Year
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.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Theodore Roosevelt dies

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, dies at Sagamore Hill, his estate overlooking New York’s Long Island Sound.A dynamic and energetic politician, Theodore Roosevelt is credited with creating the modern presidency. As a young Republican, Roosevelt held a ...read more

Nurmi breaks two world records

On January 6, 1925, Finnish long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi steps up to the starting line in New York’s Madison Square Garden in his first U.S. appearance. Anticipation for the moment had been building steadily since Nurmi’s arrival in America four weeks before, and it was ...read more

New Mexico joins the Union

On January 6, 1912, New Mexico is admitted into the United States as the 47th state.Spanish explorers passed through the area that would become New Mexico in the early 16th century, encountering the well-preserved remains of a 13th-century Pueblo civilization. Exaggerated rumors ...read more

Harold II crowned king of England

Following the death of Edward the Confessor, Harold Godwineson, head of the most powerful noble family in England, is crowned King Harold II. On his deathbed, Edward supposedly designated Harold the royal heir, but this claim was disputed by William, duke of Normandy and cousin ...read more

Morse demonstrates telegraph

On this day in 1838, Samuel Morse’s telegraph system is demonstrated for the first time at the Speedwell Iron Works in Morristown, New Jersey. The telegraph, a device which used electric impulses to transmit encoded messages over a wire, would eventually revolutionize ...read more

Phuoc Binh falls to the North Vietnamese

Phuoc Binh, the capital of Phuoc Long Province, about 60 miles north of Saigon, falls to the North Vietnamese. Phuoc Binh was the first provincial capital taken by the communists since the fall of Quang Tri on May 1, 1972.Two days later, the North Vietnamese took the last of the ...read more

Army drops charges of My Lai cover-up

The Army drops charges of an alleged cover-up in the My Lai massacre against four officers. After the charges were dropped, a total of 11 people had been cleared of responsibility during the My Lai trials.The trials were a result of action that occurred in March 1968. During the ...read more

Nancy Kerrigan attacked

The figure skater Nancy Kerrigan is attacked after a practice session at Cobo Hall in Detroit on January 6, 1994, just one day before the U.S. National Championships and one month before the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, in which Kerrigan was a gold medal favorite.As ...read more

Blizzard of 1996 begins

On this day in 1996, snow begins falling in Washington, D.C., and up the Eastern seaboard, beginning a blizzard that kills 154 people and causes over $1 billion in damages before it ends.The Blizzard of 1996 began in typical fashion, as cold air from Canada pushed down and ...read more

Skater Nancy Kerrigan attacked

Olympic hopeful Nancy Kerrigan is attacked at a Detroit ice rink following a practice session two days before the Olympic trials. A man hit Kerrigan with a club on the back of her knee, causing the figure skater to cry out in pain and bewilderment. When the full story emerged a ...read more

Soviet Union announces troop reduction

The Soviet Union announces plans to cut the size of its standing army by 300,000 troops in the coming year. The reduction was part of a 1956 policy announced by Krushchev in anticipation of “peaceful coexistence” with the West, and an indication that Cold War relations between ...read more

Confederate General John Calvin Brown born

On this day in 1827, Confederate General John Calvin Brown is born in Giles County, Tennessee. Brown served in the Army of Tennessee during the Civil War, was wounded three times, and captured once.Brown was a prominent attorney in Pulaski, Tennessee, prior to the war. He opposed ...read more