Book Review

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A review of The Southwest Expedition of Jedediah S. Smith
His Personal Account of the Journey to California, 1826-1827
as reprinted from the original journal, edited by George R. Brooks
University of Nebraska Press, 1977; Bison Books paperback 1989

If you like unprocessed, uninterpreted real history, you can’t do better than reading original journals of people who made it happen.  This treasure of a journal, discovered in an attic just a few decades ago, tells the day-by-day adventures of Jedediah Strong Smith, one of the greatest American western explorers.  His travels are second only to Lewis and Clark’s in significance for the opening the West.  This book is the journal of Smith’s first trek to California from the Rockies and back.  It is filled with both the excitement of discovery, and the perils of horse-and-foot travel among potential enemies in inhospitable lands.  You will read first-hand accounts of near starvation and thirst, of Indian attacks, of mountain blizzards and waterless deserts, of near drownings in rivers, of weary travels over wastelands and mountains, and other accompaniments of exploration in a day without roads, maps, telephones, electricity and fast food.

What makes this account so valuable is Jedediah himself.  Serious and unpretentious, devoutly Christian and a man of high integrity, Smith was not the stereotypical Mountain Man.  In just eight years since joining William Ashley’s band of trappers (1824), killed by Indians at age 32, he had traveled most of the Western United States, surviving herculean odds along the way.  One unforgettable scene in this journal has Smith meditating to himself atop a peak in the Sierras, after having suffered severe hardships with his men against snow and Indians.  He reminisces about the comforts and joys of his childhood home back East, but then in the spirit of true courage, faces the desperate reality of his situation and the fact his men are counting on his leadership.  From there he faces several life-and-death struggles getting over the Sierra Nevada (first white man to make the crossing) and across the desolate Great Basin wastelands and back to the Rendezvous near Salt Lake.  When he arrives, his friends, who thought him long dead, celebrate by firing a cannon they had carted over the Rockies from St. Louis. [Historical note: within days, Smith was off to California again, this time to suffer even more hardships all the way to Oregon, including two Indian massacres.]

This was one of Smith’s most important journeys; known previously only by some letters and pieces of the journal, we now have the full account!  I’m surprised this book doesn’t get more attention; I found it captivating.  The descriptions of Mission San Gabriel, early Pueblo Los Angeles and the Mexican-controlled early California culture are revealing.  Having seen the mission today hemmed in by the city, I now have the eyes of Smith and his aide Harrison Rogers (who died the following year in the Umpqua Massacre in Oregon), to see how it must have appeared in 1827.  George R. Brooks’ helpful footnotes give background information and locations, so that you can follow the route on a map.  I think it would make a terrific family vacation to retrace his journey.  From your air-conditioned van, along I-40 in desolate eastern California, or along I-80 in Nevada, look out your window and imagine Smith and his weary men in a desperate search for water, as you cover in a half-hour what took them two days.

In an age where history is processed through Hollywood tall tale tellers, who don’t hesitate to rewrite what happened according to their politically correct biases, we need to get the story straight from the source.  (Hmmm, this journal would make a great film epic, though.)  We also need to appreciate the courage and fortitude of our pioneers, who accomplished great things with much less.  Get a map of the Western states, open this book, and discover America with Jedediah Strong Smith!

Reviewed by David F. Coppedge