The Man Who Dared to Cross the Ranges

Jedediah Smith


As we ride westward across the mountain ranges to the Pacific with all the ease and luxury a twentieth-century limited train affords, few of us can imagine that those very ranges, now tunneled and spanned, once constituted barriers that the Spaniards in California never dreamed would be passed by trappers, prospectors, or settlers from the United States. This is the story of one of the first who dared to do that seemingly impossible thing —who risked the anger of the Spanish authorities in California, and on his return found the pass and blazed the trail across the Sierras, which later became the overland route to California.

About the word frontiersman, there is a pretty air of romance. The very mention of it conjures up a vision of lean, sinewy, brown-faced men, in fur caps and moccasins and fringed buckskin, slipping through virgin forests or pushing across sun-scorched prairies—advance guards of civilization. Hardy, resolute, taciturn figures, they have passed silently across the pages of our history and we shall see their kind no more. To them we owe a debt that we can never repay—nor, indeed, have we even publicly acknowledged it. We followed by the trails which they had blazed for us; we built our towns in those rich valleys and pastured our herds on those fertile hillsides which theirs were the first white men’s eyes to see.

The American frontiersman was never a self-seeker. His discoveries he left as a heritage to those who followed him. In almost every case he died poor and, more often than not, with his boots on. David Livingstone and Henry M. Stanley, the two Englishmen who did more than any other men for the opening up of Africa, lie in Westminster Abbey, and thousands of their countrymen each year stand reverently beside their tombs. To Cecil Rhodes, another Anglo-African pioneer, a great national memorial has been erected on the slopes of Table Mountain. Far, far greater parts in the conquest of a wilderness, the winning of a continent, were played by Daniel Boone, James Bowie, Kit Carson, Davy Crockett; yet how many of those who today enjoy the fruits of the perils they faced, the hardships they endured, know much more of them than as characters in dime novels, can tell where they are buried, can point to any statues of monuments which have been erected to their memories?

There are nearly three million people in the State of California, and most of them boast of it as “God’s own country.” They have more State pride than any people that I know, yet I would be willing to wager almost anything you please that you can pick a hundred native sons of California, and put to each of them the question, “Who was Jedediah Smith ?” and not one of them would be able to answer it correctly. The public parks of San Francisco and Los Angeles and San Diego and Sacra mento have innumerable statues of one kind and another, but you will find none of this man with the stern old Puritan name; they are starting a hall of fame in California, but no one has proposed Jedediah Smith as deserving a place in it. Yet to him, perhaps more than to any other man, is due to the fact that California is Ameri can; he was the greatest of the pathfinders; he was the real founder of the Overland Trail; he was the man who led the way across the ranges. Had it not been for the trail he blazed and the thousands who followed in his footsteps the Sierra Nevada might still mark the line of our frontier.

The westward advance of the population which took place during the first quarter of the nineteenth century far exceeded the limits of any of the great migrations of mankind upon the older continents. The story of the American onset to the beckoning West is one of the wonder-tales of history. Over the natural waterway of the great northern lakes, down the road to Pittsburg, along the trail which skirted the Potomac, and then down the Ohio, over the passes of the Cumberland into Tennessee, round the end of the Alleghanies into the Gulf States, up the Missouri, and so across the Rockies to the headwaters of the Columbia, or southwestward from St. Louis to the Spanish settlements of Santa Fe, the hardy pioneers poured in an ever-increasing stream, carrying with them little but ax, spade, and rifle, some scanty household effects, a small store of provisions, a liberal supply of ammunition, and unlimited faith, courage, and enterprise.

During that brief period, the people of the United States extended their occupation over the whole of that vast region lying between the Alleghanies and the Rockies—a territory larger than all of Europe, without Russia—annexed it from the wilderness, conquered, subdued, improved, cultivated, civilized it, and all without one jot of governmental assistance. Throughout these years, as the frontiersmen pressed into the West, they continued to fret and strain against the Spanish boundaries. The Spanish authorities, and after them the Mexican, soon became seriously alarmed at this silent but resistless American advance, and from the City of Mexico orders went out to the provincial governors that Americans venturing within their jurisdiction should be treated, whenever an excuse offered, with the utmost severity. But, notwithstanding the menace of Mexican prisons, of Indian tortures, of savage animals, of thirst and starvation in the wilderness, the pioneers pushed westward and ever westward, until at last their further progress was abruptly halted by the great range of the Sierra Nevada, snow-crested, and presumably impassable, which rose like a titanic wall before them, barring their farther march.

