Jedediah Strong Smith
Jedediah Smith Sr. was born in New Hampshire in 1767. He married Sally Strong in 1790. He was 23 and she 19 years of age. Both descended from very early New England settler families. Shortly after the Susquehanna Valley was opened for settlement the Smiths moved to Jericho (now Bainbridge), New York and established a general store. Jedediah Strong Smith was the sixth child born into the family on September 11, 1794 at Jericho, New York.
In 1810 or 1811 the family moved to Pennsylvania. In 1817 they moved on to Ohio. In 1821, at the age of 27, Jedediah left home and travelled west. Early in 1822 he was in St. Louis where he took a job as hunter for General William H. Ashley's fur company. By 1825 Jedediah was a full partner in Ashley's company and was leading trapping expeditions himself. In 1826 Jedediah together with two partners bought out Ashley and formed their own fur company known as Smith, Jackson & Sublette.
The first expedition that Jedediah led for the new partnership headed southwest toward and beyond the Great Salt Lake. His own accounts indicate that he was exploring new country in search of beaver, but scholars speculate that he was also looking for the fabled Buenaventura River. He started the trip at Cache Valley (near the Utah/Idaho border) in August 1826 and by October was at the Colorado River. In November 1826 Mojave Indians guided him along the ancient Mojave Trail across the Great Southwestern Desert and into California through the San Bernadino Valley.
The trip across the southwest had been a difficult one and on arrival in California Jedediah sought assistance from Father Jose Bernardo Sanchez, the head of the Spanish Mission San Gabriel. In December he visited nearby Pueblo de Los Angeles seeking the approval of the authorities for his proposed travel north in search of a river that he might use to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Spanish Governor-General Jose Maria Echeandia ordered them to meet with him in San Diego. Smith and his fourteen associates were the first Americans to enter California by land from across the southwestern desert. The Mexican governor was suspicious of the American's motives, discounting his interest in beaver and worrying that his visit might have a political or military motive.
While Echeandia debated what to do with the unwelcome interlopers, Jedediah went to the ship masters in San Diego Harbor and obtained a certificate in which they vouched for him. With the ship masters' certificate in hand, the Governor gave Jedediah's group permission to return to the United States via the same route that they used to enter California. Echeandia had several concerns that in his mind strongly argued against an armed American party traveling through California. He already had a Russian presence on the ground at Fort Ross and was very concerned that Mexico's grip on California was slipping badly.
In mid January 1827 Jedediah, in compliance with the governor's orders, returned to the San Bernadino Valley. (In the eighteenth century California's borders were imprecise and Mexican authority outside of a few coastal settlements was virtually non-existent.) After crossing the San Bernadino Mountains the Americans turned north along the western edge of the Mojave Desert and then west through Antelope Valley across the Tehacapi Mountains into the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. The group found beaver and trapped their way north through the valley. By April they were on the banks of the American River and had accumulated fifteen hundred pounds of beaver pelts. In May 1827 they turned east up the canyon of the American River in an effort to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Heavy snow forced them to turn back into the San Joaquin Valley and set up camp near the Stanislaus River.
Word of Jedediah's progress through California trickled out to the Mexican settlements along the coast. In May 1827 Father Narciso Duran of Mission San Jose, the president of the missions in California, wrote to Commandante Ignacio Martinez, commander of the Presidio at San Francisco complaining that the Americans were meddling in relations between the Indians and the missions. Jedediah heard of the father's complaint and wrote a letter explaining his continued presence in California as being due to his inability to cross the Sierras. Smith's letter was sent on to Governor Echeandia who was them domiciled in Monterey. The governor ordered Martinez to take Smith into custody until he could be sent out of California.
Before Martinez could carry out his instructions Jedediah and two other of his group (Robert Evans & Silas Gobel) followed the Stanisalus River east into the Sierras. The remainder of the group stayed at their camp on the Stanislaus. Smith's group is believed to have crossed at Ebbets Pass. (They were the first European-Americans to cross the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountain chain.) After crossing the Sierras they headed east to the Great Salt Lake. On July 3, 1827, after an exceedingly difficult trip, Smith arrived at Bear Lake (near the Utah/Idaho border) for the annual fur trapper rendezvous. At rendezvous Smith met with his two partners Jackson and Sublette and made plans for the future of their company. Smith's part was to return to California and rejoin the party that he had left on the Stanislaus and then trap his way north to the mouth of the Columbia River. The partners agreed to meet at the rendezvous in one or two years.
On July 13, 1827, ten days after reaching Bear Lake, Jedediah headed south with a small group of men. During his crossing of the Colorado River in August 1827 his party was attacked by Mojave Indians. Half of the group were killed or taken prisoner. All of their supplies were lost. In escaping Jedediah led the survivors on the same route that he had taken the year before across the desert, but this time without guides. It was a very difficult trip but once again he emerged into the San Bernadino Valley where he immediately wrote a letter to Father Sanchez explaining his presence as having been forced upon him by circumstances arising from the Mojave Indian attack. After resting briefly he headed north to the camp on the Stanislaus.
Jedediah arrived at the Stanislaus on September 18, 1827, two days before the date that he had set prior to leaving for rendezvous. A few days later, realizing that he had some fence mending to do with the Mexican authorities, he traveled to Mission San Jose where he met with Father Duran. Once again the Mexican authorities suspected that the Americans were engaged in a political/military plot designed to weaken Mexican authority over California. Commandante Martinez traveled to San Jose and ordered Smith sent on to Monterey to meet with Governor Echeandia. Discussions with the governor proved somewhat lengthy, but eventually with the assistance of William Hartnell the governor agreed to permit Captain John Rogers Cooper to vouch for Smith and his party.
On November 15, 1827 Jedediah sailed for San Francisco on board the Franklin. In San Francisco he joined up with the rest of his party, sold their furs at a discount, and purchased supplies and several hundred head of horses and mules (which he intended to sell to his fellow fur trappers). The Commandante of the Presidio in San Francisco was former Governor of California, Don Luis Arguello. Smith and Arguello argued over the route the Americans were to take out of California, but on December 30, 1827 Jedediah's party was once again on the move. In January they trapped the lower reaches of the San Joaquin River. In February they crossed the American River. By the end of March he was far enough north to see Mount Shasta. In April they crossed the Sacramento (just north of present day Red Bluff). On June 20,1828 he crossed the river that today bears his name - The Smith River.
Upon leaving California Smith continued north through Oregon reaching the Umpqua. River in July 1828. Local Indians attacked the Umpqua camp, massacred most of the party. and took all of their supplies and horses. Jedediah was away from camp at the time of the attack and was thus one of several men not killed. The survivors made it to Fort Vancouver in early August where British Hudson's Bay Company's Alexander R. McLeod assisted them in regaining some of their possessions and horses from the Indians. That effort took considerable time and it was well into December before McLeod and Smith got back to Fort Vancouver. Smith spent the winter of 1828 - 1829 as a guest of the British at the fort.
In March 1829 Jedediah traveled up the Columbia River and ultimately on to St. Louis. In 1830 the firm of Smith, Jackson and Sublette was bought out by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. In January 1831 Jedediah, then living in St. Louis, conceived of a trading expedition to Santa Fe. On May 17, 1831, while on the trail to Santa Fe, Jedediah was killed by Comanche Indians. He was 36 years old.
Note: This brief account of Jedediah Smith's short life is meant to highlight those events which occurred in California. It does not include some of the most dramatic exploits of this remarkable man. They merit further reading.