Life in the Old West

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Was Jedediah Smith greatest of the Mountain Men?


Was Jedediah Smith the greatest of the early Mountain Men of the Old West? Probably.

I was reminded again of this enigmatic fur trader/businessman/explorer when I ran onto one of my greatest Western history treasures. It’s a small, aging Bison Books edition of “Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West,” by Dale L. Morgan. Originally published in 1953, my paperback copy is a 1964 printing. Both the book and the man it’s about have stood the test of time quite well and I would recommend this excellent volume to everyone who want’s to learn more about Smith and the other Mountain Men.

Jedediah Strong Smith (1799-1831) was a self-effacing, unassuming man who did nothing short of spectacular when it comes to survival and exploration throughout the early years of the Old West. He was hired on by Gen. William H. Ashley in response to a St. Louis newspaper ad seeking 100 men to journey to the headwaters of the Missouri River. They were going to be exploring and primarily doing fur trading. At that point in the history of the nation, fur trading was a major source of commerce and wealth — and particularly served to boost the growth and economy of St. Louis as the main jumping off spot via the Mississippi-Missouri River system for that lucrative trade.

As Morgan explains it, Jedediah Smith was “… one of the rawest of the green hands recruited” for that 1822 venture. But within 2 years, Smith was “… Ashley’s partner; in one year more he was a senior partner in a firm which dominated the mountain fur trade until he quit the Rockies.”

Morgan suggests that Smith was second only to Lewis and Clark in terms of his exploration of the West:

“During his eight years in the West Jedediah Smith made the effective discovery of South Pass; he was the first [white] man to reach California overland from the American frontier, the first to cross the Sierra Nevada, the first to travel the length and width of the Great Basin, the first to reach Oregon by a journey up the California coast. He saw more of the Wset than any man of his time, and was familiar with it from the Missouri River to the Pacific, from Mexico to Canada.”

Smith accomplished all this from the time he was 22 years old until his death at the point of Comanche lances along the Santa Fe Trail when he was 32. He did it all with a stoic calm that endured the usual cold winters, baking summers, and all around deprivation known to all the Mountain Men — and he did it was considerably less “coarse” behavior. Smith was renowned as a man of genuine spirituality and good nature when others were cursing and carousing their way away from and then back into the “civilization” of the times. Again, Morgan speaks of Smith’s love of the Bible and his general character in contrast to many of the tall-tales told about the better known Mountain Men of Smith’s day:

“Jedediah was a young man modest and unassuming, quiet and of mild manner, one who never smoked or chewed tobacco, never uttered a profane word, and partook of wine or brandy only sparingly on formal occasions. He took his religion with him into the wilderness and let nothing corrode it …

“Jedediah Smith entered the West owning his rifle, his Bible, the clothes on his back and very little else. He returned to the States eight years later having sustained himself and a large business operation through all that time by his proficiency as a trapper and his adeptness as a trader.”

Was Smith counted among the hardiest or “toughest” of the Mountain Men? There was no doubt about his ability to survive the hard life in the Rockies.
Early in his fur trading days on the Yellowstone River, Smith and his party were attacked by a Grizzly bear. Smith himself bore the brunt of the huge animal’s mauling — and gave his companions detailed instructions for cleansing and reattaching his scalp with scissors, needle, and thread. Jim Clyman, one of Smith’s companions when the bear attacked, gives a first-hand account of the incident and apparently was the one who did the stitching and mending to Smith’s head and scalp. In Clyman’s words: “This gave us a lisson on the charcter of the grissly Baare which we did not forget.” (Spelling kept as in the original narrative as per Morgan’s book.)

If Smith had any “character defects” as a man of his times, perhaps it was his lack of much sense of humor. He was all business all the time, apparently, and little personal warmth has survived in the letters and journals he left behind. In Morgan’s summary of Smith’s life, he puts it this way: “He may have been entirely humorless; in what has survived of his journals and letters there are only two remarks which have the ghost of a smile in them …” Unfortunately, Morgan fails to share those two remarks in his book!

Morgan did add this, however, as a telling description of Jedediah Smith’s character:

“Yet there was an honesty, a directness, an openness about him that won him friends on brief acquaintance — and there were times during Jedediah Smith’s years in the West when much depended on his ability to make friends.”

Details of Jedediah’s death are sketchy and somewhat contradictory. No one was present to record his actual slaying by a Comanche hunting party along the Santa Fe Trial in 1831. Smith left the trading party he was with to scout for water. When he never returned, the group made its way into Santa Fe and later found a Mexican merchant at the market in Santa Fe selling some of Smith’s possessions, which he said he got from a band of Comanche hunters. Various family letters pieced together Smith’s death and are Morgan’s primary source of information. As close as can be known, Smith ran onto a party of probably between five and 20 Comanches. He was unable to communicate to them his peaceful intentions. Or perhaps they simply wanted his horse and rifle. Whatever the circumstances, Jedediah’s remains were never recovered, although his brother, Austin, eventually got his rifle and pistols back from the Mexican merchant who acquired them from the Comanche hunters.

Jedediah Smith remains one of the least known and perhaps most courageous of the Mountain Men who explored and pioneered the way for generations of settlers to make their way into the Old West, across the plains and mountains, and make America the continent wide nation it is today.