Jedediah Smith — Hero and Legend of the American West

1799—1831

Jedediah “Diah” Smith was a Fur Trader, Frontiersman, and Mountain Man who explored the territory between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast. He is most known for finding the South Pass through the Rocky Mountains and leading the first American expeditions into Utah, Nevada, and parts of California.

Jedediah Smith, Mountain Man, Portrait

Jedediah Smith. This likeness of Smith was painted using pictures of his relatives. Image Source: Jedediah Smith, by Sharlene P. Nelson, 2004.

Jedediah Smith Facts

These facts provide a quick overview of the life and career of Jedediah Smith. Unlike most Mountain Men who told “tall tales” about their exploits, Smith kept a journal that documented his accomplishments, which has helped establish him as a hero for his bold exploration of the American West.

Personal Life

  • Born — Jedediah Smith Strong was born on January 6, 1799, in Jericho, New York, which is present-day Bainbridge.
  • Died — Smith died around May 27, 1831, in present-day New Mexico.
  • Buried — He was likely killed by a group of Comanche Indians and his body was never recovered.
  • Nickname — Smith was often referred to simply as “Diah.” He is also known as “Bible Totin’ Jed Smith.”
Jedediah Smith, Mountain Man, Illustration
This illustration of Jedediah Smith is the only one made during his lifetime. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Fun Facts

  • Smith’s most prized possessions are said to have been his Bible, his gun, and his teddy bear.
  • It is said that he carried a copy of a book about the Lewis and Clark Expedition with him wherever he went.

Interesting Facts

  • Smith, a Methodist, was well-known for being a sober, God-fearing man, who read his Bible frequently.
  • Smith is believed to have traveled more miles of unexplored territory in the American West than any single man.
  • He was closely associated with the most prominent Mountain Men of the Fur Trade Era, including William Sublette, James Clyman, and Jim Bridger.
  • Smith was involved in the Arikara War, the first conflict between Plains Indians and the U.S. Army.
Fur Trade, Trappers Crossing River, Miller
Caravan Trappers Fording River by Alfred J. Miller. Image Source: Alfred Jacob Miller Online Catalogue.

Accomplishments

  • In 1824, he led a group through the South Pass to the west of the Rocky Mountains, essentially blazing the Oregon Trail.
  • Smith was the first Anglo-American to make his way to California via an overland route that crossed the Mojave Desert.
  • Smith was the first Anglo-American to travel the length of the West Coast, from San Diego to Vancouver.
  • Smith was one of the first Anglo-Americans to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
  • For several years, he was one of the owners of the company that is widely referred to as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
  • Smith is historically viewed as the first white person to cross into Utah and Nevada.
  • He explored the Great Salt Lake (Utah), the Colorado Plateau (Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico), and the Great Basin Desert (Nevada, Utah, eastern California).

Jedediah Smith Significance

Jedediah Smith is important to United States history because he explored the region between the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast more than any other person. Smith documented his journeys, which led to the creation of a map of the American West that played a significant role in Westward Expansion. Smith is remembered for being a brave, religious man, who lost his life in 1831 when he was likely killed by a group of Comanche Indians.

Oregon Trail Campfire, Painting, Bierstadt
Oregon Trail Campfire, Albert Bierstadt, 1863, Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Life of Jedediah Smith

Jedediah Smith was born in present-day Bainbridge, New York on January 6, 1799. His parents were Jedediah Smith and Sally Strong. Both were descended from New England Puritans and held tight to their religious convictions, which were passed on to their 12 children. During his years on the American Frontier, the younger Smith was well-known for his faith and adherence to Biblical commandments.

Because of his family’s strong religious convictions, Smith was given an education, although it was limited. He learned how to read and write, and received some instruction in Latin.

Smith’s father was a store owner, originally from New Hampshire. In 1810, the family moved to Erie County, Pennsylvania. By the time he was 13, Smith was working on a freighter on Lake Erie as a clerk. At some point, he was given a copy of a book about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which inspired him to go West. According to legend, Smith carried the book with him for the rest of his life.

The Smith family eventually moved to the Western Reserve region of Ohio and settled in Ashland County.

Ashley’s Hundred

By 1822, Smith was 23 years old, and living in St. Louis, with aspirations of becoming involved in the Fur Trade and traveling to the Oregon Country. The opportunity came when William Henry Ashley published an ad in the Missouri Gazette & Public Advertiser, looking for “one hundred enterprising young men” to sign up for a trapping expedition, which was intended to last for up to three years. Smith saw the ad, responded, and was hired.

