After Lewis and Clark: Mountain Men and the Paths to the Pacific

By Robert M. Utley | Go to book overview

4

JEDEDIAH SMITH:
ATYPICAL MOUNTAIN MAN

NO MOUNTAIN MAN in his time held more potential for enriching the world's understanding of the North American West than Jedediah Strong Smith. What he did contribute formed only a tiny fraction of what his experience, purpose, intellect, and influential connections would have unveiled but for the untimely intervention of Comanche lances. In his eight years of mountaineering, he traveled across more unknown western wilderness than any contemporary. Driven by a resolve to make known his findings, moreover, he kept records and drew maps that clarified geography and related it to the history unfolding across its vast and varied expanse.

When Jedediah Smith appeared in St. Louis in 1822, the maps of the West still exhibited more fantasy than reality. They drew primarily on the Lewis and Clark map of 1814, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike's map of 1810, and an influential map published by Baron Alexander von Humboldt in 1808. In visits to New Spain, the great German scientist had tapped into the records of the Spanish explorers Francisco Domínguez and Silvestre Escalante, who in 1776 had journeyed northwest from Santa Fe seeking a route to California. Exhausting themselves in the canyon country of the Colorado River and the Wasatch rampart beyond, they turned back. Their journals and maps furnished Humboldt with both fact and error.

The cartographic West of 1822 still pictured the great rivers rising in close proximity to one another, although no longer in Pike's "grand reservoir of snows and fountains." West of a still-monolithic Rocky Mountain

-39-

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