Saturday, June 24, 2017

Mountain Man and Western Explorer Jedediah Smith [otd 06/24]

Jed Smith, drawn ca. 1835
by a close family friend.
Family archives.
June 24, 1798 is one of two presumed birth dates* (the other is Jan 6, 1799) of mountain man and Western explorer Jedediah Strong Smith.

Historians do agree that he was born in Bainbridge, New York, an outpost about 25 miles east of Binghamton. The family moved to Erie County, Pennsylvania around 1810. The story is told that a frontier doctor befriended young Jedediah, and provided him an education beyond the norm for that day.

The family moved again in 1817, to Ohio. But the Panic of 1819 (with impacts out to 1822) hit farm states like Ohio particularly hard. It is perhaps significant that Jedediah headed further west around 1821.

In 1822, William Ashley published a St. Louis newspaper notice that said, in part, “The subscriber wishes to engage one hundred young men to ascend the Missouri river to its source, there to be employed for one, two, or three years.”

That was the beginning of what became the Rocky Mountain Fur Company [blog, March 20], which Smith joined. Jedediah quickly rose to a leadership position. In 1824, he led a small band of trappers into southeast Idaho, where they stumbled across a party of “pilaged and destitute” Iroquois Indian trappers. These men worked for the British-Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). British-Canadian fur companies had had the western slopes of the Rockies to themselves since the War of 1812.

Smith escorted the hapless Iroquois back to the HBC camp on the Salmon River, near today's Challis or possibly the mouth of the Pahsimeroi River. The Britishers were none too pleased when the Americans showed up, on October 14, 1824. Their leader, Alexander Ross, grumbled about the newcomers “whom I rather take to be spies than trappers.”

Over the next two years, Smith led trapper parties in Idaho and parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Utah. In July 1826, he became part owner of the fur company. Smith and his partners were shrewd enough to realize that going head-to-head with the established HBC might not be their most profitable course. Jedediah therefore led a trapper/explorer party through country then unknown to Americans: across Utah and southern Nevada, and then into Spanish California.

Jedediah Smith’s monumental accomplishments in exploring the West between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast are beyond the scope of this brief item. (He was almost certainly the first American to travel east from Oregon through Idaho since Robert Stuart’s trek in 1813.) Unfortunately, Comanche Indians murdered Smith along the Cimarron River in May 1831.

Thomas Fitzpatrick.
Colorado Historical Society.
It is now generally accepted that his personal descriptions – lost notes, letters, and maps – lived on in the memories, writings, and maps produced by those who followed in his footsteps. For example, Thomas Fitzpatrick was also with Ashley’s enterprise from the first. He became a close co-worker and then employee of Smith.

Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick was, in fact, one of the most famous Mountain Men of the era. He introduced the even more famous Kit Carson to the fur trade and acted as guide for one of John C. Frémont’s major exploratory expeditions.

* The June date is listed in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
References: [B&W], [Brit]
H. M. Chittenden, The American Fur Trade of the Far West, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1986). Originally publication date: 1935.
Alexander Ross, T. C. Elliott (Ed.), “Journal of Alexander Ross, Snake Country Expedition, 1824,” Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society, Vol. 14 (Dec. 1913).
Stephen W. Sears, “Trail Blazer of the Far West,” American Heritage Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 4 (June 1963).

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