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Mountain man and fur trader Jedediah Smith casts a heroic shadow. He was the first Anglo-American to travel overland to California via the Southwest, and he roamed through more of the West than anyone else of his era. His adventures quickly became the stuff of legend. Using new information and sifting fact from folklore, Barton H. Barbour now offers a fresh look at this dynamic figure.
Barbour tells how a youthful Smith was influenced by notable men who were his family’s neighbors, including a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. When he was twenty-three, hard times leavened with wanderlust set him on the road west. Barbour delves into Smith’s journals to a greater extent than previous scholars and teases out compelling insights into the trader’s itineraries and personality. Use of an important letter Smith wrote late in life deepens the author’s perspective on the legendary trapper. Through Smith’s own voice, this larger-than-life hero is shown to be a man concerned with business obligations and his comrades’ welfare, and even a person who yearned for his childhood. Barbour also takes a hard look at Smith’s views of American Indians, Mexicans in California, and Hudson’s Bay Company competitors and evaluates his dealings with these groups in the fur trade.
Dozens of monuments commemorate Smith today. This readable book is another, giving modern readers new insight into the character and remarkable achievements of one of the West’s most complex characters.
About the Author
Barton H. Barbour is Associate Professor of History at Boise State University and the author of Fort Union and the Upper Missouri Fur Trade.
Read an Excerpt
No Ordinary Mountain Man
By Barton H. Barbour, Richard W. Etulain
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2009 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Jedediah Smith's Background
JEDEDIAH Smith's ancestors first reached American shores in 1634, when Samuel Smith's Puritan family departed Hadleigh, England, for the Massachusetts Bay Colony Noted among other things for an emphasis on introspective self-criticism and an abiding revulsion from all things Catholic, the New Englanders' Puritan faith underwent change as time passed, commercial enterprises expanded, and new generations fanned out over the land. In the late 1730s an Anglican preacher named George Whitefield ignited a religious revival throughout British North America called the Great Awakening. Whitefield and the New Englander Jonathan Edwards became towering figures among supporters of the revival, called the New Lights. By 1750 the revivalism had crested and was in decline, but not before it laid the foundations for the American Methodist faith that Jedediah Smith's father, Jedediah Smith, Sr., embraced around 1790, and that Jedediah inherited as a youngster.
The Puritans' faith affected all aspects of life in early New England, but so did the harsh realities of eking out a living on a raw frontier and, from 1680 until 1760, the ever-present threat of French and Indian attacks. Decades of intermittent bloody conflict between the English and French—and their respective Indian allies—hardened New Englanders' attitudes about Indians and caused a goodly number of them to wonder if the violence was the Lord's way of testing their faith, or smiting them for their unrighteousness. As the Puritan ambition to erect a "Bible commonwealth" in the new American Eden faded, it was replaced by a modernizing, secularizing, and increasingly materialistic society that seemed more eager to gain wealth in this world than salvation in the next one. Thus was born the sharp-trading New England "Yankee" merchant whose economic enterprises attained a global reach. Jedediah Smith was in some respects the product of these historical experiences.
The American Revolutionary War divided the Smith family. Some members remained loyal, while others took up arms against King George III. After independence, Jedediah Smiths grandfather and several of his sons lived in Vermont for a few years, having been granted lands there by the State of New York. Such grants were made because states had no money to pay soldiers who served in the Revolutionary War. But New Hampshire also granted Vermont lands to veterans, and the overlapping and uncertain grants nearly brought the two states to blows. In a lengthy lawsuit over the conflicting land claims, New Hampshire won the case. With the New York grants deemed invalid, the "Vermont Sufferers," as the New York grantees were called, received substitute parcels of land far to the west, in New York. So it was that members of the Smith family left New England, joining other outcast Vermonters in a westward migration.
Around 1795 Jedediah Smith, Sr., moved his father's family to New York. During a brief interlude at Spencertown, a hamlet east of the Hudson River, Jedediah, Sr., married Sally Strong, another descendant of an old-guard Puritan lineage whose family hailed from Northampton, Massachusetts. Her father, like her new husband, had received lands in western New York as a Vermont Sufferer. Perhaps both men had served in the same regiment associated with the State of New York during the Revolutionary War. In any case, the two families moved westward in tandem, taking up land in the Susquehanna River valley in western New York State. Helping to establish a town in Chenango County called Jericho, the Smiths remained there for about ten years, during which time five of their twelve children came into the world. By 1814 the town had been renamed Bainbridge.
