Monday, May 14, 2012

JEDEDIAH SMITH and The Great Basin Adventure

by Anna Kathryn Lanier

I love finding out-of-the-ordinary books and while searching the shelves at Half-Price Books, I came across TRUE TALES OF THE WILD WEST by Paul Robert Walker.  After reading several of his chapters, I finally discovered that this book was of the ‘young adult’ category.  The book is very well written and researched.  As the book’s blurb says, “Walker shares ten [legendary characters and stories] to present a delightfully readable and highly entraining history of the West…”  One of the characters he writes about is Jedediah Smith, a trapper who traveled further than any other white man of his time.

NOTE: TRUE TALES OF THE WILD WEST is part of the Sweethearts of the West Basket on Brenda Novak’s Auction for Diabetes Research.  Check it out HERE.

Sweethearts of the West Basket

Jedediah Smith was one of the first, if not the, first white man to see much of the Southwest United States. He most certainly saw more of it than any other white man in his time.  Born in 1799 in New York State, Smith moved around as a child when his father tried to stay ahead of the growing population and nearer the frontier’s edge.  Perhaps he inherited his traveling spirit from his father. According to family legend, Smith read Biddle’s 1814 edition of the Lewis and Clark journals and vowed to make his own way west.  In 1822, he joined up with William H. Ashley’s fur trading expedition.


In 1824, Smith rediscovered the South Pass across the Rockies in present-day Wyoming.  First used in 1812-13, the location was then lost until Smith found it again.  This discovery paved the way for the tens of thousands of pioneers to use the pass as part of the Oregon-California Trail during the Western Migration.

In 1826, Ashley sold the company to Smith and two other men during the annual rendezvous of fur traders.  Smith’s partners went north, but he headed southwest, “to be the first to view the country on which the eyes of a white man had never gazed and to follow the course of rivers that ran through a new land.”

The route he took had in fact been an expedition taken by two priests in 1776. The priests had mapped out the area, including a river they named Rio Buenaventura. In later maps, this river was greatly exaggerated, so that by the time Smith attempted to follow the directions, he thought it to be a large river traveling from the Rockies straight to the Pacific Ocean.  There is, as we now know, no such river.

What Smith found instead of a vast river and much wildlife, was a barren wasteland—the Great Basin of Southern Utah, also known as the Mohave Desert. It turned out to be an adventure he barely survived.

Smith, along with 18 other trappers and a handful of women (wives and two Indian women who had been kidnapped by the Utes and rescued by Smith and his men) and children, journeyed across a range of mountains into a low, dry country.  They followed small streams that would suddenly disappear into the sand, leaving them without drinking water in very harsh conditions. Eventually, Smith climbed a hill and looked through his spy glass to spot a corpse of trees.  Green plants meant water and he led his weary band to the creek.  There they found signs of beavers as well as Indians.  The Indians had fled—most likely not only fearing the white men, but their horses. Smith later said it was perhaps the very first time the Indians had ever seen horses and to them, the men were “sailing through the air.”

The trappers spent three days trying to catch beavers, all to no avail. Eventually, “they followed the creek back into the mountains and crossed another range to yet another stream.” At this point, the two men with wives wanted to turn back, but Smith said no.  As “free trappers” though, they were under no obligation or contract to stay with Smith, so they took their wives and children and headed back East.  Soon after, one of the single men also left, taking with him a horse, a rifle and both the Indian women the group had rescued from the Utes. Fifteen or so men, including Smith, pushed westward into the unknown.

 Where his travels took him.

Supplies were running low and the men faced starvation, but just when things became desperate, they discovered a large stream and dried stalks of corn planted by Indians several years before.  Shortly, they met up with those who had planted the corn in a village of Paiutes Indians.  One of the Indians held out a freshly killed rabbit as a sign of friendship. When Smith accepted the rabbit and gave a gesture of thanks, the trappers were surrounded by a group of friendly Indians. In exchange for a few trinkets, including bits of metal that could be used for arrowheads, the starving men were given corn and pumpkins.

“Smith later wrote that the simple food might seem ‘indifferent…to him who has never made his pillow of sand of the plain or to him who would consider it a hardship to go without his dinner yet to us weary and hungry in the desert it was a feast a treat that made my party in their sudden hilarity and Glee present a lively contrast to the moody desponding, silence of the night before.’”  Smith’s group spent three days among the Paiutes, trading for additional corn for their journey.

Following the river (now called the Virgin River) they came upon another Paiutes village.  There they met two men from the neighboring Mohave tribe who told them, via signs, that there was a larger river one day’s journey to the south where they could find plenty of beaver.  Smith guessed, correctly, that this larger river was the Colorado of the west.  Led by Indian guides, the men made their way to and then across the Colorado.  Finally they reached a large Mohave settlement in what is now southern Arizona.  The Mohave had had interaction with the Spanish so were more familiar with white men than the Paiutes.  They even had horses and Smith traded some of his tired animals for fresh ones. After resting a few days, Smith and his band of trappers headed out again, this time following the directions of the Mohave into the desert toward a river.

Jedediah Smith's party crossing the burning Mojave Desert

However, he was unable to find the river they had told him about and he was forced to return to the Colorado River. There he came across an even larger Mohave village, who welcomed his group with friendliness.  Being melon harvest season, he awoke to find hundreds of the melons outside his tent.

By now, it was late October and any attempt to head back East would mean being caught in the mountains during a winter storm.  Instead, with the help of two Indians who had been at a Spanish mission in California, Smith and his group crossed into the “dry rocky sandy Barren desert.”  Following a river Smith called Inconstant for its habit of disappearing into the sand (fortunately, it would soon reappear and is now known as the Mohave River) they made their way to what is now Victorville, California.

Both the Indians they came across and the priest at the San Gabriel mission were amazed to see white men come out of the desert. To them, only Indians lived east of the Mohave Desert.  Though no one “understood it on that day in November 1826,” Walker says, “they were the beginning of a great migration that would take the American people across the continent, settling the land from sea to shining sea.”

Smith continued his trapping and exploring for several more years. In 1830, after the death of his mother, Smith decided to settle down in St. Louis. He purchased a farm and townhouse, but he had to make one more trip into the Southwest.  When he had sold his share of the fur company, he had promised to procure supplies for the new owners.  While leading the caravan along the Santa Fe Trail in 1831, he was killed by Comanche warriors.

More reading:

Anna Kathryn Lanier 
Never let your memories be greater than your dreams. ~Doug Ivester 


  1. It is amazing to think about what drove those first explorers to venture so far west and discover the whole continent. It took adventure seekers like Jedediah to make the U.S. what it is today. Great post.

  2. Wow. Jedediah Smith is every bit as interesting as the Hollywood legend.
    thank you for sharing such a compelling figure.

  3. Hi, Patty and Sandy. I find it funny that the families had to move to 'get away from civilization.' How crowded could it have been anyway? But since his father moved the family about when he was a child, I think that's where Jedediah got his traveling spirit.

    I do remember the tv show about him in the, what 70's? And while searching for pictures, I see Josh Brolin played him in INTO THE WEST. back in 2005.

  4. I love this, Anna Kathryn. Reminds me somewhat of one of my favorite movies, Jeremiah Johnson. who also escaped civilization.

    Great post!

  5. How sad that he died just as he was about to "retire" to normal life.

  6. We have a copy of my great, great grandfather's journal coming west on a wagon train. It is amazing the hardships the early travelers endured, especially when they had no idea where they would end up and if it would be worth the miles they walked alongside their wagons.

    I loved that Jeremiah Johnson movie, too. It really seems it was fairly accurate. Great post.


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