First trip to California, 1826–27
Jedediah Smith’s party crossing the burning Mojave Desert during the 1826 trek to California
by Frederic Remington
Smith and his party of 15 other men left the Bear River on August 7, 1826, and after retrieving the cache he had left earlier, headed south through present-day Utah and Nevada to the Colorado River, finding increasingly harsh conditions and difficult travel. Finding shelter in a friendly Mojave
village near present-day Needles, California
, the men and horses recuperated and Smith hired two runaways from the Spanish missions in California
to guide them west. After leaving the river and heading into the Mojave Desert
, the guides led them through the desert via the Mohave Trail
, that would become the western portion of the Old Spanish Trail
Upon reaching the San Bernardino Valley
of California, Smith and Abraham LaPlant (who spoke some Spanish) borrowed horses from a rancher and rode to the San Gabriel Mission
on November 27, 1826, to present themselves to its director, Father José Bernardo Sánchez
, who received them warmly.[k]
Father Sánchez gave Jedediah and LaPlant a lavish dinner at Mission San Gabriel.
The next day, the rest of Smith’s men arrived at the mission, and that night the head of the garrison at the mission confiscated all their guns. On December 8, Smith was summoned to San Diego
for an interview with Governor José María Echeandía
about his party’s status in the country
Echeandía, surprised and suspicious of the Americans unauthorized entrance into California, had Smith arrested, believing him to be a spy. Accompanied by Abraham LaPlant, Smith’s Spanish interpreter, Smith was taken to San Diego, while the rest of the party remained at the mission. Echeandía detained Smith for about two weeks, demanding that he turn over his journal and maps. Smith asked for permission to travel north to the Columbia River
on a coastal route, where known paths could take his party back to United States territory. Upon intercession of American sea Captain W.H. Cunningham of Boston on the ship, Courier
, Smith was finally released by Echeandía to reunite with his men. Echeandía ordered Smith and his party to leave California by the same route they entered, forbidding him to travel up the coast to Bodega
, but giving Smith permission to purchase needed supplies for an eastern overland return journey.
Smith boarded the Courier
sailing from San Diego to San Pedro, to meet his men.
After waiting for almost another month for an exit visa, and then spending, at least, two more weeks breaking the horses they had purchased for the return trip, Smith’s party left the mission communities of California in mid-February 1827. The party headed out the way it had come, but once outside the Mexican settlements, Smith convinced himself he had complied with Echeandía’s order to leave by the same route he had entered, and the party veered north crossing over into the Central Valley
. The party ultimately made its way to the Kings River
on February 28 and began trapping beaver. The party kept working its way north, encountering hostile Maidus
. By early May 1827, Smith and his men had traveled 350 miles (560 km) north, looking for the Buenaventura River, but found no break in the wall of the Sierra Nevada
range through which it could have flowed from the Rocky Mountains. On December 16, 1826, Smith had written in a letter to the United State ambassador plenipotentiary to Mexico his plans to “follow up on of the largest Riv(ers) that emptied into the (San Francisco) Bay cross the mon (mountains) at its head and from thence to our deposit on the Great Salt Lake”
and appeared to be following that plan. They followed the Cosumnes River
(the northernmost tributary of the San Joaquin River
) upstream, but veered off it to the north and crossed over to the American River
, a tributary of the Sacramento
that flowed into the Bay. They tried traveling up the canyon of the South Fork of the American to cross the Sierra Nevada, but had to return because the snow was too deep.[m]
Unable to find a feasible path for the well-laden party to cross, and faced with hostile indigenes, he was forced into a decision: since they did not have time to travel north to the Columbia and make it in time to the 1827 rendezvous, they would backtrack to the Stanislaus River
and re-establish a camp there. Jedediah would take two men and some extra horses to get to the rendezvous as quickly as he could and return to his party with more men later in the year and the group would continue on to the Columbia.
