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1. General Background to Smith's Visit

With the decline in the trade in sea otter pelts, the Russian-American Company curtailed its operations along the Humboldt Coast. It was replaced by British and American trappers, who generally operated in the interior valleys, but occasionally transient parties found their way to the coastal region. The first of these parties to penetrate the area was led by the well-known Mountain Man, Jedediah Smith.

Born on January 6, 1799, in Jericho, New York, Smith first ascended the Missouri as a member of the Missouri Fur Company led by William H. Ashley and Andrew Henry in the spring of 1822. Smith, because of his leadership and intelligence, was placed by Ashley in charge of the company which in 1823 marched from Fort Kiowa on the Missouri across the Bighorns to Wind River. In March 1824 he "made the effective discovery of South Pass," gateway to the American West. (The pass had been traversed a dozen years before by Robert Stuart, but the discovery had not been exploited.) After a year as Ashley's partner, Smith in 1826 formed a new partnership with David E. Jackson and William L. Sublette. Soon thereafter, he led to southern California the first expedition to reach that area from the Great Salt Lake Country. The next year, 1827, Smith became the first man to cross the Sierra Nevada and traverse the Great Basin from west to east. Smith and his company soon returned to California.

2. Smith and His Company Cross the Mountains and Descend Trinity

In the late winter of 1828 Jed Smith, who had spent the winter trapping in the High Sierras, determined to return East, via a northern route. When the company left San Jose Mission, it numbered 20. The first week in April found the trappers traveling up the east side of the Sacramento, with almost 300 horses and mules. The party was approaching the head of the Sacramento Valley. Although the Sierras appeared lower, with less snow on their slopes, the mighty range still presented a seemingly impassable barrier.

On April 10, 1828, the party forded the Sacramento just above the future site of Red Bluff. Off to the northwest there was a gap in the Trinity Alps, and on April 13 Smith turned his company in that direction. Traveling was difficult, and on the 15th the Mountain Men were attacked by Indians. A barrage of arrows was aimed at the remuda. Jedediah Smith did not panic, and at his command his men took up arms. A dozen warriors were flushed from their places of concealment. Abandoning a horse and a mule wounded in the ambush, the trappers pushed on. The Indians followed, whooping from the high points, and as the trail was difficult, this harassment galled the Mountain Men.

After encamping on the 16th, Smith and several of his people tried to approach the redmen. Employing signs, they sought to satisfy the Indians as to their peaceable intentions. "But they had their bows strung," Smith recalled, "and their arrows in their hands, and by the violence of their gestures, their constant yelling and their refusal to come to me, left no doubt on my mind of their inclination to be hostile."

To intimidate them and prevent them from doing him further injury, Smith fired on them. "One fell at once, and another shortly after, and the Indians ran off, leaving some of their property on the ground." [1]

The next day, April 17, the company got its pack train across the divide to the Hay Fork of Trinity River. Smith led his men down that stream. The trail was difficult, as it wound among steep hills, and the Indians were unfriendly. Once again, Smith went out with one of his men, Arthur Black, to parley. Seeing that the Indians were ready to receive them with arrows, Jedediah called for Black to shoot. After the whites had killed two of the braves, the Indians let them go in peace.

Smith and his trappers continued to press on, forcing their way down the Hay Fork and then the South Fork of the Trinity. The trip would have been bad enough had Jedediah possessed only pack animals, but the 300 head of half-wild horses and mules compounded the difficulties. Whenever a narrow defile was passed, the animals would attempt to charge through in a squirming mass. To advance one mile might require a day's labor on the part of the entire company, and the stock would be unfit for travel for several days. Where possible, the trappers advanced along the river bank, but often they had to detour up over rock, steep ridges, then down through the thickets and deep ravines. Though it was late April, the company at times had to fight its way through snow drifts, three to four feet deep. [2]

Smith, impressed by the size of the river followed, determined to name it after himself. Smith's River the Trinity became on the maps until Jedediah was forgotten in the pathfinding rush of the 1850s and '60s. [3]

As they struggled down the Trinity, the trappers observed a change in the appearance of the Indians. No longer were they the shorthaired type characteristic of the Sacramento Valley. The Indians of the Coast Range wore their hair long and were clad in deerskins. Their small lodges were ten or 12 feet square, three feet in height, had peaked roofs, and were built of split planks. They had axes, a sure sign that Smith and his people were approaching Hudson's Bay Company territory. These Indians were Hupas, a people whose language was a lingua franca for most of the northern California tribes.

The party pressed on down the Trinity to the Klamath. Some Indians now visited camp. They were light-colored, small, talkative, and afraid of the horses. Jedediah exchanged trade goods for the Indians' fish. He was unsuccessful when he endeavored to use sign language to ascertain the character of the country.

3. The Trappers Attempt to Cross the Bald Hills

Two men sent to reconnoiter to the west returned with news that the Pacific Ocean was not more than 20 miles away. Smith determined that as traveling along the river was "so bad to turn towards the coast." The party, however, was in poor physical condition. It was a day before the men had recovered their strength, and the three miles made on May 18 taxed their energy to the limit. The men were almost as weak as the animals, as "the poor venison of this country contained little nourishment." The weather was rainy and cloudy and "so thick with fogg" that it was difficult to keep track of the horses.