Jedediah Strong Smith, the family's fourth child and second son, was born at Jericho on January 6, 1799. Two sisters and two brothers died in their infancy, but sisters Sally, Betsy, and Eunice survived to adulthood. Seven brothers—Ralph, Jedediah, Austin, Peter, Ira, Nelson, and Benjamin—also lived to adulthood. The last three sons were born after the Smiths departed Jericho for Pennsylvania shortly before the outbreak of the War of 1812.
Jedediah Smith, Sr., ran a general store at Jericho with his brother-in-law Cyrus Strong. The Smiths remained in the town until 1810–11, when the elder Smith became enmeshed in a legal problem, possibly for having inadvertently passed counterfeit coins. Shortly thereafter the family departed New York for North East Township, Erie County, Pennsylvania, where the elder Smith took up a farm. About this time young Jedediah Smith experienced his only exposure to military life. Family tradition holds that when brother Ralph enlisted in the New York militia to participate in Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's successful Great Lakes campaign during the War of 1812, fourteen-year-old Jedediah tagged along. He briefly held a job as a "supercargo"—contemporary parlance for a clerk—on a Great Lakes vessel, so he may have possessed skills deemed useful in a naval operation.
By 1817 Jedediah's father augmented his meager farm income with odd tailoring jobs and had purchased a hilly, timbered parcel of land bordering a creek in the township. As a lad in Erie County, Jedediah Smith first made regular contacts with American Indians, for a mixed band of Delawares, Mohicans, Mohawks, and Wyandots lived nearby. Like most farming families in the region, the Smiths were relatively poor. On several occasions young Jedediah was obliged to rent oxen from a neighbor to plow his family's land. A few years later Jedediah, Sr., again led his family west, this time to Green Township near Ashtabula, Ohio. In February 1821, only a few months before he left his home, Jedediah Smith cast a ballot in a township election for justice of the peace—the only time he is known for certain to have voted in any political election.
Among the important influences on Smith's life during his formative years in the Susquehanna Valley and in eastern Ohio are his associations with three notable local men: Dr. Titus Gordon Vespasian Simons, Patrick Gass, and John Chapman. For many years Jedediah's family was closely associated with the Simons family The doctor stood out as an educated man in a locale where few could boast similar attainments. Smith biographers Maurice Sullivan and Dale Morgan both speculated that Doctor Simons gave Jedediah a copy of Nicolas Biddle's 1814 edition of Lewis and Clark's journals.
It may be, however, that it was Jedediah's neighbor Patrick Gass who first introduced him to the expedition's narratives. One of four sergeants in the Corps of Discovery, Gass published his journal in 1807. Reprinted several times before 1812, it was the first authentic record of the expedition to appear. Several Gass family members resided in Richland County, in Green Township, Ohio, not far from the forks of the Mohican River and the town of Perrysville, Ohio, where the Smiths and the Simonses dwelled. Given the scarcity of literate persons in the area, it would be surprising if the three families were not acquainted. Patrick Gass's brother William was a locally prominent man who held several elective offices in Richland County, which he had helped organize in 1813.
Young Jedediah unquestionably read a number of contemporary expeditionary narratives. While coursing along the Missouri River during 1822, he wrote in his own journal, "The country has been well described by Lewis & Clark, therefore any observation from me would be superfluous." While in California in 1827, he forbore writing a detailed description of San Francisco Bay in his journal, since he knew it had been "well described by [Captain George] Vancouver."
Even if Dr. Simons was not the primary source for Jedediah's introduction to exploration literature, he played a substantial role in shaping Smith's outlook. Simons's medical practice kept him busy in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, but he also made time to educate many rural youngsters over the years. He had known the Smiths well since they lived in New York and probably began teaching Ralph and Jedediah Smith after they migrated to Pennsylvania. By the time Jedediah reached the age of seventeen, his "formal" education was completed, and the doctor had done a good job. Jedediah Smith never forgot the intellectual debt he owed Dr. Simons and evermore held his first mentor in the highest esteem. He fondly referred to Simons in several letters he sent home from the Far West, and he occasionally forwarded money to the doctor as well.
