Jedediah Smith Explores the Far West Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During Jedediah Smith’s brief career as a fur trapper and trader, he led several major exploratory expeditions into the Far West and helped open new routes across the continent to the Pacific Ocean.

Summary of Event

A native of Chenango County, New York, Jedediah Smith learned to read and write before he and his family moved to St. Louis in 1816. There he soon became interested in fur trapping and began his trapping career in Missouri in 1822 when he was about twenty-three years old. Over the next decade, long before the Southwest was ceded to the United States, Smith would twice traverse the country and help open the region to American settlement. Smith, Jedediah Exploration;American West Fur trade;and Jedediah Smith[Smith] California;exploration of [kw]Jedediah Smith Explores the Far West (1822-1831) [kw]Smith Explores the Far West, Jedediah (1822-1831) [kw]Explores the Far West, Jedediah Smith (1822-1831) [kw]Far West, Jedediah Smith Explores the (1822-1831) [kw]West, Jedediah Smith Explores the Far (1822-1831) Smith, Jedediah Exploration;American West Fur trade;and Jedediah Smith[Smith] California;exploration of [g]United States;1822-1831: Jedediah Smith Explores the Far West[1170] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;1822-1831: Jedediah Smith Explores the Far West[1170] [c]Exploration and discovery;1822-1831: Jedediah Smith Explores the Far West[1170] Ashley, William H. Rogers, Harrison G. Echeandia, José María de McLoughlin, John

Smith’s career shows both entrepreneurship and adventure. His first trek to the Pacific coast began in 1822, after he had read a notice in the Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser of U.S. Army general William H. Ashley’s Ashley, William H. plan to hire one hundred men to ascend the Missouri River Missouri River to work at its headwaters for one to three years. By November, Smith and twelve companions had reached the mouth of the Musselshell River in Blackfoot country. Eight returned east before winter snows cut off transportation routes, while Smith and four others wintered there. The following year, Smith joined an expedition that followed the South Platte River to cross the Continental Divide Continental Divide at what became known as Bridger Pass. From there, they crossed the mountains of northern Colorado, the Great Basin, and the Green River Canyon. Smith continued on to the Pacific.

In 1825, Smith joined forces with Ashley Ashley, William H. , and a year later he joined with David E. Jackson Jackson, David E. and William L. Sublette Sublette, William L. to buy out Ashley and form the Rocky Mountain Fur Company Rocky Mountain Fur Company —an enterprise that would become one of the most famous fur-trading companies. Smith and his partners were better trappers and traders than those of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. American Fur Company However, they generally suffered greater losses to Native Americans. Native Americans;and fur trade[Fur trade]

During the late summer of 1826, Smith arrived at the rendezvous of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company located at the Great Salt Lake, Great Salt Lake Utah;exploration of loaded with goods from the East. His express purpose was to explore the territory south and west of the lake while his partners conducted the fall hunt. Smith and a party of sixteen men left the lake in mid-August, traveled southwest to Utah Lake, and then, by way of the Sevier River, crossed a mountain range to the Virgin River, which they followed to the Colorado River Colorado River . There, they crossed to the Colorado’s east bank and then rode through the Black Mountain country of Arizona for four days before reaching an area occupied by the Mojave tribe.

After resting with the Mojave Mojaves for more than two weeks and collecting information about the surrounding territory, Smith’s party set out across the Mojave Desert on November 10, 1826. They were guided by two Native Americans who had fled from a Spanish mission in Southern California. Although their exact course for this stage of the journey is unclear, they undoubtedly traveled westward along the earlier Native American trade routes, which were much the same as those later followed by the Santa Fe Railroad. They crossed the Sierra Madre range (later known as the San Gabriel Mountains), probably using Cajon Pass, and camped a short distance from the San Gabriel Mission. Completion of this journey made Smith’s party the first U.S. expedition to travel overland through the Southwest to California.

Although Mexican law forbade their presence in California, Smith and his men were hospitably received by the Franciscan monks at the mission. Governor José María de Echeandia Echeandia, José María de , however, viewed the American traders as intruders and purposely delayed answering a letter from Smith requesting permission to journey through the province. After waiting ten days for a reply, Smith went to San Diego to plead with the governor in person. Mollified by Smith’s action and his gift of beaver skins, Echeandia finally agreed not to imprison Smith and his men for violating the border, on condition that they leave California in the direction from which they had come.

Smith ignored the governor’s instructions and led his party—minus two men who succumbed to the charms of California mission life—back through the Cajon Pass. From there, they went either west across the Tejon or north across the Tehachapi Pass into the San Joaquin Valley. Leaving his men behind to trap beaver, Smith, Silas Gobel Gobel, Silas , and Robert Evans Evans, Robert ascended the middle fork of the Stanislaus River to cross the towering Sierra Nevada Sierra Nevada;exploration of . On May 20, 1827, the three men began an eight-day trek across the mountains near Ebbetts Pass to the headwaters of the Walker River, which flowed into Walker Lake. Almost nothing is known of Smith’s route across the Great Basin, but he probably went east to the vicinity of what became Ely, Nevada, then northeast to the Great Salt Lake Great Salt Lake , where he and his associates arrived in June after a punishing journey.

