and order to get eve-rything he wanted for the use of his company, as San Burnaindino –the Steward complying with the order so soon as it was presented by Mr. S.”
“Tuesday 23rd–Still at the Ind. farm 3 m from San Burnandeino some of the men are employed in braking Horses, and others making pack saddles and rigging them, mr. S sent a letter back this morning to old Father Sanchius concerning the horses we lossed at Saint Ann (Santa Ana del Chino), six in number, he will wait the result of his answer.
“Wednesday 24th– We are still remaining at the Ind. farm waiting the result of the Priests answer, and drying meat, and repairing saddles for our journey. Some of the men we kept employed braking wild Horses, Daniel Ferguson one of our men, when leaving the mission on the 18th Inst. hid himself and we could not find him, the corporal who commands at the mission promised to find him, and send him on to us, but I suspect we shall not see him again, the weather continues fine.
“Thursday 25th–No answer from the priest this morning, and we are obliged to remain here another day. The men will keep at work, braking young Horses, Mr. S discharged one of the men John Wilson, on the 17th Inst., and he could not get per-mission to stay in the country, therefor we obliged to let him come back to us, he remains with the company but not under pay as yet. I expect he will go on with us–The weather still continues beautiful–things about our camp as usual. Inds (Indians) traveling back and forward from the mission steady the Inds here call themselves the Farrahoots.
“Friday 26th–Early this morning we collected our Horses– and counted them and two was missing — Mr. S sent a man in search of them, he returned with them about 10 o’clock, we are still at the Ind-farm house, waiting an answer from the priest–at San Gabriel. I expect we shall remain here to-day–if the courier does not arrive, In the Evening James Reed and myself concluded we could go into the cowpen and rope some cows, and milk them, after the Ind-fashion, and accordingly we made ready our rope, and haltered four cows, and tied their heads up to a steak (stake), and made fast their hind feet and milked them, but did not get much milk on account of not letting their calves to them. So soon as we were done Capt Smith and Silas Gobel followed our Example, this country in many respects is the most desirable part of the world I ever was in, the climate so regular and beautiful, the thermometer stands daily from 65 to 70 degrees–and I am told it is about the same in the summer.
“Saturday 27th–Still at the Ind farm House waiting the answer from the priest 2 of our horses missing this morning–and four men sent in search of them. Mr. S and Lapoint is gone up to San burnondeino to see the old steward on the business–”
Smith’s party left the mission communities of California in mid-February 1827. The party headed out the way it had came, but once outside the Mexican settlements, Smith liberally construed Echeandía’s order to leave by the same route he had entered, following a portion of the Old Spanish Trail and then heading north into the Central Valley. Ultimately, they made their way to the Kings River on February 28 and set about at once trapping beaver. The party kept working its way north, encountering hostile Maidus. By early May 1827, Smith and his men had traveled 350 miles north, ever on the lookout for the elusive Buenaventura River, but found no water passage through the Sierra Nevada range that might have originated in the Rocky Mountains. On December 16, 1826, Smith had written in a letter to the United State ambassador plenipotentiary to Mexico his plans to “follow up on of the largest Riv(ers) that emptied into the (San Francisco) Bay cross the mon (mountains) at its head and from thence to our deposit on the Great Salt Lake. ” He made good on that stated intention. His men followed the Cosumnes River (the northernmost tributary of the San Joaquin River) upstream, but veered off it to the north and crossed over to the American River, a tributary of the Sacramento that flowed into San Francisco Bay. They gamely attempted to go up the canyon of the South Fork of the American to traverse the Sierra Nevada, but bogged down in snow that was too deep. Unable to get to Nevada and faced with the prospect of encountering the Mexican authorities, whom he had defied, by heading south again, and knowing he would be unable to reach the rendezvous destination at the appointed time by traveling north to the Columbia, Smith backtracked to the Stanislaus River, setting up a trapping camp there for the majority of his party. With two men, Robert Evans and Silas Gobel, and some extra horses, the three then set out to get to the northern Utah rendezvous point with as much dispatch as they could. Smith’s hope was to pick up more men in Utah and then come back to the Stanislaus camp later in the year and then head north to the Columbia.
