The sunset slowly painted the snowy mountain peaks with a golden glow as a party of weary trappers approached an encampment of Snake Indians. The Snakes were usually accepting, even welcoming, of white men. The tired, hungry mountain men seemed reasonably assured that their hosts would offer them food and a warm place to sleep.
Sometimes these nomadic mountain men hoped that the Indians would make the women available to them as well. This wicked custom was common among the tribes of the Rocky Mountains, and the Indians saw nothing wrong with the practice. Most mountain men selfishly excused the custom as a harmless diversion in a harsh and dangerous world.
Besides, who was there to condemn the men in their decision? Their own wives, mothers, and sisters would never know. There was no pastor or church within 500 miles! A common saying of the day was that God stayed on His own side (east) of the Mississippi River. This was a wild, untamed land, full of wild, untamed men and beasts. It could be argued, albeit incorrectly, that no one was hurt by the immorality. Seemingly, the Indians did not care. Actually, the “trade” might even profit them with an extra knife or axe. In a world of grizzly bears, wolves, blizzards, and rocky beds under a bitterly cold night sky, an evening indulging in the pleasure of sin would have been extremely tempting to the fleshly appetite of any mountain man.
But there was one young trapper in this party that firmly refused to indulge in the Indians’ immoral custom. His companions may have sneered or derided at the rigid morals of their young companion, but they had grown accustomed to his God-fearing ways; in fact, the resolute trapper was the leader of this particular expedition! In all his ways, this mountain man stood firmly for God. Jedediah Smith was known never to have practiced immoral behavior in all of his many travels in the Rocky Mountains. Yet no man doubted that Jedediah was a leader of men, a mighty man of true courage. He bore a scar along the hairline above his ear that told the tale of a narrow escape from the jaws of a grizzly bear. His aim was sure. His skills as a woodsman and a trapper were unmatched. The young man possessed an amazing ability to find water when his men most needed it.
The mountain men and Indians alike respected the young man who refused to set aside his moral standards, even in the isolated mountains. Jedediah shaved every morning, even when nobody was going to see him except coyotes and beavers. He carried his Bible with him wherever he went, from St. Louis to California and from the Idaho territory to the alkali desert of Nevada. No matter the circumstances, he never gambled. He never made a fool of himself with liquor or known to use tobacco. He always told the truth. No man ever heard a word of profanity from his lips. Jedediah could be relied upon in any difficulty. He sent the large sums of money he made as a result of his successful hunting and trapping back home to support his parents and his brother who was studying to become a minister of the Gospel. He worshipped God sincerely, lived cleanly, and served his companions humbly. Jedediah Smith knew that the God of Heaven saw him even in the mountains, and he lived as a consistent Christian, even there.
Jedediah Strong Smith was born in Jericho, New York, early in 1799, the same year that George Washington died. As a teenager, young Jedediah read the journals of the explorers Lewis and Clark, and he had a strong interest in opening up the West for settlement and trade. In 1822, when he was only twenty-three years old, he made his first expedition westward up the Missouri River. He earned the trust of his superiors by his calm courage during an attack by the Arikara Indians. It was said of Jedediah, “When his party was in danger, Mr. Smith was always among the first to meet it and the last to fly.” By the very next year, Jedediah had become a trusted leader, being appointed the captain of an expedition into the Black Hills. He was one of the first white men to penetrate this vast, unknown wilderness that now comprises parts of South Dakota and eastern Wyoming.
On the Black Hills expedition, Jedediah was attacked by a large grizzly bear. The bear savagely clawed him in the side, ripping open his flesh and breaking several ribs. The bear also seized Jedediah’s head in its mighty jaws, tearing his scalp almost entirely off and leaving the skin hanging down on his shoulder. The men in the group were shocked and assumed that their leader was dying! But after the attack, Jedediah sat up and calmly instructed his men how to stitch his scalp back together. After a few days of recuperation, Jedediah was able to mount his horse and travel again.
When Jedediah Smith had started his brief and brilliant career as a trapper, a vast white space existed on the map between the Colorado River and the Snake River. By the time of his death, Jedediah had filled in that huge, unknown white space on the map, now encompassing the states of California, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. He was the first United States citizen to cross the Mojave Desert to California and then again to cross the alkali desert in Nevada. When his men were despairing and dying for lack of water, he pressed on alone to find a water hole and bring back life-giving water to his dehydrated men. He was the first man to travel by land all the way through California, south to north. He was one of the first white men to see the Great Salt Lake of Utah. He was the first man to find a pass through the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, pushing through eight feet of snow to cross the mountains in time to meet an appointment with fellow trappers in what is now Utah.
Jedediah Smith, known to history as “the buckskin knight,” died along the Santa Fe Trail at the age of thirty-three. While scouting for water for his thirsty men, he was killed by a war party of Comanche Indians. It was reported, even by his slayers, that Jedediah Smith faced death with courage and that it took over a dozen arrows to bring him down. He died as he had lived: bravely and virtuously.
The vast expanses of the Rocky Mountain were eventually opened to American trade and settlement by the courage and fortitude of Jedediah Smith and the men he led. What is remarkable about this unusual mountain man is that he understood through the eyes of faith that he was accountable to his Lord and Savior, even in the savage wilderness. The man who would never flee from an Indian attack or from a grizzly bear knew how to flee “youthful lusts” and “follow righteousness” (II Timothy 2:22). Jedediah Smith blazed a trail of virtue that every Christian man would do well to follow.