Nearly 200 years ago in 1824, a small contingent of American mountain men blazed a trail across the Continental Divide and through the formidable Rocky Mountains. Most importantly, unlike Donner Pass on the yet-to-be-established California Trail, the route posed no great physical or technical challenge for families encumbered with loaded farm wagons. In the following decades, South Pass, in Wyoming, became the portal for more than 500,000 overland emigrants as they migrated west to the Pacific Coast.
Historians have long held that 19th Century beaver trappers and fur traders contributed little significant geographical knowledge or cartography of the Rocky Mountains and western North America during the early decades of the 1800s. Their reasoning is incorrect. Little formal knowledge may have reached government officials, but the fur trappers’ insight was published in frontier newspapers and shared in conversations at riverfront taverns in St. Louis. Valuable information about the landscape, climate and Indian danger along westbound trails was no secret to early settlers on the western American frontier.
The life of a 19th-Century mountain man was exciting, but violent and usually brief. One fur-trading partnership led by Jedediah Strong Smith reported that over a six-year period his company employed about 180 men. Of those hired, 94 were killed by Indians. That doesn’t include the men who died from grizzly bear attacks, blizzards, hypothermia or drowning. For these bold frontiersmen, death lurked behind every hill, tree and boulder.
Smith was the leader of the 1824 group and the one who noticed that stream water had started flowing west, not east, indicating the Continental Divide. Smith was accompanied by Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick, Joseph Walker and James Clyman, some of the most famous names in western lore. Just eight years later, Captain Benjamin Bonneville would lead 110 men with 20 wagons over South Pass, thereby establishing a route that would become the Oregon, California and Mormon trails.
Very few of the hundreds of trappers and fur traders that roamed the West during the 1820s and early 1830s kept a journal of their experiences. But those who did, men such as Zenas Leonard, Clyman and Jedediah Smith, provided riveting first-hand accounts of the challenges, privations and close calls that accompanied their adventures.
Smith was the most intrepid and fearless of all the mountain men. Exploration was not a primary purpose with him, but his trapping and trading business led him to see more of the west than any man of his time. Only Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s famed “Corps of Discovery” journey to the Pacific Ocean eclipsed Smith’s achievements. Lewis and Clark were outfitted and funded by the United States government and a force of men and equipment were provided for them. In contrast, Smith had to pay his own way with beaver pelts. While information from the Lewis and Clark expedition was published and widely disseminated, Smith’s untimely death left gaps in his journals and an unfinished map.
Between the years 1822 and 1831, Smith surmounted vast deserts, towering mountain ranges and hostile Indian attacks to probe the expansive wilderness. He kept notes, sketched maps and gained a unique knowledge of the unexplored Western landscape. Smith was the first to reach California overland from the American frontier, which made him the first white man to cross what would become the states of Utah and Nevada. He was also the first Anglo to cross the Sierra Nevada, the first to travel the length and width of the Great Basin and the first to journey up the California coast to Oregon. And he did it all from age 23 to 32.
He was born in New York in 1799; his family moved west to Erie County, Penn. Later a close family friend of the Smiths gave the young Jedediah a copy of the Lewis and Clark expedition journal that had been published to wide acclaim. The book opened the impressionable teenager to a love a nature and adventure. Legend has it that Smith carried that journal with him for the rest of his life.
Smith was tall and lean with blue eyes. A practicing Methodist, he carried a Bible with him; he was mild mannered, quiet and unassuming, the rare trapper who never used profanity, tobacco and partook of wine or brandy only sparingly on formal occasions. On the other hand, he endured physical privations with an indifference that elevated him above his colleagues, all capable men. Smith could handle personal suffering and exhibited endurance beyond the point when other men died. He displayed a rare coolness and courage under attack and gunfire, which encouraged naturally independent trappers to respect his decisions and leadership. It was said that he had the energy and drive of three men.
Smith was 22 years old when he first joined pioneering fur trader William Ashley as a raw recruit on an excursion up the Missouri River to trap beavers for their valuable pelts. Indicative of his exceptional abilities, within a year Smith was promoted to captain of an Ashley trapping party. Two years later he was Ashley’s partner and in one more year he was a senior partner in the firm that dominated the mountain fur trade.
Lessons in survival came fast. In 1824, Smith was nearly killed by a grizzly bear in the Yellowstone country. The grizzly mauled Smith’s head, ripping his scalp, breaking six ribs and tearing off one ear. The attack was brief but vicious. After stitching the wounds as best he could, fellow trapper Clyman told Smith that there was nothing he could do for his severed ear. Smith insisted Clyman sew it back on. In his journal, Clyman wrote, “I put my needle through and through and over and over, laying the lacerated parts together as nice as I could with my hands.” From then on Smith wore his hair long to hide the scars and disfigurement to his head.
Smith survived the three worst Indian attacks of the American fur trade. He was there for the devastating Mojave Desert clash of 1827, the 1828 battle against the Arikara where 13 of his men died and the Umpqua massacre of 1828 in Oregon where at least 40 men were killed around him. Tragically, Smith died a lonely death at the age of 32 on the Santa Fe Trail under the lances of the Comanches.