Renegade Roads

On the Trail of Jedediah Smith

Following the mountain man from St. Louis, Missouri, to Wyoming’s Wind River Country.

fredrick-remmington_western-artist

The rugged country on the west side of the Teton Range, between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, is a wilderness area named for Jedediah Strong Smith, who came west as one of the trappers organized by William Ashley in 1823.

Smith, along with William Sublette and David Jackson, sought beaver in the Rocky Mountain streams, but more than a trapper, Smith was an explorer. He would spend most of his years in the fur trade on expeditions that took him to the Upper Missouri River Country, across Wyoming and into what became Jackson Hole (named for Jackson). As an explorer Smith broke trails through the Rocky Mountains and then pushed into California, Oregon and Washington.

With Jim Bridger, Sublette, Jackson, Thomas Fitzpatrick and a host of other men who would find themselves in the annals of Western history, Smith departed from St. Louis, Missouri, in 1823, one of Ashley’s first crew of mountain men sent upriver to establish a post at the mouth of the Yellowstone. These men would engage in a battle that year with the Arikaras after trading for some horses, and ’Diah would engage in a personal fight with a grizzly bear before heading deeper into the Rockies.

Smith traveled overland across Wyoming in 1824 to “rediscover” the South Pass that Robert Stuart had first located in 1812. This crossing through the Rocky Mountains would become the conduit for hundreds of thousands of overland travelers in the decades to come.

On the west side of the Continental Divide, the Red Desert opens toward the south, and Smith headed there in 1825 to take part in the first rendezvous of mountain men held at Burnt Fork. The Green River Country had free flowing streams filled with plenty of beaver, and Smith trapped across the basin, gathering pelts to trade at rendezvous. A skilled trapper, he became Ashley’s partner. He ventured north into the land surrounded by the Gros Ventre and Grand Teton mountain ranges, some of it land that is now a wilderness area bearing his name.

Ashley, having discovered money could be made in supplying the trappers with goods while trading for the pelts they had collected over the winters, sold out to Smith, Jackson and Sublette in 1826. At the rendezvous on Bear River the new partners agreed that Jackson and Sublette would turn their attention to the valleys and streams to the north, while Smith would move into trapping territory to the south.

In truth Smith had a wanderlust likely stoked from the time he was a child by his family’s continual movement west from New York to Pennsylvania and then to Ohio, seeking out the edge of the frontier on each new settling.

Gateway to the West

Any trail of the mountain men should start in St. Louis where Ashley advertised for his “young men.” A good place to begin following some of Smith’s trail is at the Museum of Westward Expansion inside the Gateway Arch. Before departing St. Louis, you should explore, shop or dine at Laclede’s Landing, a nine-block district that takes in part of the original trading area for the city of St. Louis.

Leaving St. Louis I head west along the Missouri River through Independence, Kansas City and St. Joseph, towns that grew from the pioneers who followed the trails forged by mountain men. Crossing into Nebraska, I visit the Omaha region to check out the Joslyn Art Museum, home of classic fur trade paintings such as The Surround and Trapper’s Bride by Alfred Jacob Miller, and multiple pieces by Karl Bodmer. The nearby re-created Fort Atkinson interprets the early history of the site that was the first military post west of the Missouri River, established in 1819 upon the prior  recommendation of  transcontinental explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

Rendezvous in Wyoming

No U.S. Army post existed at the confluence of the Laramie and North Platte Rivers when Smith first visited what is now Wyoming in 1824, but I recommend a stop at Fort Laramie, which was pre-dated by a fur trade post started by Sublette and Campbell. The fort interprets the era of the mountain men, along with the Indians, pioneers and the frontier military who all had significant roles at this location.

Like Smith, I’m headed west. My route is through Casper, where I visit Fort Caspar—a replica of the frontier military post named for Lt. Caspar Collins who was killed in a...

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