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Talk was given at the Tehama Historical Society, the evening of January 22, 2002. Tehama County Library Conference Room
See note on spelling at bottom: Jedediah not Jedidiah
Jedediah Strong Smith
Scalped by a Grizzly - saved by God - of all the rugged mountain men
this one, doubtless the greatest of them, had a heart of childlike faith
|California historian James J. Rawls asserts that Jedediah Strong Smith is the explorer truly worthy of the title of "the Pathfinder," rather than the self-promoting John C. Frémont, who (in Rawls' words) "was a more publicized and less authentic hero."|
Jedediah Strong Smith entered California's San Bernardino Valley to become the first American to cross the southwestern part of the American continent. We have the stereotype of the proverbial "mountain man." A trite catch-phrase. Well, `Diah Smith was not your typical mountain man. Though descended from a mountain people (Basques, his Huguenot line), Smith was reserved and taciturn. He was tall, silent and never used tobacco or profanity, never boasted. Reared a Wesleyan in the days when methodist "holy fire" still burned in what was then "the west," Smith was a devout Christian who always remained a gentleman even in the wildest frontier company. He was cool under pressure, with strength and leadership ability that was grounded in his faith.
As he explored the areas of the West, Smith filled his journal describing the wonders of God's creation. When he faced hardship or peril, he looked to Scripture for strength. In 1823 he was almost killed by a grizzly bear.
The bear came out of the thicket and mauled Smith violently, throwing him to the ground, smashing his ribs and literally ripping off his scalp. His head was in the bear's mouth and it chewed off his ear, but somehow, perhaps playing dead, Smith survived. The scalp was hanging on to his head by an ear.
As he waited for his men to come with help, he found comfort in the 23rd Psalm. The men found him in such condition and were horrified. Calmly, Smith instructed Jim Clyman to sew the hanging flesh back on. Clyman did the best he could, but thought nothing could be done for the severed ear. Smith insisted that he try. According to Clyman,
"I put my needle sticking it through and through and over and over laying the lacerated parts together as nice as I could with my hands."Within a few days, Smith was again leading his expedition forward.
In 1826 Smith led an expedition to California in search of beaver. The farther west he went, the more difficult the journey. Even the horses died, and the men had to cross the Mohave Indian country on foot. Whether it was Indians, hunger, or thirst, Smith faced hardship by turning to the Lord in prayer. Smith was not only the first American to travel by land to California, but the first to cross the Great Basin and the first (in early 1828) to reach Oregon by going up the great central valley of California, then west through the foggy winter mountains of present Trinity and Humboldt Counties, then up the coast to Oregon.
It was Jedediah Smith, who, first named Mount Lassen "Mount Joseph." Jed Smith, on his second trip to California in the spring of 1828, was looking for Rio San Buenaventura supposedly connecting the Great Salt Lake with the Pacific, and caught sight of majestic Mount Lassen, the first white man to see it. It was he who first gave Lassen Peak the name "Mount Joseph," a name it bore for a generation. It officially was christened "Mount Saint Joseph" in 1841 by a U. S. Government exploration party.
Why the name Joseph? When Jed's men, half starved from the Mojave Desert, first reached California, it was a kindly padre named Joseph who welcomed them in Christian mercy, succored them with sustenance and blessing. Harrison Rogers accompanied Jedediah Smith and wrote of José Sánchez, the genial padre, mayordomo of San Gabriel Mission, who welcomed and fed the ragged trappers after their near starvation crossing the Mojave. He wrote:
Old Father Sánchez has been the greatest friend that I ever met with in all my travels. He is worthy of being called a Christian as he possesses charity in the highest degree, and a friend to the poor and distressed. I ever shall hold him as a man of God, taking us in when in distress, feeding and clothing us, and may God prosper him and all such men.In the 1840s, a Danish immigrant named Peter Lassen explored the Lassen area and was recognized as the primary Yankee discoverer and trailblazer opening up northern California to later English-speaking settlement, preparing the way for Bidwell, Reading, Ide, and others. Smith's Mount Joseph was to become, in due time, the peak we know today as "Mount Lassen."
For more on Jedediah's trek through northern California in the spring of 1828, go here.
In his lifetime, Smith would travel more extensively in unknown territory than any other single mountain man. He traveled in the central Rockies, then down to Arizona, across the Mojave Desert and into California making him the first American to travel overland to California through the southwest. In a most amazing journey, he also came back from California across the desert of the Great Basin. The heat became so unbearable Smith and his men had to bury themselves in sand to keep cool.
Smith's letters home to his relatives reflect his faith. In one he wrote that Jesus is always entreating us with His love, and uses every means except compulsion to bring us to Him, that we may have life more abundantly.
Cut down at the hands of the Indians he had always felt a heart of compassion for, `Diah Smith was still a young man when his life ended. In this sense he reminds us of other mild explorers of the West, particularly Father Isaac Jogues, for one, also slain by Indians, whom he loved and, in a sense, even gave his life for.
An 1832 eulogy in the Illinois Monthly called Jedidiah Smith "a man whom none could approach without respect, and whom none could know without esteem."
And as a mountain man, explorer-and-trapper, Jedediah Strong Smith was doubtless....
the greatest pathfinder of them all:
Esther Loewen Vogt's quite readable (ideal for youth) God's Mountain Man, the story of Jedediah Strong Smith.
Other Jedediah Smith Links:
Smith by American Western History Museum
Without teachers who care ~ our past would lose its meaning for the youth
An enduring salute to all who impart a love of our history to those who
will one day be our nation's heirs
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