Recently, we’ve discussed two Spanish explorers who discovered routes into California. Today we’ll jump forward a few decades on the timeline to find an American who crossed into California from the east…and created a quandary for Mexican government ruling California at the time.
Adventures of a Fur Trapper
In 1822, a tall, twenty-three year old young man signed for hard-work, adventure, and profit by joining “Ashley’s Hundred”, a group of fur trappers hired by General Ashley to expand the beaver fur trade. The young man – Jedidiah Smith – came from a large family, and had already been working for ten years to help support his parents and young siblings. Legend claims Smith had been fascinated by the Great American West every since he read about the journeys of Lewis and Clark (1804-1806).
Fur Trappers roamed the west, usually along the rivers, searching to make a fortune for themselves or their employers by collecting the pelts of beavers. Beaver fur was used in early 19th Century fashion, particularly in making men’s hats.
Along the fur trapping routes and discovery of new rivers and trapping grounds, Jedidiah Smith encountered many dangers, including an attack by a grizzly bear and massacres by hostile native tribes. After a few years, Smith was invited to become a partner in the fur trapping company. He accepted, and the mountain men were pleased to accept his leadership skills. Smith was respected among his peers, but he was not the typical mountain man; he was religious, courteous in manners, didn’t drink alcohol, and chose not to swear.
Searching for new beaver trapping grounds and a better way to ship the pelts to the east via Pacific trade ships, Jedidiah Smith and a group of mountain started west. Like other explorers before them, they hoped to find the mythical river passage way out of the mountains and to the sea.
Having previously searching the area around the Great Salt Lake (Utah), Smith headed south, still on the look-out for his big river. But, he found a desert. Traveling through southern Utah and Nevada, the group eventually arrived near modern day Needles, California. They crossed the Mojave Desert, entered the San Bernandino Valley, and sought lodging a Mission San Gabriel on November 27, 1826.
In December, the Mexican governor of California summoned Smith to his residence in San Diego. Suspicious that Smith and his men were American spies, the governor kept Smith for about two weeks; an American sea captain helped persuade the governor that the trappers were only trappers/explorers, not spies.
The governor gave Smith permission to leave the way he had come (through the deserts) and…please don’t come back. Once out of sight of the mission and settlements, Smith and his group headed north, through the Central Valley, and searching for a way to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Eventually, Smith took two men and decided to search for a pass through the mountains and northern desert and go for supplies and more trappers. He promised the rest of the group that he would come back and in the meantime they could do some trapping in the area.
The American “Problem”
And so, in 1827, Smith again came to California, across the deserts to San Gabriel Mission. Again, the governor questioned him, but let him go to travel north and reunite with his men. They visited several California towns, spent several months trapping in the Sacramento River area, and then headed north to the Columbia River in Oregon. (Smith became very wealthy through his fur trading company, but exploration still intrigued him; while exploring the American southwest and leading a wagon train to Mexico, he was surprised and killed by Comanche warriors in 1831.)
Smith and his group of trappers were the first known Americans to cross into California on an overland route. However, the some of the Californios and Mexican governors (California was now a province of Mexico) were concerned about the Americas poking around the territory. American merchant ships and other seafarers visited the California coast, trading, and…maybe…spying.
The United States was beginning its westward expansion and the people of California were not certain if they wanted a bunch of ambitious Americans scouting the beautiful land. They might get ideas…you know, that the United States should be from sea to shining sea.
However, there wasn’t much the Mexican governors could do. The American merchants, trappers, and tradesmen would come, and they did boost the economy and import luxury items. But still…it was a problem…
There’s A Road Named After Him Because…?
- Jedidiah Smith was the leader of the first American exploration group to arrive in California via an overland route.
- His exploration and mapmaking helped to introduce California to Americans in the east and prompt their interest in journeying to the west coast.
- He was a semi-famous trapper, mountain man, and explorer of the American West.
P.S. Looking for some great books about Jedidiah Smith? Check out the booklist on the California History Resource Page!