The exploration of the West by Jedediah Smith. The branch of the Sacramento River
that is labeled as pointing northeast is now known as the Pit River
After a difficult crossing of the Sierra Nevada, near Ebbets Pass
, Smith and his two men passed around the south end of Walker Lake
. After meeting with the only mounted indigenes they would encounter until they reached the Salt Lake Valley
they continued east across central Nevada, straight across the Great Basin Desert
just as the summer heat hit the region. Neither they nor their horses or mules could find adequate food, and as the horses gave out, they were butchered for whatever meat the men could salvage. After two days without water, one man, Robert Evans, collapsed near the Nevada–Utah border and could go no further, but some indigenes Smith encountered gave them some food and told him where to find water, which he took back to Evans and revived him.[o]
As the three approached the Great Salt Lake, they again were unable to find water, and Evans collapsed again. Smith and the other man, Silas Gobel, found a spring and again took back water to Evans. Finally, the men came to the top of a ridge from which they saw the Great Salt Lake to the north, a “joyful sight” to Smith. By this time they only had one horse and one mule remaining. They reached and crossed the Jordan River
where local indigenes told him the whites were gathered farther north at “the Little Lake” (Bear Lake
on the border between present-day Utah and Idaho). Smith borrowed a fresh horse from them and rode ahead of the other two men, reaching the rendezvous on July 3. The mountain men celebrated Jed’s arrival with a cannon salute[p]
for they had given up him and his party for lost.
Jedediah Smith Letter after visiting Owens Valley in 1826/27:
Little Lake Of Bear River,
July 12th, 1827.
Genl. Wm. Clark
Supt. of Indian affairs
My situation in this country has enabled me to collect information respecting a section of the country which has hitherto been measurably veiled in obscurity to the citizens of the United States. I allude to the country S.W. of the Great Salt Lake
west of the Rocky mountains.
I started about the 22d of August 1826, from the Great Salt Lake, with a party of fifteen men, for the purpose of exploring the country S.W. which was entirely unknown to me, and of which I could collect no satisfactory information from the Indians who inhabit this country on its N.E. borders.
My general course on leaving the Salt Lake was S.W. and W. Passing the Little Uta Lake and ascending Ashley’s river, which empties into the Little Uta Lake. From this lake I found no more signs of buffalo; there are a few antelope and mountain sheep, and an abundance of black tailed hares
. On Ashley’s river, I found a nation of Indians who call themselves Sampatch
they were friendly disposed towards us. I passed over a range of mountains running S.E. and N.W. and struck a river running S.W. which I called Adams River
, in compliment to our president. The water is of a muddy cast, and is a little brackish. The country is mountainous to east; towards the west there are sandy plains and detached rocky hills.
Passing down this river some distance, I fell in with a nation of Indians who call themselves Pa-Ulches
(those Indians as well as those last mentioned, wear rabbit skin robes) who raise some little corn and pumpkins. The country is nearly destitute of game of any description, except a few hares. Here (about ten days march down it) the river turns to the south east. On the S.W. side of the river there is a cave
, the entrance of which is about 10 or 15 feet high, and 5 or 6 feet in width;— after descending about 15 feet, a room opens out from 25 to 30 in length and 15 to 20 feet in width; the roof, sides and floor are solid rock salt, a sample
of which I send you, with some other articles which will be hereafter described. I here found a kind of plant of the prickly pear kind, which I called the cabbage pear, the largest of which grows about two feet and a half high and 1 ½ feet in diameter; upon examination I found it to be nearly of the substance of a turnip, altho’ by no means palatable; its form was similar to that of an egg, being smaller at the ground and top than in the middle; it is covered with pricks similar to the prickly pear with which you are acquainted.
There are here also a number of shrubs and small trees with which I was not acquainted previous to my route there, and which I cannot at present describe satisfactorily, as it would take more space than I can here allot.
The Pa Ulches
have a number of marble pipes, one of which I obtained and send you, altho’ it has been broken since I have had it in my possession; they told me there was a quantity of the same material in their country. I also obtained of them a knife of flint
, which I send you, but it has likewise been broken by accident.
