Essay

The Legends of Jedidiah Smith

By February 7, 2020 5 Comments
Harvey Dunn, Jedidiah Smith in the Badlands

Don’t know whether he actually carried the Good Book through the west in those early years. The story goes he took carried a copy of the Journals of Lewis and Clark, but whether or not he lugged the scriptures along may not be all that important. What nobody doubts was that Jedidiah Smith forever carried the Good Book in his heart, which made him peculiar among fur-trappers who traveled the frontier West, circa 1820. 

He didn’t carp about religion, didn’t hound people like some fussy parson. He just kind of lived it, selfless. Everybody knew it.

Jedidiah was born in 1799, at a place called Jericho, New York. Of his parents’ fourteen kids, he was number six. Like others, Jedidiah Smith got a taste for the west, for the wilderness beyond. When he spotted a fur company ad looking to recruit men, he left Jericho for wild and lawless St. Louis. 

Millions of Europeans had gone beaver hat-crazy for a long time before Jedidiah came to St. Louis. If you wanted to be someone, sir, you needed a beaver hat, which made the trapping beaver one of the best ways to make a life. 

Think I’m lying?–have a look at the Synod of Dort, 1619:

Jedidiah Smith joined a crew of fur trappers that came up the Missouri on their way north and west. But this Jedidiah wasn’t just another adventurer. The money he pocketed went back to Jericho. His aging parents had nothing. “It is that I may be able to help those who stand in need that I face every danger,” he told his brother in a letter, “–it is for this that I traverse the mountains covered with eternal snow–it is for this that I pass over sandy plains in the heart of summer. . .” Then he wrote, “Let it be the greatest pleasure that we can enjoy to smooth the pillow of [our parents] age and as much as in us lies, take from them all cause of trouble.” 

This Jedidiah Smith was a straight-up good man. 

Didn’t take long for myths to build. He made his reputation when he stood fast in a firestorm attack by several hundred Rees on ninety trappers in the employ of the Great Missouri Fur Company, an attack in which the men of the Company did not fare well. 

It was Jedidah’s first trip up the river. It wouldn’t be his last, but it would be the trip that created the legend because didn’t run but stood fast on a sandbar, protecting horses they’d traded. As everyone who survived saw with their own eyes, Jedidiah Smith was the last to leave. 

What the boss understood once his boats pulled away far enough to escape the rain of bullets was that his crew would need help from the settlements. He asked for a volunteer. Guess who raised his hand–a young guy who’d never been anywhere near the Missouri before? 

Jedidiah Smith had fought to the bitter, bloody end, then volunteered to chase down river and bring help. All of that didn’t go unnoticed. 

And then there was this. Twelve men died in that bloody fight; of the eleven more wounded, two would die soon. They’d seen one of their friends sliced up horribly. Now, the dead had to be buried. Whatever else his steadfast faith gifted him to do, Jedidiah had a level of peace that went way beyond most mountain men. “Then let us come forward with faith,” he wrote in his journal, “nothing doubting, and He will most unquestionably hear us.”

That he would step forward at the burial of the company’s dead that day makes all kinds of sense. Jedidiah Smith volunteered to stand up in front of the others, hands folded, head bowed, to offer a prayer, a prayer the famed Hugh Glass later described with these few words: “Mr. Smith, a young man of our company made a powerful prayer which moved us all greatly.” 

People like to say that funeral out in the wilds was the first act of Christian public worship anywhere near the Upper Missouri. It wasn’t the end of Jedidiah Smith’s fur-trapping adventures on the Missouri River, only the beginning.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

5 Comments

  • Thank you. It is a wonderful story of faithfulness. Will there be more stories coming?

  • mstair says:

    “He just kind of lived it, selfless. Everybody knew it.”

    How refreshing! With all the current dispute over “how to interpret the scriptures” and especially words relating to sex, here is an example of how The Holy Spirit is the true sanctifier of the elect – doing it all without commentaries, DVD’s, streaming Bible study, and YouTube “teachings.” How amazing!

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    We were in the majestic Jedidiah Smith Redlands State Park in Northern California, alongside the Smith River (named after him) several years ago. His is an enigmatic history of survival in an often hostile environment, faithfulness to his faith and family, and a mapping ability that was astonishing at the time he was doing it. Thanks for giving these deeper glimpses into his personal writings!

  • This is a terrific story that leaves me wondering about Smith’s relationships to Native American tribes? We hear all of the stories of depredations by whites against Native Americans, but we don’t hear many stories about Christians who objected to the way Native Americans were treated. Certainly there were some, just as there were believers who joined the abolitionist movements in the East. We need to hear about the faithful minority of believers who tried to represent Christ in the face of hostile forces, just as there are a faithful minority today doing the same.

  • Jim Schaap says:

    Could not agree more! Thanks.

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