The Death of Captain Jedediah Smith

Captain Jedediah Strong Smith was one of the most remarkable men who ever traversed the mountains and plains of the West in the pioneer days. He was born in New York near the Seneca Indian Reservation. He was given a good education, but he had as playmates the Seneca Indian boys, and his associations with them bred in him a desire to see pioneer life in the Far West. He was but a boy in the War of 1812, yet he was one of the victorious sailors in Perry’s Victory. He continued westward, arriving at St. Louis. There he entered the service of General Ashley, of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. He soon became the first trapper in the Rocky Mountains. His coolness in danger, his daring, his judgment, his aptness for trade, his comprehension of the fur business in all its bearings, made him a leader. He formed the Company of Smith, Jackson & Sublette to take over the business of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company when General Ashley decided to sell out his business. His company did a heavy business, and Smith amassed a competency. He determined to retire from active life in the mountains, for he had seen them all, to the Pacific Ocean. At an early day he led a party into California to hunt. This party passed a winter in the foothills on a stream east of Sacramento. From that circumstance the stream was called the American River—which name it still bears. Leaving his party there, Smith returned to the Great Salt Lake for assistance. He returned and led his companions home through Oregon, up the Columbia, and south through what is now Idaho. As an American explorer Smith stands in the first rank.

In the spring of 1831, some of the old partners of Smith engaged in the Santa Fe trade. Smith did not wish to do further business on the Plains, but was induced by his former partners to become a member of their venture to Santa Fe. The company was one of the best equipped that ever took a cargo across the Plains. All went well with it until it entered the desert between the Arkansas and the Cimarron. It seemed that the water had disappeared from every stream and spring. It seemed that death for all was certain. Captain Smith was not daunted. He had faced death too often and in too many forms to quail at the terrors of the Cimarron desert. Mounting his buckskin hunting horse, he followed a buffalo trail across the burning sands for miles. At length he came upon an elevation from which he descried the winding channel of a stream. It was the Cimarron. He hurried to it and rode down into its bed only to find it dry and glistening sand. But Smith was a plainsman. He dug, with his hands, a hole in the bed of the river. Water slowly rose in this rude spring. As he lay prone upon the sand to drink he was attacked by a vagabond band of Comanches. They wounded him with arrows as he drank. He rose and faced the roguish savages. He battled with them, but was overpowered by numbers and slain. He killed several of his savage assailants—just how many is not now certainly known. The Indians said he killed three of their band. If they would admit the loss of three, Smith probably slew twice that number. The death of Smith was soon widely known, and it was regretted from the Mississippi to the lone hunting-camps of the Rocky Mountains. Few men ever impressed themselves upon the times as Captain Smith did on the wilderness of his day.

1 thought on “The Death of Captain Jedediah Smith”

  1. I read many accounts of the Death of Jedediah Smith, but I cannot find a source. By most tellings, the only witnesses were Indians. Did they relate the story? Did they know who they killed? Where is this original information validated?

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