I followed Adams river two days further to where it empties into the Seedskeeder a south east course. I crossed the Seedskeeder, and went down it four days a south east course; I here found the country remarkably barren, rocky, and mountainous; there are a good many rapids in the river, but at this place a valley opens out about 5 to 15 miles in width, which on the river banks is timbered and fertile. I here found a nation of Indians who call themselves Ammuchabas
they cultivate the soil, and raise corn, beans, pumpkins, watermelons and muskmelons in abundance, and also a little wheat and cotton. I was now nearly destitute of horses, and had learned what it was to do without food; I therefore remained there fifteen days and recruited my men, and I was enabled also to exchange my horses and purchase a few more of a few runaway Indians who stole some horses of the Spaniards. I here got information of the Spanish country (the Californias) and obtained two guides, recrossed the Seedskadeer, which I afterwards found emptied into the Gulf of California about 80 miles from this place by the name of the Collarado; many render the river Gild
from the East.
I travelled a west course fifteen days over a country
of complete barrens, generally travelling from morning until night without water. I crossed a salt plain about 20 miles long and 8 wide; on the surface was a crust of beautiful white salt, quite thin. Under this surface there is a layer of salt from a half to one and a half inches in depth; between this and the upper layer there is about four inches of yellowish sand.
On my arrival in the province of Upper California, I was looked upon with suspicion, and was compelled to appear in presence of the governor of the Californias residing at San Diego, where, by the assistance of some American gentlemen (especially Capt. W. H. Cunningham
, of the ship Courier
) I was enabled to obtain permission to return with my men the route I came, and purchased such supplies as I stood in want of. The governor would not allow me to trade up the sea coast towards Bodaga
. I returned to my party and purchased such articles as were necessary, and went eastward of the Spanish settlements on the route I had come in. I then steered my course N.W. keeping from 150 miles to 200 miles from the sea coast. A very high range of mountains lay on the east. After travelling 300 miles in that direction through a country somewhat fertile, in which there was a great many Indians, mostly naked and destitute of arms, with the exception of a few bows and arrows
and what is very singular amongst Indians, they cut their hair to the length of three inches; they proved to be friendly; their manner of living is on fish, roots, acorns and grass.
On my arrival at the river which I named the Wim-mul-che
(named after a tribe of Indians which resides on it, of that name) I found a few beaver, and elk, deer, and antelope in abundance. I here made a small hunt, and attempted to take my party across- the
which I before mentioned, and which I called Mount Joseph
, to come on and join my partners at the Great Salt Lake. I found the snow so deep on Mount Joseph that I could not cross my horses, five of which starved to death; I was compelled therefore to return to the valley which I had left, and there, leaving my party, I started with two men, seven horses and two mules, which I loaded with hay
for the horses and provisions for ourselves, and started on the 20th of May, and succeeded in crossing it in eight days, having lost only two horses and one mule. I found the snow on the top of this mountain from 4 to 8 feet deep, but it was so consolidated by the heat of the sun
that my horses only sunk from half a foot to one foot deep.
After travelling twenty days from the east side of Mount Joseph
, I struck the S.W. corner of the Great Salt Lake, travelling over a country completely barren and destitute of game. We frequently travelled without water sometimes for two days over sandy deserts, where there was no sign of vegetation and when we found water in some of the rocky hills, we most generally found some Indians who appeared the most miserable of the human race having nothing to subsist on (nor any clothing) except grass seed, grass-hoppers, &c. When we arrived at the Salt Lake, we had but one horse and one mule remaining, which were so feeble and poor that they could scarce carry the little camp equipage which I had along; the balance of my horses I was compelled to eat as they gave out.
The company are now starting, therefore must close my
close my communication.
(signed) JEDEDIAH S. SMITH
of the firm of
Smith, Jackson and Sublette.