Mountain Man, Jedediah Smith




“I wanted to be the first to view a country on which the eyes of a white man had never gazed and to follow the course of rivers that run through a new land.” ~ Jedediah Smith

I have always been fascinated by mountain men, but none so much as Jedediah Smith. Unlike the mountain men of his era, Jedediah didn’t drink, swear or use tobacco and was a man of strident faith. It was said that Smith didn’t need more than his rifle and his bible. According to Smith’s family he read Biddle’s 1814 edition of the Lewis and Clark journals and was set on living a life in the wilderness. In his thirty two-year life span his influences and impacts on the American West are perhaps no less significant than those of Lewis and Clark. During his eight years in the wilderness, Smith made the effective re-discovery of South Pass and was the first American to travel overland to California, the first to cross the Sierra Nevadas and the Great Basin, and the first to reach Oregon by a journey up the California coast. He kept detailed journals of his travels in the hopes of publishing them. His accomplishments were coupled with involvement in the three greatest disasters in the fur trade. He survived the Arikara defeat of 1823, the Mojave massacre of 1827, and the Umpqua massacre of 1828 — battles which cost the lives of 40 trappers.

At the age of 22, Jedediah Smith signed on with the expedition of General William Ashley to travel to the Upper Missouri and trap beaver. On his second expedition he was attacked by a grizzly bear. The bear came out of the thicket and mauled Smith violently, throwing him to the ground, smashing his ribs and literally ripping off his scalp. When the attack was over, the scalp was hanging on to his head by an ear. Smith instructed Jim Clyman to sew it back on. Clyman did the best he could, but thought nothing could be done for the severed ear. Smith calmly insisted that he do his best to stitch it back on. After only TWO WEEKS of rest, he resumed his job as leader of the group and led his men–and become known for his comb-over hair style.

In his lifetime, Smith would travel more extensively in unknown territory than any other single mountain man. He traveled in the central Rockies, then down to Arizona, across the Mojave Desert and into California making him the first American to travel overland to California through the southwest. In a most amazing journey, he also came back from California across the desert of the Great Basin. The heat became so unbearable Smith and his men had to bury themselves in sand to keep cool. His expeditions and overland routes are said to have connected America, as the railroad later would for those who didn’t care to walk 😉

In 1830, Smith was rattled over the death of his mother and felt as though he had neglected his family duty. He went home and purchased
a farm and townhouse, complete with servants, in St. Louis. However, he
didn’t take well to a settled life. When Smith sold his shares in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company the year before, he had agreed to help procure supplies for the subsequent owners. Forming a partnership with his brothers, he left in the spring of 1831 and embarked on the Santa Fe Trail. On May 27, he left the main party to search for water. near the Cimarron River, Jed Smith was killed by Comanche Indians.


Unfortunately he did not get the chance to publish his journals but he was a man who felt accomplished in life. “I started into the mountains, with the determination of becoming a first-rate hunter, of making myself thoroughly acquainted with the character and habits of the Indians, of tracing out the sources of the Columbia River and following it to its mouth; and of making the whole profitable to me, and I have perfectly succeeded.”

Hope you enjoyed this glimpse of Jed Smith. One of the things I find fascinating about him was the influence reading had on his life. As a writer, reading has definitely had great influence on my life and my passion to become a writer. My American History college course really fueled my interest in the American West, but it was the first western romance novel I read, FORGIVING by LaVeryl Spencer, that had the greastest impact on my budding interest in becoming a writer of western romance. Can you recall something you’ve read that had a profound impact on your life’s journey?  










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30 thoughts on “Mountain Man, Jedediah Smith”

  1. I love this, Stacey.
    I’ve always wondered what motivated these mountain men. I mean, sure there was money to be made fur trading, but the loneliness, the hard ship.
    I loved the movie Jeremiah Johnson but they never exactly explained what drove him (or any man) into that life. A great characters study.

  2. Good morning, Stacey. Great post. I know folks had to hunt to eat but in my 21st century sensibility, I am sooooooo anti-hunting and anti-fur…but I know things were different way back when.

    I think Little Women had the profoundest effect on me, both as a reader and a writer. I read it at 8 years old and countless times since. I scribbled stories, some half-finished, some pretty dumb, from then on. Visiting Louisa May’s house and grave in Concord last fall was a real odyssey for me.

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  3. Hi Stacey,

    I’m among the others who don’t get the mountain men who braved the freezing weather to hunt and make their living, more alone than not. Thanks for the insight today. Do you know the two things that I hate most? Being totally alone and being cold! I would not make a good Mountain Man!

  4. Thank you, Mary! I agree–for a man to take such risk I think it had to be about more than just the money–although I’m sure that had a great influence of its own 😀

  5. Tanya, I agree about the hunting–so not what it was in the 1800’s, with all the camo, animal bait everything set to the hunter’s advantage. I saw this cartoon strip once that cracked me up—first frame was a bear peacefully lapping water from a river with a hunter trembling in one of those tree look-outs. In the next frame the hunter is standing all smug in his living room before the stuffed bear set in a terrifying “attack” pose. Puuleeaase. *g*

    Thanks for sharing your influence of “Little Women”!