At first, the three men made excellent progress, despite the forbidding nature of the crossing of the Sierra Nevada near Ebbets Pass they took. Passing around the south end of Walker Lake, they continued on, meeting with the only sporadic Indians, who were not hostile. They continued, making good time across central Nevada. With the advent of summer, however, they had reached the Great Basin Desert. With no food and virtually no water, the horses began to give out. They butchered those beasts for meat. Water was scarce. Evans collapsed after two days without water just as they were nearing the Nevada–Utah border. Some kindly Indians Smith met provided him with food and gave him directions to fresh water. Smith retrieved some water and took it back to Evans, managing to revive him even as the man was at death’s doorstep. They were again without water after crossing into Utah. As they were nearing the Great Salt Lake, Evans faltered once more. Smith and Gobel found a spring and again took water back to Evans. When they reached the top of a ridge from which they saw the Great Salt Lake to the north, their beasts of burden numbered a single horse and a single mule. After crossing the Jordan River, some Indians supplied Smith with a loaned fresh mount and he rode ahead of Evans and Gobel, reaching the Bear Lake rendezvous point on July 3. The mountain men trappers there were ecstatic at the sight of Jedediah’s arrival, as they had become convinced his entire party had perished.
After making that rendezvous, Smith sent a letter to William Clark, then in the office of the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the region west of the Mississippi River, describing his experience over the previous year, then departed to rejoin the men he had left in California, taking with him 18 men and two French-Canadian women, essentially retracing the route he had taken the previous year. This time, the Mojave he encountered proved hostile, in large measure because in the interim the Indians had clashed with trappers from Taos. Intent on wreaking revenge against any Anglos, the Mojave attacked Smith’s party as they were crossing the river, killing 10 men, including Silas Gobel, and capturing the two women. Jedediah and the eight surviving men were yet armed with guns. After preparing a large shield out of trees and fashioning lances using butcher knives attached to poles, they made a stand on the west bank of the Colorado. Smith gave the command to fire on those within range, killing two of the Mojave and wounding another. The rest of the attackers scattered and retreated. Smith and his party then hastily headed west across the Mojave Desert on the Mohave Trail to the San Bernardino Valley.
Once again, Smith and his men were welcomed in San Bernardino and offered hospitality in San Gabriel. They departed northward, meeting up with the men he had left in the San Joaquin Valley on September 19, 1827. When they went to Mission San José, the priests there, who had already received warning of Smith’s renewed presence in the area, were far less accommodating than had been their counterparts at San Gabriel. Smith’s party also progressed to the Monterey and Yerba Buena (San Francisco) settlements.
Governor Echeandía, who was at the time in Monterey, ordered Smith’s arrest and that of his men. Echeandía was upset over Smith’s defiance, but consented to his release when several Americans in Monterey, including John B. R. Cooper and William Edward Petty Hartnell, vouched for him. A $30,000 bond was provided for him and his men and Smith received a passport conditioned on his agreement to leave California at once and not to return. Nevertheless, Smith and his party remained in California, hunting and trapping in the Sacramento Valley for several months. At the northern periphery of the valley, the band considered taking a route to the northeast afforded by the Pit River, but determined it to be impassable and instead headed northwest toward the Pacific Coast and then northward to find the Columbia River and return to the Rocky Mountain region. Jedediah and his men became the first to reach the Oregon Country over land by traveling up the California coast.
Upon leaving Alta California and entering into the Oregon Country, Smith became one of the first Americans to test the provisions of the Treaty of 1818, which allowed joint occupation between Britain and the United States. In the Oregon Country, Smith’s party, then numbering 19 and over 250 horses, encountered the the Umpqua people. After one of the Umpqua stole an ax, Smith’s party treated some of the Umpqua very harshly in order to force the axe’s return. On July 14, 1828, while Smith, John Turner and Richard Leland were scouting a trail north, his group was attacked in its camp on the Umpqua River. At about eight o’clock on the night of August 8, 1828, Arthur Black arrived at the gate of Hudson’s Bay Company compound at Fort Vancouver, badly wounded and nearly unclothed, believing he might be the only survivor of the attack. John McLoughlin, superintendent at the fort, offered a reward to local tribes if they brought Smith and any of his surviving men to the fort unharmed. A search party was organized.
Smith, Turner and Leland had witnessed the massacre of their comrades from higher ground above the camp. They arrived at the fort two days after Black straggled in there. McLoughlin sent Alexander McLeod south with Smith, Black, Turner and Leland and several Hudsons Bay Company men to rescue any other men that had been in camp that might have survived, and the provisions there. All 15 of the men caught in the attack were dead. Some 39 of the horses were still milling about and they recovered 700 beaver skins and Harrison Rogers’ journals on October 28. After burying the dead, they shepherded the horses back to the fort where George Simpson, the governor-in-chief of the Hudsons Bay Company, paid Smith $2,600 for the horses and furs. Smith told Simpson his American fur trade company would contain its trapping to the area east of the Great Divide. In the spring of 1829, Smith and Black departed Fort Vancouver to return east and again rendezvous with his partners.