Ashley's Hundred, Newspaper Ad, 1822
William Henry Ashley’s newspaper ad. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Smith and some of the men set out on May 8, 1822, on the keelboat Enterprise. However, after moving 300 miles upriver, the boat sank. The group was stranded until Ashley arrived with another boat and nearly 50 more men.

Ashley’s expedition reached Fort Henry at the mouth of the Yellowstone River on October 1. The fort was new, having been recently constructed by Andrew Henry, Ashley’s business partner. Soon after, Ashley returned to St. Louis to gather supplies.

The remaining trappers were divided into groups and sent out to hunt for the winter. One group, including Smith, went up the Missouri River and wintered at the mouth of the Musselshell River in present-day Montana.

Throughout the winter, some of the groups were attacked by Blackfoot Indians and had some of their horses stolen.

The Arikara War

In March 1823, Ashley left St. Louis and proceeded up the Missouri River to rejoin Henry’s group. Henry sent Smith to meet Ashley and deliver a message, informing him the expedition needed horses. Henry wanted Ashley to see if he could trade with the Arikara Indians for horses.

Smith found Ashley near the Arikara villages along the Upper Missouri River and delivered the message. Unfortunately, the Arikara were upset over the company’s activity in the local fur trade and attacked Ashley’s camp on June 2, 1863. 

By all accounts, Smith acted bravely during the attack, which boosted his reputation. 10 men were killed, and two more died later. Many of the survivors, including William Sublette, escaped by swimming to safety.

Ashley and his men fell back to the mouth of the Cheyenne River where most of them took shelter for about a month. Ashley sent Smith and at least one other man to Fort Henry to tell Andrew Henry what had happened and ask for reinforcements. Soon after, Ashley traveled to Fort Atkinson where he informed Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth about the attack and asked for help.

Leavenworth organized a military expedition that included 230 men from the U.S. 6th Infantry Regiment, 750 Sioux warriors, and about 50 of the trappers, including Smith, who had rejoined Ashley,  and Sublette. The Leavenworth Expedition attacked the Arikara villages on August 9 and the two sides negotiated a treaty, ending hostilities, on August 11.

The short conflict, known as the Arikara War, was the first conflict between western Indians and the U.S. Army.

Fall 1823 — Smith’s First Western Expedition and Grizzly Bear Attack

Following the conflict with the Arikara, Smith led an expedition that included William Sublette, Thomas Fitzpatrick, James Clyman, Thomas Eddie, and Edward Rose. They traveled to Fort Kiowa and then headed west toward the Rocky Mountains.

During their journey, they were the first Americans to explore the Black Hills, traveling through present-day South Dakota and the eastern portion of Wyoming.

At one point, Smith needed horses and directions, so the group went in search of the Crow tribe, who they thought would help them. 

While they were looking for the Crow, Smith was viciously attacked by a grizzly bear before he could shoot it. The bear broke some of his ribs, clawed at him, ripping one of his ears off, and had his head in its mouth went it suddenly stopped the attack and ran off.

Fur Trade, Grizzly Bear Attack, Miller
Narrow Escape from a Grisly Bear by Alfred J. Miller. Image Source: Alfred Jacob Miller Online Catalogue.

Remarkably, Smith was able to remain calm while his men cleaned his wounds and James Clyman sewed his ear back on. Smith was badly scarred from the attack and kept his hair long from then on to cover the scars.

Winter 1823–1824

Smith and his men spent the winter in the Wind River Valley, in central Wyoming. At some point, they located the Crow, who told them about a passage — the “South Pass” — through the Rocky Mountains that would safely take him across the Continental Divide, which ran between the Central and Southern Rocky Mountains.

Spring 1824 — The South Pass and the Oregon Trail

In February 1824, Smith and his men went through the South Pass and made their way to the Green River in present-day Utah. They stayed there for the spring, trapping along the river and its tributaries.

They were not the first to use the South Pass. Robert Stuart, a Frontiersman who worked for the American Fur Company, used the pass in 1812, when he was returning from Astoria, Oregon. Stuart and his employer, John Jacob Astor, kept the location of the South Pass a secret.

