Out of the Past
History Lessons 

 South West Expedition

By Keith Miller

After more than a century of study few, if any historians, would object to designating Jedediah Strong Smith (1799-1831) as the greatest of the mountain men, who en masse hunted the buffalo, trapped the beaver, and explored the remoteness of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains from about 1820 until 1840. While the mountain man was, as William H. Goetzmann put the matter, an "expectant capitalist," (p. 107) in Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West (1966), he was more than that. For, as Goetzmann intimates in the subtitle, the mountain man, as epitomized by Jedediah Smith, prepared the pathway for future settlement of the West. That was accomplished through an accumulation of knowledge regarding Indian trails across the vastness of the Great Plains and passes through the Rocky Mountains. No better example of a great discovery in the latter regard can be given than that of Robert Stuart and six companions, who on 23 October 1812 found a ready access through the Rockies. Known as South Pass, rediscovered by Smith and a good friend Tom "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick in 1824, it became the principal gateway for thousands upon thousands of emigrants venturing on to Oregon and California. This pass, by the way, was located in the Wind River Range of what became Wyoming.

In certain respects Jedediah Smith differed from the typical mountain man. Unlike the vast majority of his fellows, he adhered to the tenets of Methodism, carried a Bible, eschewed profane language, shaved regularly, had a good common-school education, and (wonder of wonders for a mountain man) refused to cohabit or consort with Native American women. Like other mountain men though, he shared their love of the wilderness, their hunting of the buffalo and grizzly, and their usually fearless nature. 

Mention of the grizzly brings to mind a close call with one by Smith in 1823, an encounter which marred his head for life, but certainly demonstrated his courage. James Clyman, another mountain man and an eye-witness to the bear's attack, described what happened--a situation, which in the colorful idiom of the mountain man came from the lips as: "Hyar's damp powder and no fire to dry it." The grizzly had taken Smith's head within its jaws and had thrown the man to the ground. Before his companions could kill the bear, Smith was badly mauled, but remained fully alert. Clyman then proceeded to dress the wounds of Smith, but told him that he (Clyman) despaired for one of Smith's ears, torn almost off and dangling from his head. Unabashed by Clyman's remark, Smith insisted that the former "stick [it] up some way or other," whereupon Clyman sewed the ear back in place as best he could with a needle. Then, Smith spent ten days recuperating, while the other men explored Sioux country (the Black Hills in this instance).

The most significant period of Smith's life, however, came a few years later. In 1826 at the Cache Valley summer rendezvous, in what is now northern Utah, but at that time a part of Mexico, General William H. Ashley sold out his interests in the fur trade to Jedediah Smith, David Jackson, and William Sublette. Following the purchase, Smith and seventeen fellow trappers began the famous South West Expedition, which proved to be instumental in combating the pretensions of Mexico, Great Britain, France, and even Russia, to a vast domain, which would become (in large part) the western United States. Jedediah Smith, 1835
Jedediah Smith, 1835

Those eighteen men became the first Anglo-Americans to traverse the harsh Mojave Desert, before reaching California in November 1826. They had also been the first of their race to cross the high Sierra Nevada range of the Rockies and the Great Basin, the latter encompassing most of Nevada, along with parts of Utah, California, Oregon, and Idaho. In the process the expedition disproved the existence of a river, which it had been thought could be found, with an unobstructed flow from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco. Thus did this chimerical Buenaventura River, like the Northwest Passage, enter the realm of fable.

By 1830 Smith, Jackson, and Sublette had decided to sell out. So, at the Wind River Valley summer rendezvous, they sold out to Jim Bridger, Milton Sublette, and Tom Fitzpatrick, along with two other mountain men, all of whom then began business as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. By that time Jedediah Smith rivaled even Lewis and Clark in a knowledge of the West. Even his untimely death, when he did "lie as wolf's meat," on 27 May 1831 (lanced by Comanches, while searching for water, en route to Sante Fe in a caravan of wagons), did not obliterate completely what he had learned from nine years on the Great Plains and in the Rocky Mountains, a sojourn beginning with his first fur-trading venture up the Missouri River to the mouth of the Yellowstone in 1822 (employed, as he was at the time, by General William H. Ashley and Major Andrew Henry).