Jedediah also became acquainted with the unusual man named John Chapman, destined for folkloric fame in the American Midwest as the celebrated "Johnny Appleseed." Born in Massachusetts, Chapman moved to the Ohio frontier in 1800 and was later one of the Smiths' neighbors. Besides planting fruit trees, Chapman also scattered seeds of the Swedenborgian variant of Christianity, which professed pacifism, humility, and personal conversations with spirits and angels. Chapman and the Smiths lived or owned land in Green Township and in neighboring Wayne Township, Ohio. Jedediahs brother Ralph and Dr. Simons each purchased land parcels adjacent to land Chapman owned, making it a virtual certainty that all three families were acquainted.
The foregoing spare account summarizes what is known about Jedediah Smith's background and youth. Most of the details of his upbringing remain in shadow despite the emergence of much new Smith-related information in the last half-century. Smith's associations with Dr. Simons, John Chapman, and probably Patrick Gass in western New York and Ohio likely had a lasting affect on the young man's intellectual development. Whatever the case may have been, it is clear that Jedediah Smith possessed a high degree of intelligence and abundant curiosity. His deep-rooted religious convictions found expression in Methodism, though as an adult he almost never attended a Methodist church, or any other for that matter.
It is also obvious—according to a number of surviving letters and several journal entries—that Smith was a devoted son and brother. And yet, in the course of his wanderings he sometimes berated himself for being so prodigal a son. Several of his letters refer poignantly to painful feelings of guilt and inadequacy for not living beside his aged parents and for failing to meet his filial obligation to provide for them. More than once he expressed grave doubts about his spiritual rectitude and fretted over being so bound up in the ultimately meaningless, materialistic "things of time." But as he wrote on Christmas Eve 1829, "[I]t is, that I may be able to help those who stand in need, that I face every danger." Jedediah Smith's motives for going west did include a nascent lust for fame and an insatiable curiosity, but also a burning desire to acquire wealth that he might share with his family and friends.
Virtually nothing is known of Jedediah Smith's early vocational training, though he no doubt acquired the hunting and woodcraft skills common among boys who grew up on the frontier. Thanks to Dr. Simons, Smith also mastered basic mathematical skills, as well as reading and writing, which to some degree set him apart from the average backwoods boy. His stint as a Great Lakes ship's clerk demonstrates that he could handle a job requiring literacy and familiarity with ledger-book accounting.
Jedediah Smith never married, but a vague family tradition suggests that he may have flirted with romance in Green Township. If true, this would constitute an event of singular importance in this solitary man's life. The most likely possibility would have been a connection with one of Dr. Simons's daughters. Jedediah's older brother Ralph married one Simons daughter, and one of the doctor's sons wedded Jedediah's sister Eunice. On the other hand, asserted a Smith descendant in 1933, "I have never heard that the 'fair sex' ever entered into the calculations of Uncle Jedediah. I suppose there was no room for anything 'weak' in his nature," though, she added, "the women of his family were too good to him to have a dislike for the sex." Perhaps Smith decided to defer any ideas about getting married until such time as he had achieved financial security.
Jedediah Smith might simply have grown up, gotten married, and lived and died in peaceful obscurity close by the hamlets where he spent his youth, but his life took a dramatic turn in 1822. When he was twenty-three years old he decided to go to Saint Louis, Missouri, the boomtown of the West. Like thousands of other young American men, Jedediah Smith set out in hopes of improving his own and his family's economic condition. Unfortunately he came of age during a period of prolonged economic distress. Smith wrote nothing to explain his reasons for leaving Ohio to seek work at Saint Louis, but a brief summary of the nation's economic situation offers a context for his decision.