Smith sent Thomas Fitzpatrick back to St. Louis to deliver the news of the “discovery” to William Henry Ashley, who used the South Pass to establish his Trapper Rendezvous system, which he started in 1825. The first Rocky Mountain Trapper’s Rendezvous was held at Henry’s Fork near present-day McKinnon, Wyoming, and started on July 1, 1825.

In 1830, Smith sent a letter to Secretary of War John Eaton, informing him of the South Pass. This allowed the route to become an important part of the Oregon Trail, as thousands of Americans used it to move west and gain access to other trails, including the California Trail and Mormon Trail.

Fall 1824 

After Fitzpatrick left for St. Louis, Smith and the others came into contact with a group of Iroquois trappers working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Smith bought their pelts and offered to protect them until they united with their leader, Alexander Ross.

Winter 1824–1825

Smith spent the winter with the Flathead Indians and visited some of the Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts in the region, including Flathead Post in present-day Montana.

1825 Rendezvous and Partnership with Ashley

Ashley left St. Louis and met Smith at Henrys Fork, a tributary of the Green River, near present-day McKinnon, Wyoming. By then, Henry had left the partnership, so Ashley asked Smith if he wanted to replace him. Smith accepted the offer. Following the Rendezvous, Smith and Ashley transported nearly 9,000 pounds of beaver pelts to St. Louis. 

Rendezvous Near Green River by Alfred J. Miller. Image Source: Alfred Jacob Miller Online Catalogue.

Winter 1825–1826

Smith quickly organized another expedition, which included Robert Campbell, who he hired as his clerk. The expedition departed St. Louis in November and headed west toward the Rocky Mountains. There were roughly 50 men, including Hiram Scott, Jim Beckwourth, Moses Harris, and Louis Vasquez. They spend the winter with the Pawnee Indians, south of the Republican River.

1826 Rendezvous

In the spring, the group journeyed north of the Platte River and then headed to the Cache Valley in Utah, where Ashley was preparing to hold the 1826 Rendezvous.

Smith, Jackson, and Sublette

On July 18, 1826, Smith, William Sublette, and David E. Jackson bought Ashley’s company, which is generally referred to as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, but was formally known as Smith, Jackson, and Sublette.

The Great Salt Lake of Utah, Moran
This illustration depicts the Great Salt Lake. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Fall 1826

Sometime between August 7 and 22, 1826, Smith and a party of fifteen men left the Rendezvous to explore the southwest, in search of new places to hunt.

They traveled over Utah Lake, crossed the Sevier Valley to the Virgin River, and discovered a salt cave on the Virgin River. From there, they moved to the east side of the Colorado River and followed it until they encountered the Mojave Indians near present-day Needles, California. They stayed with them for about two weeks.

Smith hired two guides to help lead the expedition through the unfamiliar territory. The guides took them along the Mojave Road, which would become a key portion of the Old Spanish Trail. By November 28, Smith and his men were at the San Gabriel Mission in San Gabriel, California. The next day, their guns were confiscated and Smith was ordered to go to San Diego because Governor José María Echeandía wanted to question him.

Smith and his interpreter, Abraham LaPlant, met with Echeandía, who accused Smith of spying. Both men were held for two weeks. Meanwhile, Captain W. H. Cunningham, of the ship Courier, convinced Echeandía to free Smith, who promised to leave Mexican territory.

Winter 1826–1827

Following the dispute with Echeandía, Smith returned to his men. It was mid-February of 1827 before they resumed their journey. Once they were past the Mexican settlements, Smith turned north and they spent the rest of the year exploring northern California. By early May, Smith and his men had traveled approximately 350 miles.

1827 Rendezvous

Smith tried to lead the expedition across the Sierra Nevada Mountains so they could make the 1827 Rendezvous near Salt Lake. However, they were slowed by heavy snow. 

Smith decided to leave most of the men in California and lead a smaller expedition through the mountains. He took two men, seven horses, and two mules with him and went through Ebbets Pass, crossing the mountains in 8 days, and made it to the Rendezvous at Bear Lake in Utah on July 3. His fellow trappers, who believed his party was lost, celebrated his appearance with a cannon salute.

Among the Sierra Nevada, Painting, Bierstadt
Among the Sierra Nevada, Albert Bierstadt, 1868, Image Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Return to California

On July 13 Smith departed for California to rejoin his men. He was joined by 20 people, including 2 women, and followed the same route he had taken the year before, fully expecting to be welcomed by the Mojave Indians. 

