Mountain man, trapper, hunter, leader, cartographer, and most of all explorer, Jedediah Strong Smith lived more in 32 years than any three men in a three-score existence. Inspired in his youth by the writings and journals of Lewis and Clark, he left his home for parts west and blazed a trail of adventure and discovery that rival any of his more well-known peers to include Fremont, Bridger, and Carson. Departing Missouri in 1822 under the command of General William Ashley, Smith – a tall and intelligent young man with a heart for adventure and a mind for business – soon became one of the most intrepid and respected men of any expedition of his time.
A devout Methodist who neither smoked, drank, or gambled, he was a natural leader whose commanding presence was inspirational and lasting. Surviving both close combat attacks with both Indians as well as a mauling from a bear that nearly cost him an ear and left him permanently scarred for life, Smith exhibited incredible personal toughness and endurance in a series of incredible adventures. To a man, the wild and often independent-to-a-fault breed of mountain man he led and traveled with were drawn to Smith because of his knowledge, fairness, and hardiness in the field and on the trail.
Equally adept as an explorer, Smith ranged from the Rocky Mountains to California, from Utah to Oregon, and any and all stops in between. A dedicated chronicler of his actions and observations, his surviving journals hint of a man at home in the wilderness with an eye for nature, the American Indian, and the terrain he traveled. His cartography skills – much of it self-taught – have shown a gift for accuracy and attention to detail that provided the finest maps of his era. His skill as a hunter and provider of fur made his a rich man quickly and consistently – and he built up a Fur Company and retired it the equivalent of a millionaire. He gave money for his family – never forgetting their struggles during his youth – and mentored many a young adventurer by his to-the-point demeanor and skill portfolio. But he was not a man to settle – he was forever moving to places unseen.
Leading a supply convoy in 1831, Smith was ahead of the party scouting for water when he was attacked by a Commanche war party. Wounded immediately, Smith charged and shot and killed the Chief with a rifle shot. He was rushed and killed by the remainder of the party. Having lived most of his life in wild and dangerous places, Smith clearly knew the risk and his basic opinion of Indians was that “they were children of nature” – and though he had been in numerous battles with them he punished his own men for indiscriminate shooting of Indians. Those who knew him stated that there is no doubt that – when pressed to fight – he asked no quarter and gave none.
The legacy of Jedediah Smith lives on in several wide-ranging memorial tributes to include a Redwoods State Park; a wilderness area; a memorial trail; and a 50 mile endurance run. He is essentially responsible for the first of the West-Pacific maps and his journals greatly assisted in the accurate chronicle of the American West. More than that, Smith is the prototype of the American spirit – honest, hard-working, adventurous, and a fair and enterprising man. He had an immense chest of character; a well-reared and steadfast consciousness for people and places; and the perseverance for using his wide range of capabilities to “go west and prosper” – but to do it as a leader, a visionary, and a man of God.
Jedediah Smith’s middle name – Strong – was appropriate. If he had an adjective to describe him, EXEMPLAR would be appropriate as well.