The great pathfinder
Last updated 12/19/2023 at 10:37am
History is capricious. Who we remember and who we forget often has more to do with who had the better press agent than who was most accomplished. Most folks in Oregon have at least heard of John C. Fremont, who traveled through this country in the 1840s, mapping out the expansion of the United States.
Before Fremont was a Mountain Man named Jedediah Smith. Few other than fur trade buffs know that name today. I was gratified last week to hear that a new popular biography of Smith is on its way from the prolific team of frontier lore-slingers Tom Clavin and Bob Drury. “Throne of Grace: A Mountain Man, an Epic Adventure, and the Bloody Conquest of the American West” is due out next spring.
Since the last and only real biography of Smith was published in 1953, you could say we’re due.
In 1823, when General William Ashley was looking for 100 “enterprising young men” to ascend the Missouri River to its source to trap beaver for three years, Jed Smith signed on.
Smith was definitely an “enterprising young man.” He was one of the original Ashley’s Hundred, the first major contingent of American Mountain Men to go up the Missouri River. He was a trapper and a fur trade entrepreneur. But the business of the fur trade was really an excuse, a justification to indulge his deepest passion. Smith was compelled, almost to the point of mania, to “discover” new lands.
He was of a type that the 19th Century would throw up over and over again, an explorer driven by “firsts.” Consider his roster of achievements over eight years on the plains, in the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific Northwest:
• The discovery of South Pass over the Rocky Mountains.
• First American to travel overland to California — in a brutal crossing of the Mojave Desert.
• First American to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Great Basin (modern Nevada).
• First American to reach Oregon trekking up the California coast.
He was a deeply religious man, who did not indulge in the carnal excesses that many a Mountain Man reveled in. No cussin’. Not much drinkin’. No romantic or transactional relationships with women. He is a somewhat aloof figure — not relatable in the way Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and Joe Meek are. Yet, he earned the respect and admiration of his fellow Mountain Men, who followed him willingly — often into disaster. He was tough as hell. He was once mauled by a grizzly and had Jim Clyman sew a torn ear back on with leather whangs.
While Smith accomplished prodigious feats, they came at a high cost. His trapping brigades ran afoul of Mexican officials in California, suffered thirst and deprivation in the desert — and were repeatedly mauled by native peoples.
One of the most disastrous incidents to befall the Mountain Men occurred in Oregon in 1828, near what is now Reedsport.
Smith led a party of 19 trappers with 300 horses and mules up the California coast and into Oregon, heading for the Hudson Bay Company Post at Fort Vancouver. (If you haven’t visited Fort Vancouver, it’s a must; a wonderful recreation of the fur trade era post). Oregon City’s End of the Oregon Trail blog has a detailed day-by-day itinerary of Smith’s journey (https://historicoregoncity.org/2019/04/03/jedediah-smith-route/).
As Smith’s party moved north, there was increasing friction with the native peoples. The Lower Umpqua Indians (Quuiich) alternately saw the fur trappers as potential trading partners and as trespassers. In turn, the trappers were suspicious of the Indians and on edge due to the intense rigors of their journey. The Quuiich came into camp to trade, but also shot horses with arrows and stole camp equipment, infuriating the trappers. Increasing tensions came to a head on July 14, 1828. Smith, two companions, and a native guide took a canoe out to scout for a route into the Willamette Valley. While they were out of camp, the Quuiich fell on the trappers and killed 15 men. One man, Arthur Black, was wounded but managed to escape into the forest.
As Smith canoed back toward the camp, the Indian guide grabbed Smith’s rifle and jumped into the river. Seeing no sign of life at the camp, Smith and his two companions fled north toward refuge at Fort Vancouver. They made it there, as did Arthur Black, in early August, rescued and guided by Tillamook Indians. Even though they were competitors, the British company gave the refugees succor, and sent out an expedition that recovered much of their property — including Smith’s journals.
Smith returned to the Rockies and led a highly successful hunt into Blackfeet Country in what is now Montana, in 1829-30. After making bank on this hunt, Smith, David Jackson, and William Sublette sold their Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and Smith returned to St. Louis, Missouri, planning to publish a map of his explorations.
In 1831, though, he was back out in the wilderness, leading a trading expedition to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Somewhere in Kansas, scouting for water, he ran afoul of a party of Comanche and was killed.
Look for “Throne of Grace” next spring. Think I’ll plan a trek out to the Umpqua River next summer in his memory.