It was at about the time of this halt in our westward progress that Captain Jedediah Smith came riding onto the scene. You must picture him as a gaunt-faced, lean-flanked, wiry man, with nerves of iron, sinews of rawhide, a skin-like oak-tanned leather, and quick on his feet as a catamount. He was bearded to the ears, of course, for razors formed no part of the scanty equipment of the frontiersman, and above the beard shone a pair of very keen, bright eyes, with the concentrated wrinkles about their corners that come of much staring across sun-swept spaces. He was sparing of his words, as are most men who dwell in the great solitudes, and, like them, he was, in an unorthodox way, devout, his stern and rugged features as well as his uncompromising scriptural name betraying the grim old Puritan stock from which he sprang. His hair was long and black and would have covered his shoulders had it not been tied at the back of the neck by a leather thong. His dress was that of the Indian adapted to meet the requirements of the adventuring white man: a hunting-shirt and trousers of fringed buckskin, embroidered moccasins of elk hide, and a cap made from the glossy skin of a beaver, with the tail hanging down behind.

On hot desert marches, and in camp, he took off the beaver-skin cap and twisted about his head a bright bandanna, which, when taken with his gaunt, unshaven face, made him look uncommonly like a pirate. These garments were by no means fresh and gaudy, like those affected by the near-frontiersmen you see on motion picture screens; instead, they were very soiled and much worn and greasy and gave evidence of having done twenty-four hours’ duty a day for many months at a stretch. Hanging on his chest was a capacious powder-horn, and in his belt was a long, straight knife, very broad and heavy in the blade—a first cousin of that deadly weapon to which James Bowie was in after years to give his name; in addition, he carried a rifle, with an altogether extraordinary length of the barrel, which brought death to any living thing within a thousand yards on which its foresight rested. His mount was a plains-bred pony, as wiry and unkempt and enduring as himself. Everything considered, Smith could have been no gentle-looking figure, and I rather imagine that, if he were alive and ventured into a Western town today, he would probably be arrested by the local constable as an undesirable character. I have now sketched for you, in brief, bold outline, as good a likeness of Smith as I am able with the somewhat scanty materials at hand, for he lived and did his pioneering in the days when frontiersmen were as common as traffic policemen are now, added to which the men who were familiar with his exploits were of a sort more ready with their pistols than with their pens.

The dates of Smith’s birth and death are not vital to this story, and perhaps it is just as well that they are not, for I can find no record of when he came into the world, and only the Indian warrior who wore his scalp lock at his waist could have told the exact date on which he went out of it. It is enough to know that, as the nineteenth century was passing the quarter mark, Smith was the head of a firm of fur-traders, Smith, Jackson & Sublette, which had obtained from President John Quincy Adams permission to hunt and trade to the heart’s content in the region lying beyond the Rocky Mountains. It would have been much more to the point to have obtained the permission of the Mexican governor-general of the Californias, or of the great chief of the Comanches, for they held practically all of the territory in question between them.

Those were the days whose like we shall never know again, when the streams were alive with beaver, when there were more elk and antelope on the prairies than there are cattle now, and when the noise made by the moving buffalo herds sounded like the roll of distant thunder. They were the days when a fortune, as fortunes were then reckoned, awaited the man with a sure eye, a body inured to hardships, and unlimited ammunition. What the founder of the Astor fortune was doing in the Puget Sound country, Smith and his companions purposed to do beyond the Rockies; and, with this end in view, established their base camp on the eastern shores of the Great Salt Lake, not far from where Ogden now stands. This little band of pioneers formed the westernmost outpost of American civilization, for between them and the nearest settlement, at the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, stretched thirteen hundred miles of savage wilderness. Livingstone, on his greatest journey, did not penetrate half as far into unknown Africa as Smith did into unknown America, and while the English explorer was at the head of a large and well-equipped expedition, the American was accompanied by a mere handful of men.

