Every time he visited California he got arrested. When a grizzly bear chewed off his hair and ear, he had a buddy to sew them back on. Jedediah Strong Smith was a legendary man of the mountains, explorer and trapper, but we might remember him as one of early California’s truly “bad hombres,” and one of the first non-Natives to fully experience the pristine Northern California frontier.
In those days California wasn’t even part of the young United States, but a territory of Spain and then Mexico. What brought Smith to California was belief in the Buenaventura River, an imagined river flowing from the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and the incredible wealth that might be made trapping beaver where few other white men had ever been.
Part 1 left off with Smith being released from jail a second time with orders to immediately go back the way he’d come. Once again, as soon as Smith’s party of 19 men and over 300 horses was away from the authorities, he ignored the Governor’s orders and resumed trapping up what he thought was the Buenaventura River. Today we know that watershed as the Sacramento River, and it must have been something to see.
It was January, 1828 and Smith’s party was experiencing California’s rainy springtime weather. Smith wrote, “The rain that commenced the day before continued without intermission for 24 hours. This may be well termed the rainy season for we scarcely had more than one pleasant day at a time.”
Smith’s journal speaks of almost daily encounters with elk, which must have been very numerous at the time. Not only did elk help feed the men, but their skins were needed for skin canoes, a lightweight watercraft the party could assemble whenever they needed to ferry their equipment across the river. Most of the time the horses could be driven to swim the river, although some were occasionally lost.
“The winter in this valley is the best season for grass,” wrote Smith, “and at the time of which I am now speaking the whole face of the country is a most beautiful green, resembling a flourishing wheat field.”
“The game of the country,” Smith recorded, “was bear, elk, black tailed deer, antelope, large and small wolves, beaver, otter and raccoon. The birds were swan(s), geese, crane(s) heron(s), loons, brant (a small goose), many kinds of ducks, Indian Hens. Some small birds but they were not plenty. The birds of prey were buzzards, crows, ravens, magpies &c.” “Muskitoes troublesome,” he added.
Perhaps more than any other animal, Smith’s journal often alluded to grizzly bears. Prior to the first European settlements, it was estimated there might have been as many as 10,000 grizzly bears in California. They were hunted relentlessly all over California, eventually to extinction.
In the 19th century, California grizzly bears were often captured and pitted against bulls in a battle to the death. Betting was common and a lot of money changed hands. California grizzly bears were declared extinct in 1924, but alleged grizzly sightings in remote areas persisted for at least 25 more years.
Even today there are people promoting the reintroduction of grizzly bears to California. Scientists estimate there is still habitat to sustain about 500 grizzlies in the state. In 2014 the US Fish & Wildlife Service received and rejected one grizzly reintroduction petition. Another petition was launched in 2015 toward the California state legislature, but lacked the traction necessary to get very far.
This Jan. 21, 2021 article contains more information on grizzly bears, and the movement to reintroduce them to California.
We know the California Native American population in the 1820s numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and again, Jedediah Smith’s journal is fraught with entries about them, positive and negative.
Feb. 26, 1828: “Two of my trappers, [Toussaint] Mareshall and [John] Turner were up 3 or 4 miles from camp,” Smith wrote, “and seeing some Indians around their traps who would not come to them but attempted to run off they fired at them and Turner killed one and Mareshall wounded another. I was extremely sorry for the occurrence and reprimanded them severely for their impolitic conduct. To prevent the recurrence of such an act the only remedy in my power was to forbid them the privilege of setting traps, for I could not always have the trappers under my eye.”
March 1, 1828: “In going down Wild River,” wrote Smith, “we came suddenly on an indian lodge. Its inhabitants immediately fl[e]d. Some plunged into the river and some took a raft while some squaws ran down the bank of the stream. We galloped after them and overtook one who appered very much frightened and pacified her in the usual manner by making her some presents. I then went on to the place where I had seen one fall down. She was still laying there and apparently lifeless. She was 10 or 11 years old. I got down from my horse and found that she was in fact dead. Could it be possible, thought I, that we who called ourselves Christians were such frightful objects as to scare poor savages to death.”
Smith’s journal contains many entries about encounters with different groups of Natives as they ascended the Sacramento River Valley. The majority were friendly, with Smith’s party often giving the Natives food in exchange for information about beaver or the route they should follow. But there was also some bloodshed, and unfortunately for Smith, this caused a murmur of mistrust to develop and spread among the Native population.
A few miles north of present day Red Bluff, Smith camped while deciding if they should continue north or veer west toward the Pacific Ocean. Eventually they decided the northerly route would be too difficult or even impossible. The high place where Smith viewed what lay to the north is on the eastern side of the Sacramento River northeast of Red Bluff a few miles below Paynes Creek, and today is known as “Jed’s Overlook.” Historians believe he was not actually viewing the northerly Sacramento River, but rather the Battle Creek drainage. At any rate, this is where the expedition decided to veer Northwest and head for the Pacific Ocean.
The exact route Smith chose to get from present-day Red Bluff to the Pacific is a topic of scholarly debate. The fact that it must have been extraordinarily difficult to move 19 men, all of their gear and 300 horses over the Coastal Range to get to the ocean is not debatable.
Some have his expedition heading west at Dibble Creek, then to Dry Creek and Begum Creek, roughly following Hwy. 36. Another version has him following Blue Tent Creek a few miles north, but eventually they would have passed through present-day Platina to Wildwood, then north along Hayfork Creek through Hayfork, roughly following Hyampom Road to Hyampom and the South Fork Trinity River. They struck west from the SF Trinity along Grouse Creek and then north to the Main stem Trinity River just west of Salyer. They followed the Trinity River north through Willow Creek and Hoopa, then roughly followed the Klamath River to the ocean arriving June 8th.
By June 23rd Smith’s party arrived in the Oregon Territory with the intention of ending up in Vancouver. Unbeknown to Smith, word of the violence between Smith’s party and groups of Natives had followed the expedition. While Smith’s men were camped along the Umpqua River in Oregon one of the Natives stole an ax. In an effort to get the ax back, Smith tied a cord around the man’s neck to scare him while the other trappers pointed their guns at him. About 50 Natives witnessed the confrontation, and the ax was recovered. It turns out the humiliated perpetrator was an Umpqua (Coquille) Chief. Several days later when Smith and a few others were out of camp scouting their route, the Natives attacked. All who remained in camp were massacred.
Smith’s expedition may have been mainly about exploring opportunities for accumulating wealth through trapping and the beaver pelt trade, but it also left a bad first impression with the Native population, one that eventually doomed the expedition. Smith himself made it out alive, but three years later in southwestern Kansas he was killed by Comanches at the tender age of 32.
The Jedediah Strong Smith we look back on remains an elusive and complex figure. He was certainly a tough, courageous character willing to take on monumental tasks and accomplish things that had never been done before. I’d certainly love to have seen the Northern California he saw, a land plentiful in natural resources, wild game and some of the largest salmon runs on earth.
While I can’t quite call him a racist, some of his men undoubtedly were, and this would be their eventual undoing.