    Wonderful weekend wishes 😉

  6. LOL, Charlene!! I think I’m a kindred spirit of sorts with the mountain men *g* I love to be alone and surrounded by nature–always wished I had more of the adventurous spirit to go off on a walk about 😉 Latley, with double deadlines, I’ve not done much walking at all–ack!!

    Thanks for sharing!!

  7. I love this post, Stacey. I love the pictures and I love the story. Too bad he only lived to be 32 years of age. Goodness, awfully young to die.

    I must admit that books have influenced me greatly. As far as writing, I’d have to say that BUCKSKIN BRIGADES by L. Ron Hubbard affected me greatly. It was the first book I read that I thought gave a true and accurate picture of the Indians — and in particular the Blackfeet — you might notice that most of my novels have centered upon the Blackfeet.

    Great post!

  8. LOL, Mary!!! Well, many of them kept journals 😉 with details of thier journy as well as their thoughts and ponderings. After an Indian attack that killed 20 trappers Jed took a great risk to go back to the scene and recover his friend’s journals and sent them to his family. Only one of Jedediah’s journals was published that I know if, The Travels of Jedediah Smith, in 1934.

  9. Hi Karen! Thanks so much for sharing your insight!! One of the things that I really appreciated about Jedediah’s story was his respect of Native Americans. According to all I’ve read on him he’d befriended many tribes, appreciating their knowledge and guidance and respecting their way of life. His writings also showed his understanding of the change he saw in their acceptance of him in his short timespan as a traveler. I wish I could find my source to give the name tribal name of the warriors who killed the 20 trappers on his journey to the Sierra Nevada’s—he had actually hunted with them a few years prior and hadn’t expected an attack. He later learned there had been attacks and raids on this tribe by other white travelers since his first encounter with them. It wasn’t the Indian’s who’d greeted the inturders with hostility–but vise versa. Very sad. And he was disenheartened by this.

  10. I grew up in the West on my grandfather’s ranch about 20 miles from Bent’s Fort on the Santa Fe Trail. My little town had descendants from those early frontiersmen. I grew up reading Louis L Amour and Ernest Haycock westerns and have loved them ever since. When my grandfather was a young man he herded sheep from his ranch down to Santa Fe and he told many stories of having to deal with the Kiowa Inians.
    I live in Arizona now where we have alot of history here too.
    Westerners are a different breed of people-hard working, live by the cowboy code, and enjoy the country.

  11. Hi Joye! How wonderful to grow up and live surrounded by such rich history 🙂 Thanks for sharing!!!

    Some other influences on my brand of westerns would be biographies on Jim Bowie (another favorite western icon of mine) and books on Desperadoes *g*. Love that song too *LOL*

  12. Hey Stacey, loved the post. I’m with Mary on the Jeremiah Johnson movie.

    In fact, our youngest son is named Jeremiah Johnstone Draper but we call him JJ. We’ve always loved the name Jeremiah b/c it’s a strong, Biblical name and I’ve always been a history buff. On top of that, my FIL’s middle name is Johnstone. It all worked together and JJ seems to love his name. (Now that’s a good thing!)

    It’s funny though when we introduce him b/c we always add, ‘He’s gonna grow up to be a mountain man’. Some people smile and nod, others say, ‘Really?’ as if we can foretell the future and others ask what a mountain man is. It’s a great conversation starter.

    If you’ll recall, we’re in the film/TV industry and JJ used to have trouble with the casting directors and even our own agent remembering his name. He wants to use Jeremiah Draper as his stage name but they call him Jeremy or Jeffrey or such. So one day when he was heading for an audtion that called for Jeremy Draper, we put in large black letters, JEREMIAH JOHNSTONE DRAPER across his head shot (the one with his resume on the back).

    …and he’s always been referred to as Jeremiah since. True story.

  13. I’m too much of a people person to have been able
    to be a mountain (wo)man! I couldn’t even be a
    mountain woman today! I am too attached to my
    microwave. I cook everything in my microwave, even turkeys. Thank goodness, I wasn’t born back in those days!!

    Pat Cochran

  14. Hi Stacey! I never knew anything about this guy before you posted. Wow, what an incredible story. And what a shame he lived such a short time, 32 years. I can really relate. I used to camp and canoe and portage in the wilderness (even the Rockies) when I was younger, but now I love the comforts of a hotel too much.

    Great post, thank you!

  15. Loved the post. I used to think that I was not living in the correct time as I love camping and wandering around in the quiet of the mountains.

  16. Hi Kate! You know, I was really suprised Jed Smith history was taught in school. For his short life, he left an incredible legacy 🙂 Our family is due for some outdoor adventures–my oldest would like to waterwater raft…hopefully next summer 🙂


  17. Wow, wonderful information on Mr. Smith. He is certainly a facinating person.

    One thing that I read which had a huge impact on my writing-life journey was Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers.

    Her characterization really helped me in developing my own characters.