In August 1826, Smith and a small party of his hunters found themselves in the terrible Painted Desert, that God-forsaken expanse of sand and lava where the present states of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada meet. Water, there was none, for the streams had run dry, and the horses and pack-mules were dying of thirst and exhaustion; the game had entirely disappeared; the supplies were all but finished—and five hundred miles of the most inhospitable country in the world lay between them and their camp on the Great Salt Lake. The situation was perilous, indeed, and a decision had to be made quickly if any of them were to get out alive.

“What few supplies we have left will be used up before we get a quarter way back to the camp,” said Smith. “Our only chance—and I might as well tell you it’s a mighty slim one, boys—is in pushing on to California.” “But California’s a good four hundred miles away,” expostulated his companions, “and the Sierras He between, and no one has ever crossed them.”

“Then I’ll be the first man to do it,” said Smith. “Besides, I’ve always had a hankering to learn what lies on the other side of those ranges. Now’s my chance to find out.”

” I reckon there ain’t much chance of our ever seeing Salt Lake or California either,” grumbled one of the hunters, “and even if we do reach the coast the Mexicans’ll clap us into prison.” “Well, so fur’s I’m concerned,” said Smith decisively, “I’d rather be alive and in a Greaser prison than to be dead in the desert. I’m going to California or die on the way.” History chronicles few such marches. Westward pressed the little troop of pioneers, across the sun-baked lava-beds of southwestern Utah, over the arid deserts and the barren ranges of southern Nevada, and so to the foot-hills of that great Sierran range which rears itself ten thousand feet skyward, forming a barrier which had theretofore separated the fertile lands of the Pacific slope from the rest of the continent more effectually than an ocean. The lava-beds gave way to sand wastes dotted with clumps of sage-brush and cactus, and the cactus changed to stunted pines, and the pines ran out in rocks, and the rocks became covered with snow, and still, Smith and his hunters struggled on, emaciated, tattered, almost barefooted, lamed by the cactus spines on the desert, and the stones on the mountain slopes, until at last, they stood upon the very summit of the range and, like that other band of pioneers in an earlier age, looked down on the promised land after their wanderings in the wilderness. No explorer in the history of the world, not Columbus, nor Pizarro, nor Champlain, nor De Soto, ever gazed upon land so fertile and so full of beauty. The mysterious, the jealously guarded, the storied land of California lay spread before them like a map in bas-relief. Then the descent of the western slope began, the transition from snow-clad mountain peaks to hillsides clothed with subtropical vegetation amazing the Americans by its suddenness. Imagine how like a dream come true it must have been to these men, whose lives had been spent in the less kindly climate and amid the comparatively scanty vegetation of the Middle West, to suddenly find themselves in this fairyland of fruit and flowers!

“It is, indeed, a white man’s country,” said Smith prophetically, as, leaning on his long rifle, he gazed upon the wonderful panorama which unrolled itself before him. “Though it is Mexican just now, sooner or later it must and shall be ours.”

Heartened by the sight of this wonderful new country, and by the knowledge that they must be approaching some of the Mexican settlements, but with bodies sadly weakened from exposure, hunger, and exhaustion, the Americans slowly made their way down the slope, crossed those fertile lowlands which are now covered with groves of orange and lemon, and so, guided by some friendly Indians whom they met, came at last to the mission station of San Gabriel, one of that remarkable chain of outposts of the church founded by the indefatigable Franciscan, Father Junipero Serra. The little company of worn and weary men sighted the red-tiled roof of the mission just at sunset.

I doubt if there was a more astonished community between the -oceans than was the monastic one of San Gabriel when this band of ragged strangers suddenly appeared from nowhere and asked for food and shelter. “You come from the South—from Mexico?” queried the father superior, staring, half-awed, at these gaunt, fierce-faced, bearded men who spoke in a strange tongue.

“No, padre,” answered Smith, calling to his aid the broken Spanish he had picked up in his trading expeditions to Santa Fe, “we come from the East, from the country beyond the great mountains, from the United States. We are Americans,” he added a little proudly.

