The Lost Legacy of Jedediah Smith

A necklace made from the bear claws that almost killed him… a bow and quiver of Indian arrows mentioned in a family letter… his signature in a ship’s log from the War of 1812…the pistol he used to defend himself against a band of Comanches. These are all objects relating to Jedediah Smith that have been claimed to exist. But, for one reason or another, they have disappeared.

There was a fire in a St. Louis warehouse that held Jedediah Smith’s collection of artifacts, but no true inventory survives. Pages from his journals were destroyed over the years, but it is not known what they described. The pistols were in a museum once, but were stolen in 1961 and have never been returned.

What remains of his travels and encounters wouldn’t fill up a cedar chest. There is no more than a small pile of his letters, some journals written in his hand, a will, and a few personal articles of questionable authenticity to examine. There are no images of Smith drawn during life. Photography had not yet arrived in the American West while he viewed its unspoiled vistas. Accounts and descriptions of him by his contemporaries are short and simple, with little embellishment.

Jedediah Smith holds a mysterious attraction to those interested in Western American history. Unfortunately, the personality that has been attached to him, formed over the years since his death in 1831, has distilled into a one-dimensional image of a pious Bible-toting mountain man that is founded on very little documentation and no meaningful scholastic review. The most strident exaggerated images of him come today from inspirational books and accounts that offer simplistic explanations about his thoughts and purposes.

A complete biography of Jedediah Smith has not been published since 1953, when Dale Morgan released his Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West. Starting in 1967, and continuing until 2001, there have been several documents relating to Smith found in museums, archives and attics. In each instance, old journals and account books have come out of the past with new material for an historian or biographer to contemplate.

In 1967, a friend visited George Brooks, then Director of the Missouri Historical Society, with a cardboard box containing Smith’s journals from his 1826 expedition into California.

Dwight Garber, in 1973, found references to Jedediah S. Smith in Perrysville, Ohio while researching genealogical information about John Chapman, the horticulturist/evangelist known as Johnny Appleseed.

Between 1984 and 1985, Historian David J. Weber, while looking in Mexican archives for information on another related subject, came across two bundles that held letters from and about Jedediah Smith that suggest devious motives to his actions.

In 2000, a researcher working in the National Archives found a six-page letter written to the Secretary of War by Smith, in 1831, summarizing his western travels and presenting his case for an expedition to California sponsored by the U.S. government.

The Lost Legacy of Jedediah Smith synthesizes the most current information about Smith with earlier images and interpretations to offer a new, more balanced, portrayal of his activities and motives. The information that has come forward since Morgan’s authoritive edition affords an opportunity to strip away what is not known or cannot be authenticated about Smith and discuss what is and what can be known about him. This examination challenges the myths and exaggerations of earlier writers and presents a reasonable assessment of Smith’s personality and moral behavior.

The book seeks to dispel the notion that Jedediah Smith should be a hero because of his Christian faith; but rather, that he be remembered as a man who accomplished extraordinary success (and suffered horrible disasters) in the face of unknown geographical realties, unexpected cultural encounters, and uncontrollable international politics. These new facts and interpretations are part of the lost legacy of Jedediah Smith.