  18. Hi Pamela! It’s so great when we find an author who’s writing style can give us a clearer insight on our own 🙂 I haven’t read Francine Rivers—another to add to my TBB list. Thank you for sharing 😀

  19. There’s one book in particular that had a huge impact on my life but I can’t remember the title.

    I read it in my early teens. It was a book about a young white girl child who gets captured by Indians with the time frame of first settlers early Americaif I recall.

    The part that stayed with me was that when she was first captured, she cried a lot and so of course, the Indians laughed at her. Over time, she realized that the Indians were a very stoic lot and held their emotions in – especially their tears. One of her young friends was hurt one time and kept telling himself the pain wasn’t bad and would just go away. He never shed a tear. So the little girl learned that behaviour, too.

    This was an eye-opener for me – a cry-baby. But, I so enjoyed the book and the little heroine and all the ‘stuff’ she went through, that I started to emulatate her. Then my brothers got ticked b/c they couldn’t make me cry anymore. 🙂

    But, I wish I could remember the title. It was also my first foray into the world of taking scalps.

  20. Oh, wow! My son did a report on ol’ Jedediah last year. We learned all about him. I never knew that anybody else had ever heard of him, LOL!

    As for books that had a profound effect one me, reading A Boy Called It was such a terrifying and heartbreaking experience for me. It’s one of those books that you absolutely never forget, and swear that you would do anything to prevent ever happening.

  21. I hadn’t heard of Jedediah Smith until now. Thanks for the interesting and informative blog, Stacey. How sad to think he was so young when he died. I love nature, but surely couldn’t live like a mountain man.

    Reading materials that had a profound effect on my life’s journey? I’d be hardpressed to name just one because there’s been a few that had great influence. I think the first romance I read was one my mom let me read when I was about 10 or so. It was called The Guarded Heart by Robyn Donald. That was around the same time I realized I wanted to write romance. I wanted to write stories as good as the ones I read.

    V.C. Andrews also had a powerful effect on my writing life as well. She had a flair for words and description that pulled you right into the story. She made you see, hear and smell and feel everything the characters did in a way I’d never known a writer could and I wanted to be able to write like that.

  22. What an incredible experience, Anita Mae, and how neat that you learned such a tactic from reading this character. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    ACK about the scalp taking!! I read an account about a couragous woman (can’t recall if it was in P&P or my own reading) on the pioneer trails who made the trip many times and lived in the most wild country. One of her daughters was scalped at 12-years-old but survived, though she had some brain damage — horrifying.

  23. Hi Taryn! Ya know, V.C.Andrews was the fist time I’d ever been really drawn into a series–it was my first real taste of obessive reading *LOL* I never thought about why, but you are right–she has an amazing depth of character. That was still a time when I believed all books had tragic endings *LOL* But she certainly had an impact on me as reader.

    Thanks so much for sharing!!

  24. Is it possible that Jedediah Strong Smith may have actually staged his own death. I have done some research and study of the Indian ways, and the whole matter of his death just doesn’t sit right. These are the things that make me question his death in 1831.

    1) His body was never found
    2) When he never showed back at camp the next morning, there was a search party looking for him. They could never find him. How far they went nobody knows. However, the animals could have given them a clue. Did they see birds and vultures that gave a clue to his demise or where he was located.
    3) He was supposedly killed by Comanche’s however, that is here say. Nobody knows for sure because it is what the Indians said. The Indians were known for telling tall tales. If a mountain man asked an Indian for directions, it is a known fact that the Indian would give the mountain man directions that would make him go around i circles. The Indians were also known for making tall tails and lying. In other words, they couldn’t be believed.
    4)About a month after Smith disappearance, a couple of Mexican’s tried to pawn off at a trading post items that Smith had. It would be interesting what items were pawned off. If worthless trinkets and beads attracted the Indians to trade them for furs, what kind of items would Smith have that would compel the Indians to give them to the Mexican’s without some kind of price? Why didn’t they keep the items for themselves? Mountain men didn’t go out into the wilderness with tinker toys and worthless items. Everything they had was valuable. The Indians would find value in it also. They probably wouldn’t give the items to a couple of Mexicans.
    4) The Comanche’s were vicious Indians, and they had a lot of enemies. Some of their enemies were the Apache, the Arapaho, and the Shawnee. They also were enemies of Mexican’s. The Comanche territory encompassed half of Texas, most of Arizona and New Mexico, all the way into Colorado, and else where. The Sioux were their enemy, but the Comanche were much badder. Years ago I was in a play with a full blood chippawa, and he told me that his people kicked the Sioux out of southern Wisconsin and norther Illinois. The Comanche and the Mexicans were enemies. In other words they wouldn’t be trading with one another. The Comanche’s would have killed the Mexicans.
    5) If the Comanche’s killed Smith, why didn’t they show the whites. Indians were notorious in revealing their mutilations. A classic example is Jacob Greathouse and his family. Smith was well known and the Comanche’s were superstitious. If they had killed him, they would have displayed it. They wouldn’t just bury their enemy that was proven to be a good warrior. They would have mutilated his body for all the world to see.
    I think that it is very possible that Smith went west and kept on going. That he made it to the mission in California, and maybe came back to St. Louis at a latter time. Everything about his death is very suspicious. It is all based on here say, no proof.

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