Some people just live large. Jedediah Smith was one of those people.
He had three ambitions which were to:
Serve his God
Provide for his family, and
Become a great American Explorer
He succeeded at all three and much more. He lived large. He changed Oregon.
You might wonder how a person, who lived back in the 1800’s, might have impacted our lives today. Let me tell you a short story about Jedediah Smith.
Oregon didn’t achieve Statehood until 1859, and we might not have if it wasn’t for explorers like Jedediah Smith. Smith was one of the first, and maybe the most important, trapper/explorer back in the 1820s.
Hearing the stories
He was born in 1799 and at 13 worked as a clerk on a Lake Erie freighter learning the basics of business. Smith undoubtedly had heard the tall tales the trappers brought back from their trips.
Jedediah most likely did what every normal 13-year-old would do… hang on every word and develop an intense interest in wilderness trade and nature. This interest was kindled even further by friend of the family Dr. Titus G. V. Simons, a pioneer medical doctor.
According to legend, Dr. Simons gave Smith a copy of Lewis and Clark’s journal from their 1804-1806 expedition to the Pacific. Smith carried this journal throughout his travels to the American west.
The Lewis and Clark journal demonstrated what Smith needed to do to be a successful explorer. He needed to report what he saw, draw maps, write letters, and create a journal of his own.
As it turns out, Smith’s journals, maps, and letters were key to kindling interest in the new Oregon Country. A place few Caucasians had ever traveled to, that almost fell into the hands of the British.
The Treaty of 1818 allowed joint occupation of the Oregon Country between Britain and the United States. The region was dominated by the British’s Hudson Bay Company (HBC) at Ft. Vancouver on the Columbia River.
At this time, the British Chief Factor at HBC was responsible for one-quarter of the North American continent. Smith and company represented the American contingency.
From 1823 to 1828, Smith traveled extensively between South Pass in Wyoming to the Oregon Country, and twice south into Mexican California and back.
There was a lot of unrest on the west coast and conflicts between explorers, British and American, and Native Americans in 1826. Smith noted that beaver were becoming scarce in the region.
The 1828 trip from California to Oregon was fraught with escalating mistrust and violence between the explorers and Native Americans. Coastal tribes closely monitored the arrival of all newcomers to their region and were very wary of visitors. Violence was common.
The Umpqua Massacre
The story goes that Smith and company camped on the Umpqua River. Smith and three others left camp to scout the trail north.
A scuffle began when one of the Natives stole an axe from the Smith camp. Some of Smith’s party treated the Umpqua very harshly to get the axe back.
The violence erupted in the early morning of July 13. Coquille (Na-so-mah) tribesmen murdered the remaining 15 members of Smith’s group, and stole furs, horses, and gear.
Smith learned of the massacre and headed north to the HBC in Fort Vancouver for shelter and respite. In the fall, he mounted a rescue mission and was able to bury the dead, and recover 700 beaver skins, 39 horses, and journals.
In gratitude, Smith presented the HBC with a copy of his master map of the west which he had created over the years. (NOTE: This map was rediscovered in 1953 and subsequently published a year later.)
Smith was well connected and authored many letters describing his travels and observations. In 1830, Smith wrote then Secretary of War John Eaton of his concerns that the British were alienating the indigenous people against the Americans. He also felt that the British were attempting to establish a permanent settlement in the Oregon Country.
The last trip
Smith returned to St. Louis with hopes of drafting detailed maps and going into the mercantile business. That goal was not to be. An associate convinced him to take a load of supplies to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The company did not take adequate water supplies from St. Louis and was not able to find water along the way. Scouts were sent out in search of water each day.
Smith was scouting for water on May 27, 1831 when he was killed by a Comanche hunting party. He was 32 years old.
The story is not over
In 1836, President Andrew Jackson launched a Federally funded expedition. The expeditions goals were to explore the Pacific Northwest and lay claim on the Oregon Country previously explored by Smith.
This is not a story about how a brave explorer survived three massacres and a horrific grizzly bear attack or of how he explored and mapped much of the Rocky Mountains, American Southwest, American West Coast, or discovered the first east-west crossing of the Great Basin Desert. It is about the key role that Smith played in the development of Oregon as a State.
Without his work documenting and mapping Oregon we all might be drinking British tea right now. Would Oregon have become a State without the fur trade and emigration routes? Would there have been an Oregon Trail without Smith’s work describing the South Pass?
Tipping the balance of power
Jedediah Smith almost singularly tipped the balance of power to the United States leading to the permanent settlement of the Pacific Northwest and later to Oregon’s statehood.
His was not an easy life. It was harsh and full of danger, challenges, and wonder.
Fortunate for us, it was large.
–Oregon Encyclopedia (https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/smith_jedediah/#.X06bDO-SmUk)
–Wikipedia, Jedediah Smith (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jedediah_Smith)