On May 19 a six-mile advance was made along a ridge covered with spruce, fir, and redwood—the latter the noblest trees the widely traveled Smith had ever seen. That night the company camped in sight of the Pacific. Harrison Rogers and Thomas Virgin were sent ahead to pinpoint a route to the ocean. They returned with a report that approaching the coast the hills were heavily timbered, choked with underbrush, and rose abruptly from a rockbound shore. They would have to retrace their route.

Jedediah Smith rode out to see for himself, as Rogers prayed:

Oh! God, may it please thee in thy divine providence to still guide and protect us through this wilderness of doubt and fear, as thou hast done heretofore, and be with us in the hour of danger and difficulty; as all praise is due to thee and not to man. Oh! do not forsake us, Lord, but be with us and guide us through. [4]

When the fog lifted, Smith made another attempt to beat his way through to the Pacific but failed. On May 22 the company broke camp, and two days later was back on the Klamath, at the same point it had been on the 18th. With gifts of razors and beads, Smith induced some Yurok to bring their canoes and help the trappers to reach the river's east bank. There was difficulty with the horses and mules, but only one was drowned.

After passing the Klamath (near Kepel). Smith on the 26th moved downstream two miles. Then he struck eastward and gained a high ridge. The trappers were able to follow the ridge for some distance, but once again they had to descend to the river. On May 28 Smith wrote:

In consequence of the hills which came in close and precipitous to the river I was obliged to ascend on to the range of hills and follow along their summits which was varry difficult particularly as a dense fog rendered it almost impossible to select the best route. I encamped where there was varry little grass and near where the Mountain made a rapid descent to the north [,] rough and ragged with rocks. I went to the brink of the hill and when the fog cleared away for a moment I could see the country to the north extremely Mountainous [,] along the shore of the Ocean those Mountains somewhat lower. From all appearances I came to the conclusion that I must move in again towards the coast. [5]

4. Jedediah Smith in Redwood National Park

Although the Mountain Men were within a few miles of the Pacific, it took them ten days to get there. The fog closed in; it poured rain, turning the bottoms into quagmires and the hillsides into sheets of mud. It was almost impossible to drive the horses and mules. Rogers noted in his journal on June 3:

We made an early start this morning directing our course N.W. up a steep point of Brushy Mou, and Travelled about 2 m. and enc.[amped] in the River Bottom, where there was but little for our horses to eat, all hands working hard to get the horses on, as they have become so worn out, that it is almost impossible to drive [them] through Brush—we have two men, every day that goes ahead with axes, to cut a road, and then it is with difficulty we we can get along. [6]

The next day, the 4th, Jedediah Smith wrote:

North 1 Mile. Whilst the party was preparing I went ahead looking [for] a route . . . and found one passible by the assistance of axe men to clear the way along a side hill. In passing a long [swamp] my horses were so much fatigued that they would not drive well and many of them turned down into the swamp [of Hunter Creek] from which we extricated the most of [them] with considerable difficulty. Where I encamped there was no grass for my horses. I was therefore obliged to build a pen for them to keep them from rolling off. [7]

On June 5 the company made an early start, Captain Smith sending men ahead to cut a road to where there was "a small bottom of grass" on a creek (Hunter) flowing into the Klamath. The distance traveled was about two miles in a northwest direction. Camp was pitched north of High Prairie Creek. Two horses and a mule gave out and had to be left. The trappers had been without meat since the morning of the 4th, while the men, during the past 48 hours, had been subsisted on one-half pint of flour per man, plus their last dog. [8]

At this point the exhausted and half-starved men and animals rested until June 8. Parties of hunters were sent to shoot game, but, although they saw plenty of elk and bear signs, they made no kills. On the 6th, eight Yurok visited the camp and brought with them a few lampreys and some raspberries, which Smith purchased of them for beads. To supplement the company's diet, a horse was also killed. The next day, the 7th, about a score of Yurok visited camp with "berrys, mussels and lamprey eels for sale." Once again, Smith was able to purchase the food with beads. On leaving camp, one of the red-men stole a small kitten belonging to one of the Mountain Men. One of the party recalled that the Indians "came without arms and appear friendly but inclined to steal." [9]

On the 8th the company broke up its camp on High Prairie Creek, and, moving to the northwest about three and one-half miles, reached the ocean at False Klamath Cove. Here, where there was a small grass-covered bottom to pasture the livestock, a camp was established. Rogers reported that the traveling was "ruff; as we had several thickets to go through; it made it bad on account of driving horses, as they can scarce be forced through brush any more." On the beach nearby was the Yurok village of O'men. From the Indians, the hungry Mountain Men got a few clams and some dried fish. [10]

"We were weary and very hungry," Captain Smith wrote, and the Yurok also brought with them, in addition to the dried fish and clams,

seagrass mixed with weeds and a few muscels. They were great speculators and never sold their things without dividing them into several small parcels [,] asking more for each than the whole were worth. They also brought us some Blubber not bad tasted but deer as gold dust. But all these things served but to aggravate our hunger and having been long accustomed to living on meat and eating it in no moderate quantities nothing else would supply our appetites. [11]