But, let me give but one example or two of what has been preserved. One of Smith's journals, published in part, by Maurice Sullivan, The Travels of Jedediah Smith (1934) survives to this day. Fortunately too, a few maps, beginning with one, published in Paris, France, in 1833, by the great cartographer A H. Brue, located some points derived from Smith. Of the greatest importance though is David H. Burr's Map of the United States of North America With Some Parts of the Adjacent Countries, released as part of his American Atlas of 1839, which depicted the West quite well and obviously benefited from a map (subsequently lost), drawn by Smith, but given to General Ashley. Evidently then, the map, published by Burr, came close to duplicating Smith's original effort.

Before ending this account of Smith (and to some extent that of his fellow mountain men), it is worthwhile to add something about his weapon of choice--a rifle (more often than not the Hawkens, named for the inventive brothers Jacob and Samuel, first of Hagerstown, Maryland, later of St. Louis, Missouri). With a 36-inch barrel and fashioned from iron (not steel), it could usually bring down a buffalo, bear, or perhaps an Indian even at a distance of 200 yards. The Hawkens came, of course, with a wiping stick, which could be used, when desired, as a gun rest for taking careful aim. So greatly did the mountain man love his rifle, he would personify it with sobriquets, such as "Silver Heels," "Old Betsy," and "Sweet Alice."

Should the student, who reads this, want to know more about Jedediah and his companions of the Great Plains and Rockies, he or she could do much worse than begin with Dale Morgan's Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West (1953), which contains all letters by Smith, known up to the date of publication. Be sure though to consult as well Alson J. Smith's Men Against the Mountains: Jebediah Smith and the South West Expedition of 1826-1829 (1965), a work I drew upon for much detail. But, no study of the mountain men, including Smith, could ever be complete without attention being paid to Hiram M. Chittenden's The American Fur Trade of the Far West (1902) in 3 volumes. Let me conclude with the following bit of lingo, as given by Alson J. Smith's book (cited above), which sums up the life of Jedediah Smith: "Thar was grit in him, and a hair of the black b'ar at that."

Reprinted from History News Network
Keith Miller has been a speaker with the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Distinguished Lectureship Series since 1999. .
Tales of the Mountain Men
Tales of the Mountain Men: Seventeen Stories of Survival, Exploration, and Outdoor Craft by Lamar Underwood
The Lyons Press, 2004

In his book, The Mountain Men, George Laycock recounts the story of the South West Expedition led by Jedidiah Smith. "Legend had it that a major river had its beginning somewhere south of Great Salt Lake and flowed on all the way to the Pacific," he wrote. "Here could be new beaver country, waiting for someone to open it, and Jedidiah Smith wanted a chance at it."

There was no such river, but the audacious expedition of 18 mountain men was a pathbreaking moment in the opening of the American West to white settlement and helped secure Smith's place in history and legend.

Laycock's retelling of Smith's adventures is one of the 17 excerpts from historical and fictional works included in this anthology of mountain man literature. Others include Lewis and Clark's encounter with a grizzly bear in Bernard DeVoto's The Journals of Lewis and Clark, decriptions of the Bighorns and Wind River Range in The Adventures of Captain Bonneville by Washington Irving, and the Rendezvous and Farewell chapter from The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie, Jr.

It was Guthrie's 1947 novel and its portrait of the fictional mountain man Dick Summers captured the imagination of the anthology's editor, Lamar Underwood, when he was young and inspired a life-long interest in the 19th century trappers.

"Over the years I have encountered many, many other characters like Dick Summers," he explains. "I have followed them through Indian fights and blizzards, on buffalo hunts and beaver trapping on countless streams lost in the vastness of the mountains." 

  • Many of those characters, no doubt, are included in the pages of this fur-clad collection.

  • The Western Odyssey of John Simpson Smith 
    Frontiersman and Indian Interpreter

    The Life of Kit Carson
    "The story of one of America's original wilderness men."

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