Jedediah Smith

Mountain Man ... Desert Man


Jedediah Smith is probably the most famous of all "Mountain Men" -- those fur-clad, grizzled individuals who were first to explore the American West in search of pelts and adventure. He was the first American (after the Astorians) to cross west over the Continental Divide, rediscovering South Pass, and the first American to traverse California's rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains. He was also first to open the coastal trade route from California to Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River.

But few realized that among his greatest exploits were Jedediah Smith's trail-blazing expeditions across the deserts of the American West. In fact, Jedediah was the first American to enter California overland from the east (across the forbidding Mojave Desert) and the first to cross the enormous Great Basin Desert and return east, overland from California.


Jedediah Smith was born June 24, 1798, at Bainbridge, New York. While still in his teens, Jedediah joined a fur-trading expedition to the Rocky Mountains, becoming one of the original "Ashley Men," trappers under the command of William Ashley. He continued in the Rocky Mountain fur trade for more than a decade.

Jedediah and his party of trappers spent the winter of 1823-24 with a band of Crow Indians who told him how to reach Utah's Green River. In mid-March 1824, his company rediscovered the South Pass -- a passage to the Northwest through present-day Wyoming -- and descended into the Green River area for the spring hunt.


In July 1825, Jedediah attended the first Mountain Man Rendezvous at Henry's Fork then accompanied William Ashley back to St. Louis with the season's bounty of furs. En route downriver, Ashley took Jedediah as partner to replace the retiring Andrew Henry.

In the spring of 1826, Jedediah went ahead of the company's westbound pack train to arrange for that year's Mountain Man Rendezvous, to be held in Cache Valley. That August, he led 17 men to appraise the trapping potential of the region south and west of the Great Salt Lake.

This expedition took him along the route of present-day Interstate 15, the entire length of Utah, to the Virgin River and its eventual confluence with the Colorado River. He followed the Colorado south to the villages of Mojave Indians, then turned his band westward across the Mojave Desert. When he and his band arrived at San Gabriel Mission near present-day Los Angeles, they became the first Americans to cross overland to California, entering from the east.

Blocked by the suspicious Mexican governor of California, Jedediah changed his plans to explore Oregon and journeyed to the American River near Sacramento instead. In the spring of 1827, he left his party on the Stanislaus River, and taking two trappers, traversed the Sierra Nevada Mountains over Border Ruffian Pass. He then crossed the Great Basin Desert through Nevada, roughly following the route of present-day US Highway 6.

His band reached the Utah-Nevada border near present Grandy, Utah, continued on to Skull Valley and reached the south tip of the Great Salt Lake two days later. By the time they arrived at the 1827 Mountain Man Rendezvous at present-day Laketown, they had become the first Americans to return from California by an overland route.

Later in 1827 Jedediah, with 18 men, retraced his steps from Great Salt Lake to southern California. But this time, Mojave Indians attacked his party while crossing the Colorado River, killing 10 men and capturing all the horses. The remainder made their way to California and into the clutches of Mexican officials waiting to incarcerate them.

Legal issues finally resolved, his band spent the winter of 1827-28 in the San Francisco Bay area. In the spring of 1828, after traveling north up the coast to Oregon, their encampment was attacked by Kelawatset Indians near Smith's Fork on the Umpqua River. The four survivors of the attack, including Smith, finally reached Canada's Fort Vancouver in mid-August 1828, where they spent the following winter.

In March of 1829, Jedediah journeyed east, arriving in August at Pierre's Hole, site of that year's Mountain Man Rendezvous. At the following year's 1830 Rendezvous on the Wind River, Jedediah and his two partners sold their trapping interests to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and became involved in the Santa Fe fur trade.

On May 27, 1831, while en route to Santa Fe, Jedediah Smith was surrounded and killed by Comanche Indians at a water hole near the Cimarron River. His body was never found.


Jedediah Smith's pioneering memory is honored in a number of ways including:

  • A Birthday Celebration for Jedediah Smith is held in January at the Stockton, California Wildlife Museum. The 200th Birthyear Celebration for relatives of Jedediah Smith was celebrated in 1999.
  • The Jedediah Smith Society holds two regular membership meetings per year, one in April at the time of the California History Institute at UOP, and a fall "rendezvous" in late September or early October at a historic location on or near one of Jed Smith's known campsites.

A number of locations in the U.S. also celebrate Smith's legacy:

  • The Jedediah Smith Wilderness includes most of the western slope of Wyoming's famous Teton Range.
  • The Jediedah Smith Redwood State Park near Crescent City, California, offers camping and outdoor activities.
  • The Smith River in California includes 46 tributaries that are protected.
  • Smith River National Recreation Area in northern California offers camping and outdoor activities.
  • The Jedediah Smith Memorial Bicycle Trail runs along 32 miles of parkway from Old Sacramento, California to Folsom Lake.
  • Jedediah Smith Society: History Department, University of the Pacific, Stockton, CA 95211.

-- Bob Katz

Other Desert People


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