The United States' financial health was anything but good in 1822. Indeed, the economic outlook for many Americans had been bleak for several years. Recovery from the depression that followed the War of 1812 was sluggish, and in 1820 national commerce remained weak. Banking practices and financial affairs were in even worse condition. Early nineteenth-century banking, always poorly organized and volatile, collapsed after a parsimonious Congress dismantled the first Bank of the United States in 1816. As the nation slipped into fiscal chaos, government proved powerless to control rickety wildcat banks, whose operations were irresponsible at best, criminal at worst. When a financial panic ignited frenzied activity among bankers and speculators in 1819, nothing could stave off the impending disaster. Banks folded by the dozen and farm mortgage foreclosures skyrocketed, ruining thousands of rural debtors. Jedediah Smith's father, like many other local residents, became the victim of a busted Ohio bank in 1817 and he never recovered his vanished assets.
Few places offered a remedy for the widespread economic turmoil. One promising locale, however, was the bustling inland port town of Saint Louis. By 1764, when the French founded it as a trading post a few miles below the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, France had already lost her North American colony. Indeed, in 1762 France ceded the whole of "Louisiana" to Spain rather than allowing it to fall to Great Britain, her archenemy and the victor in the Seven Year's War. Saint Louisans were eager to develop the fur and Indian trades, but during forty years of the Spanish regime these enterprises expanded very slowly. Napoleon Bonaparte forced the retrocession of Louisiana to France in 1800, but for the next two years nothing changed. Bonaparte's fantasy of reestablishing a French colony in North America quickly eroded under the financial and military exigencies of European war, and he sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803. Within a few months President Thomas Jefferson dispatched Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery on a two-year expedition to inventory the little-known assets in the enormous territory that the nation had acquired for a pittance.
The only readily exploitable sources of wealth, it turned out, were the legions of fur-bearing animals inhabiting the vast interior of the Louisiana Purchase. None were more valuable than the beaver, North America's largest rodent. Some beaver fur skins were used to trim clothing, but the principal buyers of beaver fur were hat-makers, who transformed the finely barbed fur into the world's best hat felt. Since the early colonial era the flourishing beaver trade had been among North America's leading frontier economic enterprises, and it remained important well into the early national periods in both the United States and Canada. The fur trade fostered exploration by Euro-Americans, provided economic foundations for English and French colonies, and underlay England and France's four wars for empire that ended with the ouster of France from North America in 1763.
For nearly two decades after the United States acquired Louisiana, the western fur trade remained relatively stagnant. Capital was in short supply everywhere, and the fur trade entailed far higher risks than most branches of commerce. Traders also lacked the necessary organizational framework, and perhaps the nerve, to push very far up the Missouri River. The Missouri had been touted as a rich source for fur-bearing mammals well before the Corps of Discovery returned to Saint Louis in September 1806, but few men dared to try their luck against the dangers of the upper river region and its sometimes hostile inhabitants.
In addition, British traders, under the banners of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and the Montréal-based North West Company, already had fingers of influence at work among Indian tribes of the middle and upper Missouri, such as the Arikara, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Blackfeet. Americans feared, with some factual basis, that British traders encouraged Indians to kill American traders or pillage their goods in order to eliminate competition. But the Indians were not mere stooges of British traders. They made decisions and took actions to advance their own commercial and diplomatic agendas and to prevent alien hunters from depleting their territorial resources. British and American interlopers alike might be the unlucky targets of tribal policies. For thirty years after 1790, the HBC men and "Nor'Westers" were so often at each other's throats that they paid little heed to their rivals from the south. But in 1821, with the HBC and the North West Company reeling and bloodied from their protracted struggle, parliamentarians and fur traders forged a formidable unification of the two great British-Canadian outfits.
Excerpted from Jedediah Smith by Barton H. Barbour, Richard W. Etulain. Copyright © 2009 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
Series Editor's Preface,
1. Jedediah Smith's Background,
2. Bitter Lessons,
3. Ashley & Smith,
4. The Southwest Expedition,
5. Jedediah Smith and the Californios,
6. "The Folly of Men in Power",
7. The Northwest Expedition from California to the Umpqua River,
8. From the Umpqua Massacre to the End of the Trail,
Epilogue. "The Things of Time": An Assessment of Jedediah Smith,
Appendix A. Accounts of Smith's Death,
Appendix B. Smith's Probate Records,