Later that year Smith led a furring expedition into the Blackfeet territory, where his party, including Jim Bridger, captured a good cache of beaver before being set upon and driven away by hostile Blackfeet Native Americans. The group navigated the Powder River with Jim Bridger piloting the pelt-laden riverboat. Over the four years they were in business together, Smith Jackson, and Sublette made a substantial profit. At their 1830 rendezvous on the Wind River, they sold their company to Tom Fitzpatrick, Milton Sublette, Jim Bridger, Henry Fraeb, and John Baptiste Gervais, who renamed it the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
Upon their return to St. Louis in 1830, Smith, Jackson and Sublette wrote a letter on October 29 to Secretary of War John H. Eaton to let him know of the “military implications” of the British allegedly alienating the indigenous population toward any American trappers in the Pacific Northwest. Smith’s biographer, Dale L. Morgan, characterized Smith’s letter as “a clear sighted statement of the national interest,” including a description of Fort Vancouver and described how the British were in the process of making a new fort at the time of Smith’s visit in 1829. Smith warned that the British were attempting to establish a permanent settlement in the Oregon Country. The contention over the dual occupancy of the Oregon Country between Britain and the United States would end in 1846, some 15 years after Smith’s death, with the signing of the Oregon Treaty.
Having made a substantial profit from the sale of furs – more than $17,000 in 1830 dollars and roughly $4 million in 2017 dollars – Smith endowed his family in Green Township with $1,500 for the purchase of a farm and all needed implements. Smith purchased a home on First Avenue in St. Louis and two African slaves who were enlisted to be caretakers of the property in his absence.
While in St. Louis in 1831, Smith and his partners worked with Samuel Parkman to chart the territory of their explorations. On March 2, 1831, Smith informed Eaton, who was now fully embroiled in the Petticoat Affair which would lead to his resignation as secretary of war a few months later, of the map of his party’s western discoveries. Smith requested that the government launch a federally funded exploration expedition similar to the Lewis & Clark expedition. Smith requested that he and Reuben Holmes, a West Point graduate and military officer, lead the expedition.
Smith and his partners were also preparing to join into the supply trade known as the “commerce of the prairies”. At the request of William H. Ashley, Smith, Jackson and Sublette received a passport from Senator Thomas Hart Benton on March 3, 1831, the day after Smith wrote his letter to Eaton and they began forming a company of 74 men, twenty-two wagons, and a “six-pounder” artillery cannon for protection.
When he did not hear back from Eaton, Smith joined his partners and left St. Louis for Santa Fe on April 10, 1831. On May 27, 1831, Smith left the caravan he was leading along the Santa Fe Trail to scout for water near the Lower Spring on the Cimmaron River in what is today southwest Kansas. He never returned. The party eventually went on to Santa Fe hoping Smith might meet up with them, but he never did. They arrived in Santa Fe on July 4, 1831, and shortly thereafter members of the party encountered a comanchero with some of Smith’s personal belongings. It was relayed that Smith had met with a group of comancheros just prior to his approaching a group of Comanche. Smith tried to negotiate with the Comanche, but they surrounded him in preparation for attack.
It is believed death found Jedediah Smith in what was then Northern Mexico Territory, south of present-day Ulysses, Grant County, Kansas. According to Smith’s grand-nephew, Ezra Delos Smith, there were 20 Comanches in the group. Smith attempted to conciliate with them, until the Comanches scared his horse and shot him in the left shoulder, with an arrow. According to this lore, Jedediah fought back, ultimately killing the chief of the warriors and as many as three others. The version written by Austin Smith in letter to his brother Ira four months after Smith’s death says that Jedediah killed the “head Chief,” but nothing about any other Comanche being wounded or killed. Josiah Gregg wrote in 1844, that Smith “struggled bravely to the last; and, as the Indians themselves have since related, killed two or three of their party before he was overpowered.” It is said that the Commanche respected Smith to the point that they did not mutilate his body. Austin Smith, Jedediah’s brother, who along with another Smith brother, Peter, was a member of the caravan, was able to retrieve Smith’s rifle and pistols that the Indians had taken and traded to the comancheros.
Jedediah Strong Smith was an early American explorer. He and his party were the first Americans, in 1826, to cross the continent into Southern California and what is now San Bernardino County.