After a brief rest, Smith set out with nineteen men in mid-July to rejoin his hunters in California, as he had promised. Retracing his route of the previous year, the party arrived at the Mojave Mojaves villages, where Indians surprised and killed ten of Smith’s company. The remainder abandoned most of their belongings and traveled as fast as they could across the desert to the San Gabriel Mission. Meanwhile, Smith rejoined the hunters he had left in the San Joaquin Valley. The necessity for obtaining food and supplies caused him then to go to the San José Mission, where he was arrested and placed in jail and denied access to Governor Echeandia Echeandia, José María de for a time. He was finally permitted to talk with Echeandia in Monterey, but only the intervention of several American merchant ship captains prevented his being sent to a Mexican prison. He was forced to post a thirty-thousand-dollar bond to guarantee his departure from California within two months.

From Monterey, Smith’s route took him northward to the head of the Sacramento River, then west, probably along the Trinity River to the coast, and northward to the Umpqua River in Oregon. Oregon;exploration of While Smith’s party was encamped on this stream, local Indians attacked them. Only Smith and two of his men survived, and all their furs were stolen. Among the dead was Harrison G. Rogers Rogers, Harrison G. , the expedition’s clerk and quartermaster. When Smith had returned to the Great Salt Lake the year before, he had left Rogers in charge of the party in the San Joaquin Valley, and Rogers had kept a journal of his experiences.

The three survivors made their way north to Fort Vancouver, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Hudson’s Bay Company[Hudsons Bay Company];trading posts post on the Columbia River Columbia River;trading posts , where Dr. John McLoughlin McLoughlin, John , the chief factor, gave them aid and sent a party to regain the captured furs, which he subsequently purchased for twenty thousand dollars. The act was a generous one, for Smith himself had no means of transporting the large collection of furs back to the Great Salt Lake. However, McLoughlin exacted a promise that the Rocky Mountain Fur Company Rocky Mountain Fur Company would not again penetrate the Northwest. In the spring of 1828, Smith and one companion made their way to Pierre’s Hole on the western side of the Teton Mountains, where they rejoined Smith’s partners, Jackson and Sublette.

In 1830, Smith sold his interest in the Rocky Mountain Fur Rocky Mountain Fur Company Company. The following year, Comanche warriors killed him at a watering hole on the Sante Fe Trail as he was traveling to Taos. He was only thirty-two years old.


Smith’s achievement was his exploration of a new route from the Great Salt Lake southwest into California. His expeditions made the first crossing of the Sierra and opened another route across the Great Basin desert to the Great Great Salt Lake Salt Lake. In marching to the Columbia River Columbia River , his men were the first American party to explore the great interior valleys of California. They opened a north-south route and made known California’s potential for U.S. traders and settlers. Smith thus became the first U.S. explorer to mark both a central and a southern route across the continent to the Pacific.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dale, Harrison C., ed. The Ashley-Smith Explorations and the Discovery of a Central Route to the Pacific, 1822-1829. Rev. ed. Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark, 1941. First published in 1918, this monograph was for years the standard account of Jedediah Smith’s activities. Opened new vistas on the fur trade history and emphasized the interrelationship between trading and exploration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Douthit, Nathan. A Guide to Oregon South Coast History: Traveling the Jedediah Smith Trail. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1999. Practical travel guide to Oregon’s southern coast with considerable information on local ethnography and history written by a professional historian. The second section of the book retraces Smith’s 1828 route.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Dale L. Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West. 1953. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. A good biography of Smith that is also a history of the mountain men and their experiences. Despite limited factual information, Morgan dispels some of the myths surrounding Smith’s experiences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neihardt, John G. Splendid Wayfaring: The Exploits and Adventures of Jedediah Smith and the Ashley-Henry Men. 1970. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. Analyzes the Ashley-Smith explorations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Alson J. Men Against the Mountains: Jedediah Smith and the South West Expedition of 1826-1829. New York: John Day, 1965. A popular, well-written book, carefully based on the scholarly accounts of Dale, Morgan, and Sullivan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Jedediah Strong. The Southwest Expedition of Jedediah S. Smith: His Personal Account of the Journey to California, 1826-1827. Edited by George R. Brooks. 1977. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. These accounts, by the explorer himself, are supplemented by a bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sullivan, Maurice S. The Travels of Jedediah Smith. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992. Originally published in 1934 using materials from Smith’s surviving journals, this book has long been considered the definitive reference on Smith’s life and travels.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Richard.“It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991. A scholarly, readable narrative that places Smith in the history of the West.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Raymund F., ed. Jedediah Smith and His Monuments: Bicentennial Edition, 1799-1999. Rev. ed. Stockton, Calif.: Jedediah Smith Society, 1999. Collection of documents and illustrations relating to Smith’s explorations published as part of the celebration of the bicentennial of his birth. Includes a folding map of his travels.

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Categories: History