“They say they come from the East,” the brown-robed monks whispered to each other. “It is impossible. No one has ever come from that direction. Have not the Indians told us many times that there is no food, no water in that direction, and that, moreover, there is no way to cross the mountains? It is, indeed, a strange and incredible tale that these men tell. But we will offer them our hospitality in the name of the blessed St. Francis, for that we withhold from no man; but it is the part of wisdom to despatch a messenger to San Diego to acquaint the governor of their coming, for it may well be that they mean no good to the people of this land.”

Had the good monks been able to look forward a few score years, perhaps they would not have been so ready to offer Smith and his companions the shelter of the mission roof. But how were they to know that these ragged strangers, begging for food at their mission door, were the skirmishers for a mighty host which would one day pour over those mountain ranges to the eastward as the water pours over the falls at Niagara; that within rifle-shot of where their mission stood a city of a million souls would spread itself across the hills; that down the dusty Camino Real, which the founder of their mission had trudged so often in his sandals and woolen robe, would whirl strange horseless, panting vehicles, putting a mile a minute behind their flying wheels; that twin lines of steel would bring their southernmost station at San Diego within twenty hours, instead of twenty days, of their northernmost outpost at Sonoma; and that over this new land would fly, not the red-white-and-green standard of Mexico, but an alien banner of stripes and stars?

The four years which intervened between the collapse of Spanish rule in Mexico and the arrival of Jedediah Smith at San Gabriel were marked by political chaos in the Californias. When a governor of Alta California rose in the morning he did not know whether he was the representative of an emperor, a king, a president, or a dictator. As a result of these perennial disorders, the Mexican officials ascribed sinister motives to the most innocent episodes. No sooner, therefore, did Governor Echeandia learn of the arrival in his province of a mysterious party of Americans than he ordered them brought under escort to San Diego for examination. Though those present probably did not appreciate it, the meeting of Smith and Echeandia in the palace at San Diego was a peculiarly significant one.

There sat at his ease in his great chair of state the saturnine Mexican governor, arrogant and haughty, ruffled and gold-laced, his high-crowned sombrero and his velvet jacket heavy with bullion, while in front of him stood the American frontiersman, gaunt, unshaven, and ragged, but as cool and self-possessed as though he was at the head of a conquering army instead of a forlorn hope. The one was as truly the representative of passing as the other was of a coming race. Small wonder that Echeandia, as he observed the hardy figures and determined faces of the Americans, thought to himself how small would be Mexico’s chance of holding California if others of their countrymen began to follow in their footsteps.

He and his officials cross-examined Smith as closely as though the frontiersman was a prisoner on trial for his life, as, in a sense, he was, for almost any fate might befall him and his companions in that remote corner of the continent without anyone being called to account for it. Smith described the series of misfortunes that had led him to cross the ranges; he asserted that he desired nothing so much as to get back into American territory again, and he earnestly begged the governor to provide him with the necessary provisions and permit him to depart. His story was so frank and plausible that Echeandia, with characteristic Spanish suspicion, promptly disbelieved every word of it, for why he argued, should any sane man make so hazardous a journey unless he were a spy and well paid to risk his life? For even in those early days, remember, the Mexicans had begun to fear the ambitions of the young republic to the eastward. So, despite their protests, he ordered the Americans to be imprisoned—and no one knew better than they did that, once, within the walls of a Mexican prison, there was small chance of their seeing the outside world again. Fortunately for the explorers, however, it so happened that there were three American trading-schooners lying in San Diego harbor at the time, and their captains, determined to see the rights of their fellow countrymen respected, joined in a vigorous and energetic protest to the governor against this high handed and unjustified action. This seems to have frightened Echeandia, for he reluctantly gave orders for the release of Smith and his companions, but ordered them to leave the country at once, and by the same route by which they had come.