Mojave Attack

Unfortunately, after Smith left their village in 1826, something happened that upset the Indians. Some sources say they clashed with a group of traders from Taos. Others say they were warned by Mexican officials and told not to allow Americans to pass through.

The Indians appear to have welcomed Smith’s expedition. However, as they were leaving the village on a raft, the Mojave attacked them. 10 men were killed and the women were taken as prisoners. 

San Gabriel

Smith and the other survivors escaped and made their way to the San Gabriel Mission. At this point, Smith left two wounded men behind and continued north to reunite with the rest men from his earlier expedition.

Smith had enlisted the help of two Indian guides to lead him into southern California, but they were apprehended by Mexican authorities. One of the guides was badly beaten, while the other treatment was condemned to death. Smith was held in prison.

Back at San Gabriel, one of the wounded men, Thomas Virgin, was taken to San Diego, where he was held in prison. He was eventually released and allowed to rejoin Smith.

San Jose

Smith arrived at the San Jose Mission and asked for permission to meet with Governor Echeandía in Monterey. Smith was taken to Monterrey under guard, where he met with the Governor. Once again, Echeandía was convinced to release him when two Americans, John B.R. Cooper and William Edward Petty Hartnell, spoke up on Smith’s behalf. Smith was permitted to acquire supplies and leave Mexican territory, but he was not allowed to add more men to his expedition. Echeandía also told him the route he had to take out of California and gave him two months to leave.

Winter 1827–1828

Unfortunately, the route Smith was given was flooded, so he decided to spend the winter in the area. Smith followed the Sacramento River upstream to its main fork, which is known as American Fork, and stayed there for a few months. 

Spring 1828

On April 13, 1828, Smith set out for the spring. Upon reaching the coast, he headed northward, to the Umpqua River. Along the way, they stayed along the coast and gathered a significant number of pelts.

Kalawatset Attack

The expedition came into contact with the Kalawatset Indians near the Umpqua River. When one of the Indians stole an axe from the camp, he was caught and forced to return it. A few days later, one of the Indians mounted one of the expedition’s horses and was forced to dismount. These incidents upset the Kalawatset.

On July 14, Smith, John Turner, and Richard Leland left the camp and went to scout for a road. On the way back, they were attacked by the Kalawatset. At the same time, the Kalawatset attacked the camp and killed all but one of the trappers.

Smith and his companions witnessed the attack from a hill above the camp. When it was over, they fled north toward Fort Vancouver, which was 150 miles away.

Fort Vancouver was occupied by the Hudson’s Bay Company. On August 8, Arthur Black, the only survivor from Smith’s camp, arrived there and told the British about the attack. John McLoughlin, superintendent of the fort, organized a search party and informed local Indian tribes there was a reward for any survivors from Smith’s expedition.

Smith, Turner, and Leland arrived at the fort on August 10.

The British helped Smith and his men and agreed to help them return to the Umpqua River and gather their possessions. 

The British sent a small force, under the command of Alexander McLeod, to the camp. Smith and the others went along. They arrived at the camp on October 18, buried the dead, and recovered nearly 800 pelts.

When the expedition returned to Fort Vancouver, Smith met with territorial Governor, George Simpson. The two came to an arrangement where Simpson agreed to buy Smith’s pelts and Smith agreed that his company would confine its operations to the area east of the Continental Divide.

Smith Rejoins Jackson and Sublette

Smith stayed in Vancouver until March 12, 1829, and then set out with Arthur Black to reunite with his partners, Sublette and Jackson. 

He traveled up the Columbia River and followed the route used by British fur traders to reach their post among the Flathead Indians, which Smith had visited in 1824. 

From there, he went south toward the Snake River. During the journey, Smith came across Jackson, who was searching for him. On August 5, 1829, he found Sublette at the Tetons on Henry Fork, the southern branch of the Columbia River.

William Sublette, Mountain Man, Illustration
This illustration depicts William Sublette. Image Source: Bill Sublette: Mountain Man by John Sunder, 1959.

1829 Expedition

Afterward, Smith led a successful expedition into Blackfeet Territory. Jim Bridger was with Smith during part of the expedition, working as a riverboat pilot.

1830 Rendezvous

At the 1830 Rendezvous, Smith and his partners sold their company to Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Milton Sublette. The new owners renamed the company, officially calling it the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Henry Fraeb and John Baptiste Gervais were also investors in the company.

