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The day Jedediah Smith came to San Francisco

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 2/18/2022 By Gary Kamiya
Al LePage, executive director of the National Coast Trail Association, dresses as explorer Jedediah Smith in 2000 in Coos Bay, Ore. © Madeline Steege / Coos Bay (Ore.) World 2000

Al LePage, executive director of the National Coast Trail Association, dresses as explorer Jedediah Smith in 2000 in Coos Bay, Ore.

On Nov. 17, 1827, a tall, lean 28-year-old American trapper sailed through the Golden Gate on a U.S. ship called the Franklin, which had beaten up the coast from Monterey. After it dropped anchor, the young trapper made his way to the Presidio, where he presented the comandante, Luis Antonio Argüello, with the precious passport he had just been given by the governor of Mexican California, José María de Echeandía.

Obtaining that passport had not been easy, for Gov. Echeandía was convinced that the young American was a spy.

The Mexican government was wary of foreigners, whom they suspected of having designs on their lightly held province, and this particular Yankee seemed highly suspicious. He had suddenly appeared in November the year before at Mission San Gabriel, near Los Angeles, telling the padres that he and his party of fur trappers had come across the desert from the east — something unheard of. Of the handful of Americans in California, all had come by sea. Echeandía summoned him to San Diego, where he interrogated him. The governor finally allowed him to leave, but on the condition that he and his men leave California the same way they had entered. However, the trapper had disobeyed these orders and instead taken his men north, camping on the Stanislaus River. When Mexican troops came after them in May to arrest them, they found that the American had disappeared into the Sierra, leaving some of his party behind.

That was bad enough. But the Mexican authorities became even more suspicious when the trapper appeared again in California in September 1827, this time presenting himself to the fathers at Mission San José. He was taken under guard to Monterey, where he told Echeandía that half of his party had been slaughtered by native people, that he had been forced to enter California by the same desert route he had taken the year before, and then had ridden north to relieve his party on the Stanislaus.

Echeandía didn’t believe anything he said. He was prepared to let the young American languish in Monterey indefinitely, and it was only when a prominent foreign businessman agreed to stand bond that he agreed to give the trapper a passport. Echeandía ordered the men who had been left on the Stanislaus to go to San Francisco, where their leader would meet them. The party was then to leave the territory via the north shore of the Bay.

Argüello found that the young American’s papers were in order, and he was reunited with his party of trappers at the Presidio. For the next few days, he busied himself loading 1,500 pounds of beaver and a few otter skins aboard the Franklin to be shipped back east. On Nov. 26, he rode with his men to Mission San José, where they prepared for their expedition. On Christmas Day, he returned to San Francisco to make arrangements with Argüello to cross the Bay, but at the Carquinez Strait no launch was available to ferry his party across. He proposed taking his men further east and crossing that way, but Argüello insisted that he must wait for instructions from the governor. The trapper pretended to comply, but after riding back to San Jose, he led his 20-man party northeast, avoiding the strait, and Argüello, altogether. From there, they rode north to the Oregon territory, never to return to California.

This episode is almost completely forgotten. There are no plaques or historical markers commemorating it. Yet it was a momentous visit. For the young American was Jedediah Smith — the most legendary of the mountain men and the first non-native person to cross the Sierra Nevada. As Dale L. Morgan writes in “Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West,” “In the exploration of the American West, Jedediah Strong Smith is overshadowed only by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. During his eight years in the West Jedediah Smith made the effective discovery of South Pass; he was the first man to reach California overland from the American frontier, the first to cross the Sierra Nevada, the first to travel the length and width of the Great Basin, the first to reach Oregon by a journey up the California coast. He saw more of the West than any man of his time, and was familiar with it from the Missouri River to the Pacific, from Mexico to Canada.”

The fact that this towering, almost mythical figure in the history of the West set foot in San Francisco — and was one of the first Americans to do so — deserves to be better known.

The story Smith told Echeandía was true. He was a fur trapper — simply one whose search of beaver on one of his expeditions had carried him farther West than any previous non-native person. Smith had begun his trapping career in the Rocky Mountains in 1822 as a green 23-year-old. He was an atypical mountain man. As Morgan writes, “Jedediah was a young man modest and unassuming, quiet and mild of manner, one who never smoked or chewed tobacco, never uttered a profane word, and partook of wine or brandy only sparingly on formal occasions. He took his religion with him into the wilderness and let nothing corrode it.” Smith’s intelligence, leadership qualities, courage, endurance and drive earned him the respect of his peers — and were to enshrine him as one of the greatest explorers in U.S. history.

The map of Smith’s explorations in the West is jaw-dropping. Long before later travelers made them household names, he rode along the Platte River, through the Yellowstone country, crossed the Rocky Mountains at South Pass, and followed the Columbia River out of the Oregon territory. After leaving his men camped on the north fork of the Stanislaus River in present-day Calaveras County, he crossed the Sierra near Ebbetts Pass, making the first crossing of that mighty range not from east to west but from west to east. During his eight years in the West he survived three attacks by American Indians that claimed the lives of more than 30 trappers. For his time, he held relatively enlightened views of the native people and tried to maintain civil relations with the tribes across whose lands he and his men were traveling and trapping.

But at the end, the savvy survival instincts and raw courage that had served Smith so well for so long could not save him. On May 27, 1831, while leading a party on the Santa Fe Trail, Smith rode off alone in search of water. His companions never saw him again. From later reports, it was surmised that a group of 15 or 20 Comanches, lying in wait for buffalo, had seen Smith approaching and hid until he was too close to escape. Smith knew how fierce the Comanches were and that his only chance was to make a brave front, so he rode directly up to the warriors and tried to parley with them. But they ignored his signs of peace and began to spread out. Smith backed slowly up, trying to keep them from getting behind him, when suddenly his horse was startled into wheeling. The Comanches instantly fired at him, a bullet hitting him near the left shoulder. Smith managed to turn his horse and get off one shot with his rifle, killing the chief, before the rest of the warriors fell upon him with their lances.

Thus ended the career of what Morgan calls “an authentic American hero” — one whose epic explorations took him, almost 200 years ago, to a tiny Mexican outpost at the very end of the West, a speck on the map called San Francisco.

Gary Kamiya is the author of the best-selling book “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco.” His most recent book is “Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City.” All the material in Portals of the Past is original for The San Francisco Chronicle. To read earlier Portals of the Past, go to sfchronicle.com/portals.

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