When the year 1827 was but a few days old, therefore, the Americans turned their faces northward, but instead of retracing their steps in accordance with Echeandia’s orders, they crossed the coast range, probably through the Tejon Pass, and kept on through the fertile region now known as the San Joaquin Valley, in the hope that by crossing the Sierra farther to the northward they would escape the terrible rigors of the Colorado desert. When some three hundred miles north of San Gabriel they attempted to recross the ranges, but a feat that had been hazardous in midsummer was impossible in midwinter, and the entire expedition nearly perished in the attempt. Several of the men and all the horses died of cold and hunger, and it was only by incredible exertions that Smith and his few remaining companions, terribly frozen and totally exhausted, managed to reach the Santa Clara Valley and Mission San Jose.

So slow was their progress that the news of their approach preceded them and caused considerable disquietude to the monks. Learning from the Indians that he and his followers were objects of suspicion, Smith sent a letter to the father superior, in which he gave an account of his arrival at San Gabriel, of his interview with the governor, of his disaster in the Sierras, and of his present pitiable condition. “I am a long way from home,” this pathetic missive concludes, “and am anxious to get there as soon as the nature of the case will permit. Our situation is quite unpleasant, being destitute of clothing and most of the necessaries of life, wild meat being our principal subsistence. I am, reverend father, your strange but real friend and Christian brother, Jedediah Smith.” As a result of this appeal, the hospitality of the mission was somewhat grudgingly extended to the Americans, who were by this time in the most desperate condition.

Hardships that would kill ordinary men were but unpleasant incidents in the lives of the pioneers, however, and in a few weeks they were as fit as ever to resume their journey. But, upon thinking the matter over, Smith decided that he would never be content if he went back without having found out what lay still farther to the northward, for in him was the insatiable curiosity and the indomitable spirit of the born explorer. But as his force, as well as his resources, had become sadly depleted, he felt it imperative that he should first return to Salt Lake and bring on the men, horses, and provisions he had left there. Accordingly, leaving most of his party in camp at San Jose, he set out with only two companions, recrossed the Sierra at one of its highest points (the place he crossed is where the railway comes through today), and after several uncomfortably narrow escapes from landslides and from Indians, eventually reached the camp on the Great Salt Lake, where he found that his people had long since given him and his companions up for dead.

Breaking camp on a July morning, in 1827, Smith, with eighteen men and two women, turned his face once more toward California. To avoid the snows of the high Sierras, he chose the route he had taken on his first journey, reaching the desert country to the north of the Colorado River in early August. It was not until the party had penetrated too far into the desert to retreat that they found that the whole country was burnt up. For several days they pushed on in the hope of finding water. Across the yellow sand wastes, they would sight the sparkle of a crystal lake and would hasten toward it as fast as their jaded animals could carry them, only to find that it was a mirage.

Then the horrors preliminary to death by thirst began: the animals, their blackened tongues protruding from their mouths, staggered and fell, and rose no more; the women grew delirious and babbled incoherent nothings; even the hardiest of the men stumbled as they marched, or tried to frighten away by shouts and gestures the fantastic shapes which danced before them. At last, there came a morning when they could go no farther. Such of them as still retained their faculties felt that it was the end—that is, all but Jedediah Smith. He was of the breed which does not know the meaning of defeat because they are never defeated until they are dead. Loading himself with the empty water bottles, he set out alone into the desert, determined to follow one of the numerous buffalo trails, for he knew that sooner or later it must lead him to the water of some sort, even if to nothing more than a buffalo-wallow.

Racked with the fever of thirst, his legs shaking from exhaustion, he plodded on, under the pitiless sun, mile after mile, hour after hour, until, struggling to the summit of a low divide, he saw the channel of a stream in the valley beneath him. The expedition was saved. Stumbling and sliding down the slope in his haste to quench his intolerable thirst, he came to a sudden halt on the riverbank. It was nothing but an empty watercourse into which he was staring—the river had run dry! The shock of such a disappointment would have driven most men mad. Only for a moment, however, was the veteran frontiersman staggered; he knew the character of many streams in the West—that often their waters run underground a few feet below the surface, and in a moment he was on his knees digging frantically in the soft sand. Soon the sand began to grow moist, and then the coveted water slowly began to filter upward into the little excavation he had hollowed.