Return to St. Louis

After the Rendezvous, Smith returned to St. Louis. On October 29, he wrote a letter to Secretary of War Eaton, who was caught up in a social scandal known as the “Petticoat Affair.” 

Smith informed Eaton that he believed the British were inciting the Indians to attack American trappers in the Pacific Northwest. He also provided details about Fort Vancouver.

Smith, Jackson, and Sublette started working with Samuel Parkman on a map of their travels in the American West.

Second Letter to Eaton

On March 2, 1831, Smith wrote another letter to Eaton. In this letter, he told him about the map and suggested the government should fund a new expedition — similar to the Lewis and Clark Expedition — to explore the territory west of the Rocky Mountains.

Santa Fe Expedition and Death

Smith, Jackson, and Sublette turned their attention to trading in Santa Fe. They organized an expedition that left St. Louis on April 10, 1831. Smith was leading the expedition when he left it to scout for water on May 27, 1831. He never returned.

The expedition continued to Santa Fe, hoping he would join them. Jackson and Sublette arrived on July 4, 1831, and soon found some of the locals had some of Smith’s belongings.

It is widely believed that Smith encountered a group of Comaches, who killed him. 

Jedediah Smith was 32 years old when he died.

Smith’s Legacy and Effect on Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion

The expeditions of Jedediah Smith from 1826–1829 helped inspire the U.S. government to explore the American West, and his map of the region played an important role in overland expeditions. His contributions helped the U.S. fulfill the concept of Manifest Destiny.

United States Exploring Expedition (1838–1842)

In 1836, President Andrew Jackson and Congress authorized a naval expedition to explore and survey the Pacific Ocean and islands. During the voyage, the expedition visited Puget Sound, the Columbia River, and San Francisco — all areas Smith had traveled through from 1826 to 1829. The United States Exploring Expedition was led by Charles Wilkes and lasted from 1838 to 1842.

Frémont’s First Two Expeditions

In 1842, Lieutenant John C. Frémont led an overland expedition through the South Pass. Guided by Kit Carson, Frémont climbed the Rocky Mountains and planted an American Flag. Frémont led a second expedition in 1843–1844. Both expeditions were successful, and the documentation and stories contributed to the Westward Expansion of the United States.

General John C. Fremont, Civil War, USA
John C. Frémont. Image Source: National Archives.

Frémont’s Third Expedition (1845)

In 1845, President James K. Polk sent Frémont on a third westward expedition. However, there is speculation Polk wanted Frémont to incite and support a rebellion in California against Mexican officials. While Frémont was in California, the Bear Flag Revolt took place and American settlers took control of northern California. Meanwhile, the Mexican-American War had started, and Polk took advantage, using Frémont and the U.S. Navy to take control of all of California.

Oregon Treaty (1846)

As the Mexican-American War carried on, Britain and the United States agreed to the Oregon Treaty. Signed on June 15, 1846, the treaty settled claims between Britain and the U.S. in the Oregon Country. The border between the U.S. and British North America was set at the 49th parallel except for Vancouver Island, which was retained by the British. The U.S. portion was organized as Oregon Territory on August 15, 1848, and Washington Territory was created from it in 1853

Mexican Cession (1848)

Following the Mexican-American War, the United States gained control of California in the Mexican Cession, otherwise known as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In the treaty, Mexico ceded more than half of its territory to the U.S., including the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico. The territory also included most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.

Jedediah Smith APUSH Definition and Significance

The definition of Jedediah Smith for APUSH is a celebrated Mountain Man and Fur Trader who is remembered for his extensive journeys in the American West during the early 19th century. Smith was one of the first Euro-Americans to explore the California coast, the Mojave Desert, and the Rocky Mountains. 

The significance of Jedediah Smith for APUSH is his contributions to opening up western routes for fur trading and westward expansion. Smith’s expeditions contributed to the geographical understanding of the American frontier and paved the way for subsequent settlers and pioneers. His legacy endures as an intrepid explorer of the American West.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Jedediah Smith — Hero and Legend of the American West
  • Date 1799—1831
  • Author
  • Keywords Jedediah Smith, Mountain Man, Frontiersman, Oregon Trail, South Pass, Ashley's Hundred, Arikara War, Rocky Mountain Fur Company, William Sublette, David Jackson, Jim Bridger
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 30, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 2, 2024

Taxonomies