Year
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.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

The Battle of Tsushima Strait

During the Russo-Japanese War, the Russian Baltic Fleet is nearly destroyed at the Battle of Tsushima Strait. The decisive defeat, in which only 10 of 45 Russian warships escaped to safety, convinced Russian leaders that further resistance against Japan’s imperial designs for ...read more

Solzhenitsyn returns to Russia

Two decades after being expelled from the USSR, Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn returns to Russia in an emotional homecoming. In 1945, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years of hard labor for criticizing Stalin in a letter to a friend. His prison experiences formed the ...read more

Golden Gate Bridge opens

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, a stunning technological and artistic achievement, opens to the public after five years of construction. On opening day–“Pedestrian Day”–some 200,000 bridge walkers marveled at the 4,200-foot-long suspension bridge, which spans the Golden Gate ...read more

Golden Gate Bridge opens

On this day in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge, connecting San Francisco with Marin County, California, officially opens amid citywide celebration. Named for the narrow strait that marks the entrance to the San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge was ...read more

Bismarck sunk by Royal Navy

On May 27, 1941, the British navy sinks the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic near France. The German death toll was more than 2,000. On February 14, 1939, the 823-foot Bismarck was launched at Hamburg. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler hoped that the state-of-the-art ...read more

Sweden announces support to Viet Cong

In Sweden, Foreign Minister Torsten Nilsson reveals that Sweden has been providing assistance to the Viet Cong, including some $550,000 worth of medical supplies. Similar Swedish aid was to go to Cambodian and Laotian civilians affected by the Indochinese fighting. This support ...read more

Mark Donohue sets record at Indy 500

On May 27, 1972, Mark Donohue wins the Indianapolis 500 with an average speed of 163.645 miles an hour, six miles an hour faster than the previous speed record. Mark Donohue, born and raised in Summit, New Jersey, caught the hot-rod bug as a teenager in the 1950s. “The hot-rod ...read more

Tornado levels Texas subdivision

A tornado in Jarrell, Texas, destroys the town and kills nearly 30 people on this day in 1997. This F5 tornado—a rating indicating it had winds of more than 260 miles per hour–was unusual in that it traveled south along the ground; nearly all tornadoes in North America move ...read more

Murder suspect spends third day perched on crane

May 27, 2005, was the third day that Carl Edward Roland, 41, wanted by police in connection with the murder of his ex-girlfriend Jennifer Gonzalez, spent perched on a crane 18 stories above Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood. Police in Pinellas County, Florida, discovered the badly ...read more

SALT agreements signed

Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev and U.S. President Richard Nixon, meeting in Moscow, sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreements. At the time, these agreements were the most far-reaching attempts to control nuclear weapons ever. Nixon and Brezhnev seemed unlikely ...read more