January 6

This Day in History

Old West

Jan 6, 1798:

Mountain man Jedediah Smith is born

Jedediah Strong Smith, one of America's greatest trapper-explorers, is born in Bainbridge, New York.

Smith explored a stunningly large area of the Far West during his short life. He began his western voyages in 1822, when he joined the pioneering fur trader William Ashley on a trip up the Missouri River. Unlike earlier fur traders, who depended on Native Americans to actually trap or hunt the furs, Ashley eliminated the Indians as middlemen and instead sent out independent Anglo trappers like Smith to do the job.

To escape dependence on Indians, though, Ashley needed to find his own sources of beaver and otter in the West, and Smith became one of his best explorers. A year after his first trip up the Missouri, Smith set out with a small band of mountain men to explore the Black Hills region of the Dakotas at Ashley's behest. Despite being mauled by a grizzly bear in the Black Hills, Smith continued westward to the site of modern-day Dubois, Wyoming, where he and his men camped for the winter.

During his long forced halt at Dubois, Smith learned from friendly Crow Indians of an easy pass through the Rocky Mountains. The following spring, Smith and his men followed the route outlined by the Crow and discovered that they could cross the mighty Rockies almost effortlessly. Later named the "South Pass," Smith's new route was a high plain that gradually rose like a shallow ramp to provide an easy crossing of the Continental Divide. Smith's discovery of South Pass was actually a "rediscovery," since employees of John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company crossed the pass in 1812 when returning to St. Louis from the Pacific. The Astorian discovery, though, remained unknown, so Smith is credited for alerting the nation to the existence of this easy route across the Rockies.

Smith's discovery of South Pass was monumentally important. Not only did his fellow fur trappers prefer South Pass to the far more difficult and dangerous Missouri River route blazed by Lewis and Clark in 1804, but the South Pass became an early 19th century "super-highway" for settlers bound for Oregon and California. Ideally suited for heavy wagon traffic, South Pass greatly facilitated the mass emigration of Americans to the Far West.

The blazing of the South Pass route alone would have secured Smith's claim as one of the great explorers of the American West, but during the following decade, Smith also explored the Great Salt Lake, the Colorado Plateau, and led the first expedition to cross the Southwest to California—all before he was 30 years old. Having lived through dozens of narrow escapes on his intrepid journeys, Smith decided to retire from his dangerous trade in 1830 and enter the mercantile business. Ironically, being a trader proved more deadly than exploring: while leading a trading caravan along the Santa Fe Trail in 1831, Smith was killed by Commanche Indians near the Cimarron River. He was 32 years old.

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