Throwing himself flat on the ground, he buried his burning face in the muddy water—and as he did so a shower of arrows whistled about him. A war party of Comanches, unobserved, had followed and surrounded him. He had but exchanged the danger of death by thirst for the even more dreadful fate of death by torture. Though struck by several of the arrows, he held the Indians off until he had filled his water-bottles; then, retreating slowly, taking advantage of every particle of cover, as only a veteran plainsman can, blazing away with his unerring rifle whenever an Indian was incautious enough to show himself, Smith succeeded in getting back to his companions with the precious water. With their dead animals for breastworks, the pioneers succeeded in holding the Indians at bay for six-and-thirty hours, but on the second night the redskins, heavily reinforced, rushed them in the night, ten of the men and the two women being killed in the hand-to-hand fight which ensued, and the few horses which remained alive being stampeded. I rather imagine that the women were shot by their own husbands, for the women of the frontier always preferred death to capture by these fiends in paint and feathers.

How Smith, calling to his assistance all his craft and experience as a plainsman, managed to lead his eight surviving companions through the encircling Indians by night, and how, wounded, horseless, and provisionless as they were, he succeeded in guiding them across the ranges to  San Bernardino , is but another example of this forgotten hero’s courage and resource. Having lost everything that he possessed, for the whole of his scanty savings, had been invested in the ill-fated expedition, Smith, with such of his men as were strong enough to accompany him, set out to rejoin the party he had left some months previously at Mission San Jose. Scarcely had he set foot within that settlement, however, before he was arrested and taken under escort to Monterey, where he was led before the governor, who, he found to his surprise and dismay, was no other than his old enemy of San Diego, Don Jose Echeandia.

This time nothing would convince Echeandia that Smith was not the leader of an expedition that had territorial designs on California, and he promptly ordered him to be taken to prison and kept in solitary confinement as a dangerous conspirator. Thereupon Smith resorted to the same expedient he had used so successfully and begged the captains of the American vessels in the harbor of Monterey for protection. So forcible were their representations that Echeandia finally agreed to release Smith on his swearing to leave California for good and all.

To this proposal Smith willingly agreed and took the oath required of him, but, upon being released from prison, was astounded to learn that the governor had given orders that he must set out alone—that his hunters would not be permitted to accompany him. His and their protestations were disregarded. Smith must start at once and unaccompanied. He was given a horse and saddle, provisions, blankets, a rifle—and nothing more. It was a sentence of death that Echeandia had pronounced on this American frontiersman, and both he and Smith knew it. Without having committed any crime—unless it was a crime to be an American—Jedediah Smith was driven out of the territory of a supposedly friendly nation and told that he was at perfect liberty to make his way across two thousand miles of wilderness to the nearest American outpost—if he could.

Striking back into that range of the Sierras which lies southeast of Fresno, Smith succeeded in crossing them for the fourth time, evidently intending to make his way back to his old stamping-ground on the Great Salt Lake. Our knowledge of what occurred after he had crossed the ranges for the last time is confined to tales told to the settlers in later years by the Indians. While emerging from the terrible Death Valley, where hundreds of emigrants were to lose their lives during the rush to the goldfields a quarter of a century later, he was attacked at a water-hole by a band of Indians.

For many years afterward the Comanches were wont to tell with admiration how this lone paleface, coming from out of the setting sun, had knelt behind his dead horse and held them off with his deadly rifle all through one scorching summer’s day. But when nightfall came they crept up silently under cover of the darkness and rushed him. His scalp was highly valued, for it had cost the lives of twelve Comanche braves.

But Jedediah Smith did not die in vain. Tales of the rich and virgin country which he had found beyond the ranges flew as though with wings across the land; soon other pioneers made their way over the mountains by the trails which he had blazed; long wagon- trains crawled westward by the routes which he had taken; strange bands of horsemen pitched their tents in the valleys where he had camped. The mission bells grew silent; the monk in his woolen robe and the caballero in his gold-laced jacket passed away; settlements of hardy, energetic, nasal-voiced folk from beyond the Sierras sprang up everywhere. Then one day a new flag floated over the presidio in Monterey—a flag that was not to be pulled down. The American republic had reached the western ocean and thus was fulfilled the dream of Jedediah Smith, the man who showed the way.