Captain Smith on June 9, 1828, killed three elk, "thanks to the great Benefactor." The mood of the camp was instantly changed from

the moody silence of hunger to the busy bustle of preparation for cooking and feasting. Men could be seen in ev'ry part of the camp with raw meat and half roasted in their hands devouring it with the greatest alacrity [,] while from their preparations and remarks you would suppose that nothing less than twenty-four hours constant eating would satisfy their appetites. [12]

The company remained in camp on the 10th, making salt and cutting and drying meat. An extra day's rest, where there was good grass and clover, benefited the horses. Indians again visited the camp with berries, but their market value had suffered a marked decline. [13]

Camp was broken on June 11, the Mountain Men directing their course to the northwest "up a steep point of mou. along the sea coast." After traveling about two miles, they again entered the redwood. "The travelling very bad on account of brush and fallen timber." Camp was pitched at a spring, on the ridge separating the headwaters of Damnation and Wilson Creeks, probably in Section 19, Township 15 North, Range 1 East. [14]

Traveling was bad and progress slow on the 12th. Camp was made on a mountain on the headwaters of Nickel Creek. Another early start was made the next day. Bearing to the northwest for about two miles, the party debouched from the redwoods and struck the beach. They went into camp for the night at Nec-Kah, an Indian village near the mouth of Cushing Creek. When he made his entry in his journal for the 13th, Rogers reported:

Plenty of grass on the mountain for our horses, but very steep for them to climb after it. The travelling very mountainous; same brush as yesterday. Two mules left to day that give out and could not travel; one young horse fell down a point of mou., and killed himself. [15]

5. Jed Smith Skirts Lake Earl and Crosses Smith River

On June 14 the company pushed up the beach until they struck a "low neck of land running into the sea where there was plenty of clover and grass for our horses" and camped. The trappers, during the day's march, had been compelled to take to the sea for several hundred yards at a time, "the swells some times would be as high as the horses backs." The company remained on the south bank of Elk Creek on the 15th, while several hunters went out. One of them killed a buck elk, "weighing 695 lbs., neat weight." A number of Tolowa came in, bringing fish, clams, strawberries, and camas roots, which were purchased. [16]

The company rode out early on the 16th. Striking to the north northwest, they crossed a neck of land skirting the ocean. Considerable difficulty was encountered in getting the horses across Elk Creek, and they were compelled "to make a pen on the bank to force them across." The Mountain Men on the 16th camped on the wooded flats south of Lake Earl. Skirting the eastern margin of Lake Earl, the trappers camped three nights in Section 27, between the lake and Kings Valley. On June 20 the company struck eastward, crossed Howland Hill, and Jed Smith saw the river destined in later years to bear his name. After crossing the river, the company camped on its east bank. June 21 found the Mountain Men ascending the ridge separating the watersheds of Smith River and Myrtle Creek. The night was spent on a ridge overlooking the headwaters of Little Mill and Myrtle Creeks. Instead of pushing on to High Divide, Smith on the 22d, led his men westward out of the mountains, halting for the night near where Morrison Creek flows into Smith River. The little company on the 23d, unknowingly entered the Oregon Country, pitching camp on Windchuck Creek.

As they rode northward up the Oregon coast, the Mountain Men advanced along the shore where possible, though a rocky bluff often forced them inland. To ford the numerous water courses, Smith had to wait for ebb tide. Although less laborious than the passage through the mountains, progress was slow. The 12 miles made on June 25, Jedediah called the best march for a long time.

By the evening of July 13, the company had reached the Umpqua River. The next morning, as the men were cooking breakfast, they were attacked by 100 or more Indians. Within a few minutes, all the party except Jedediah Smith, Arthur Black, and John Turner were dead. Turner succeeded in escaping after killing four of his assailants. Fortunately for Smith, Turner in his flight accidentally encountered him as he was returning from a reconnaissance. He told Smith of the massacre. Supposing that only they had escaped, they started for the Willamette Valley. Meanwhile, Black, a man of great physical strength, had fought off three Indians who attempted to pull him down, and fled. The three survivors, after wandering through the mountains, existing on roots and berries, finally reached Fort Vancouver.

Thus the lives of 15 of the 18 whites that first penetrated the Redwood Empire of today's Del Norte and Humboldt Counties were snuffed out. Smith, through the kindness of the Hudson's Bay Company, succeeded in recovering a part of the furs stolen from his party by the Indians. But Dr. John McLoughlin extracted a promise from Smith that he and his partners of the Missouri Fur Company would hereafter avoid the Oregon Country. [17]

Smith in 1829 and 1830 operated in what is today Montana and Wyoming. In the latter year he and his partners, Jackson and Sublette, sold out to the newly organized Rocky Mountain Fur Co., transporting their furs to St. Louis in the first wagons brought to the northern Rockies. On May 27, 1831, Smith was killed by Comanche on the Cimarron River, while en route to Santa Fe. Thus died a great explorer of the American West who deserves to rank with Lewis and Clark.

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Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004