Jedediah Smith: No Ordinary Mountain Man
by Barton H. Barbour, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2009, $26.95.
Comanche Indians cut short Jedediah Smith’s life in 1831, but the trapper and explorer had accomplished much in his 32 years. He had recognized the importance of South Pass in what would become northwest Wyoming. He was among the first American frontiersmen to travel overland to California, the first recorded white man to cross the Sierras from the east, and the first to lead parties across the Great Basin and along the seacoast from California to Oregon.
“Jedediah Strong Smith roamed through more of the American West than practically any man of his era,” Barton H. Barbour writes. Indeed, Smith was, as Barbour tells us in the title of his biography, “no ordinary mountain man.” (Then again, were any mountain men ordinary?) Drawing on contemporary sources (including Smith’s own writings), as well as material from Mexican archives, Barbour expands on other biographies of Smith, including John G. Neihardt’s The Splendid Wayfaring (1920) and Dale Morgan’s Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West (1953), and paints a balanced portrait.
Sorting through Smith’s legends is a tough assignment. Like Billy the Kid, much of his life falls into a black hole, although the last third was fairly well documented. Yet even the best tracker would have a hard time following Smith’s trail. His death is also subject to speculation, as his body was never found. Barbour, of course, is an excellent tracker. “At the time he died,” the author writes, “Jedediah Smith was quite possibly on the threshold of genuine fame, and if his adventures had been published, he would be far better known than he is today.” Barbour’s first-rate biography helps us know and understand him.
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.