Darkest days of mountain man Jedediah Smith - Coeur d'Alene Press: Lifestyles

Darkest days of mountain man Jedediah Smith

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Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 11:41 pm, Tue Nov 5, 2013.

It was 1824 and Jedediah Strong Smith was walking along the Cheyenne River near the Black Hills of South Dakota, looking for the Crow Indians to buy horses and find out the best route westward through the Rocky Mountains for him and his men.

Suddenly, a huge grizzly bear that had been stalking him leaped out of the bushes and attacked, knocking him to the ground, breaking his ribs - its lethal claws tearing away an eyebrow and nearly ripping off his scalp and ear.

Members of his party witnessed the attack and rushed to help. The vicious bear tore open his side as the 25-year-old explorer-trapper valiantly tried to fend him off. At one point, the animal had his victim's head in his mouth. Then suddenly the grizzly let go and ran off.

Jedediah ordered Jim Clayman, another member of the party, to sew his scalp and ear back on - and told him how to do it. The wounds took two weeks to heal, and for the rest of his life he wore his hair long, covering the ragged scar.

It was dangerous and tough to be a mountain man on the western frontier in those days.

Jedediah Smith was one of the best.

From St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and from San Diego to Lake Pend Oreille, he challenged all that nature and mankind could throw at him, and before he lost his life at age 32, he left an incredible mark in the early history of the West.

Born in Bainbridge, N.Y. in 1798, Jedediah came from early New England families, and brought up in Christian tradition. Later in life, William Waldo, a fellow mountain man wrote that Jedediah's "Bible and his rifle were his inseparable companions ... He was a bold, outspoken, professing, and consistent Christian, the first and only one known among the early Rocky Mountain trappers and hunters."

Jedediah was a pious man all of his short life, did not use profanity, drink or smoke, and was not boastful. He was six feet tall, had blue eyes and brown hair and a commanding presence.

His life changed when his mentor gave him a copy of Lewis and Clark's 1814 Journal to the Pacific. It fired his passion for nature and adventure.

Making his way to St. Louis in 1822, he answered a newspaper ad by William H. Ashley for 100 "Enterprising Young Men ... to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two or three years..." The mission was trapping beavers for their fur. The young Easterner signed on and he would never see an easy life again.

Over the next nine years, he crisscrossed over some of most rugged parts of western America, constantly suffering hardship, and facing danger and death.

Death presented itself soon enough on May 30, 1823, when 600 Arikara Indians armed with London Fusil muskets, bows and arrows and axes attacked Ashley's party of 70 in South Dakota.

Twelve of the mountain men were killed, with many more wounded. The survivors fled downstream, with the good fortune that the Arikara didn't chase them.

The wounded were evacuated to St. Louis, where Col. Henry Leavenworth of the U.S. 6th Infantry Regiment assembled 200 men and 700 Sioux Indians and others, totaling some 1,100 men, to deal with the Arikara.

It took until early August for them to arrive. Apart from a few minor skirmishes, Leavenworth's forces failed to engage the Arikara - who eventually disappeared into the wilderness.

In 1824, he reopened the South Pass across the Rocky Mountains - first traversed by John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company in 1812. From there it was hunting for beaver along the Snake River in Idaho and into the Pacific Northwest.

Two years later, Jedediah and partners bought the business from Ashley, who retired, and then headed for the Southwest and California where he faced new obstacles and dangers.

Crossing the broiling California desert was one of them - described by Jedediah in his journal: "I have at different times suffered the extremes of hunger and thirst. Hard as it is to bear for successive days the knawings of hunger, yet it is light in comparison to the agony of burning thirst."

Suffering from exhaustion, Robert Evans, one of the men was left under a tree while the rest searched for water. They found a spring and returned with four or five quarts. Evans drank it all - asking why they didn't bring more!

On his second trip to California, Jedediah's party of 18 men and two women was attacked by Mojave Indians along the Colorado River. Ten of his men were killed and the two women abducted.

Jedediah and the eight survivors - one badly wounded - made a stand in a grove of cottonwood trees. Jedediah wrote in his journal:

"We then fastened our Butcher knives with cords to the end of light poles so as to form a tolerable lance, and thus poorly prepared we waited the approach of our unmerciful enemies."

When the Indians were within gun range, the men shot two of them and wounded another. "The indians ran off like frightened sheep and we were released from the apprehension of immediate death."

In two trips to California, he was always in trouble with Mexican authorities who distrusted his motives for being in Mexican territory. Twice he was arrested, and then released on condition he left the way he came.

It was a discouraging time for the intrepid explorer. "Having been so long absent from the business of trapping and so much perplexed and harassed by the folly of men in power," he wrote, "I returned again to the woods, the river, the prairae, the Camp & the Game with a feeling somewhat like that of a prisoner escaped from his dungeon and his chains."

He left the state as promised but headed north instead, exploring and trapping through California and the Northwest.

In July 1829, Jedediah was trapping beaver on the Umpqua River in Oregon. While he and two others were away, Kelawatset (Kuitsh) Indians attacked the camp, killing 15 of his men, avenging the whipping of a tribal member caught stealing from the expedition.

A month later, trapper Alexander Roderick McLeod saw: "... at the entrance of the North Branch, where Mr. Smith's party were destroyed, and a sad spectacle of Indian barbarity presented itself to our view, the skeletons of 11 of those miserable sufferers lying bleaching in the sun."

Jedediah spent the winter of 1828-29 in Fort Vancouver, Wash. Of the 33 men he started with in California, 26 had been killed.

In the spring, he and his party - including famed mountain man Jim Bridger - headed for Salish House in Montana to join up with other trappers, crossing Idaho near Sandpoint.

In 1830, Jedediah sold his fur trapping business, returned to St. Louis and was content to making maps and preparing his journals for publication. Then he made one last fatal mission - leading a party of 22 wagons to Santa Fe, N.M.

On May 27, 1831, he rode ahead of the wagons looking for water to refill their dwindling supply. He was never seen again. A party of 20 Comanche Indians attacked and killed him.

Jedediah left his mark in the history of the West as a hunter, trapper, fur trader, trailblazer, author, cartographer and explorer of the Rocky Mountains, the American West Coast and the Southwest.

He not only opened up South Pass through the Rockies, but also was the first to reach California overland from the east, and first to explore and cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the treacherous Great Basin, and first to travel up the California coast to reach to Oregon.

They never located Jedediah's body - just a few of his possession, found and sold by scavengers.

William Ashley retired as a wealthy man. Jim Clayman warned the Donner party not to attempt to travel the route they chose to California in the winter of 1847-48. They ignored his advice and most of them perished, some trying to stay alive by cannibalizing those who had died.

Bringing civilization to the American West came at a high price.

Jedediah Smith was one who paid it.

Syd Albright is a journalist/writer/biographer living in Post Falls. He is chairman of the Kootenai County Historical Society. Contact him at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

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