May 27

This Day in History

Old West

May 27, 1831:

Commanche kill mountain man Jedediah Smith

Jedediah Smith, one of the nation's most important trapper-explorers, is killed by Commanche Indians on the Santa Fe Trail.

Smith's role in opening up the Far West was not fully appreciated until modern scholars examined the records of his far-ranging journeys. As with all of the mountain men, Smith ventured west as a practical businessman working for eastern fur companies. His goal was to find new territories to trap beaver and otter and make trading contacts with Native Americans.

Nonetheless, beginning in 1822 when he made his first expedition with the fur trader William Ashley, Smith's travels provided information on western geography and potential trails that were invaluable to later pioneers. Smith's most important accomplishment was his rediscovery in 1824 of the South Pass, an easy route across the Rocky Mountains in modern-day western Wyoming. The first Anglo-Americans to cross the pass were fur traders returning east from a Pacific Coast trading post in 1812, yet the news of their discovery was never publicized. Smith, by contrast, established the South Pass as a well-known and heavily traveled route for fur trappers. A few decades later, it became a part of the Oregon Trail and greatly reduced the obstacles faced by wagon trains heading to Oregon and California.

During the next seven years, Smith filled in many other blank spots on the map of the Far West. Despite having opened many new territories for future pioneers, Smith had little to show for his years of dangerous efforts. In 1830, he returned to St. Louis, determined to go into the mercantile business and draft detailed maps of the country he had explored. Before he could get started, however, an associate convinced him to take a supply of goods to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

With a party of 83 men, Smith left St. Louis in early 1831 and headed south along the Cimarron River, a region known to be nearly devoid of potable water. Despite his years of wilderness experience, Smith was apparently overconfident in his ability to find water and did not take adequate supplies from St. Louis. By mid-May, the party's water supplies were almost exhausted, and the men started separating each day to search for waterholes.

On this day in 1831, Smith was riding alone when a hunting party of Commanche Indians attacked him. Dazed and weakened by lack of water, Smith nonetheless managed to shoot one of the Commanche before he was overwhelmed and killed.

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