Map of Jedediah Smith’s Travels

An Introduction to the Map

By Sheri Wysong, Jedediah Smith Society

Jedediah Smith arrived in the Rocky Mountains in 1822, as a fur trapper in the employ William Ashley and Andrew Henry. In the years, his travels around and west of the Continental Divide resulted in actions that led to, as Historian Dale Morgan put it, “The Opening of the West.” Smith’s rediscovery of the South Pass of the Continental Divide and of the inhospitable nature of the Great Basin desert shaped the pathways of hundreds of thousands of emigrants from the eastern United States to the Oregon Territory and later to Utah and California.

Smith’s travels, however, were much more extensive, travels that he described in a March 2, 1831 to the Secretary of War John H. Eaton. Smith wrote: “I have traveled from the mouth of the Missouri River nearly to the great Falls at different times. The Big Platte and the Yellow Stone Rivers I have more than once traced from their Mouths to the sources and have made Journeys in many directions through the extensive country in which the Missouri has numerous sources. From the waters of the Missouri I have traveled twice to California a part of which routes were along the Colorado of the West. From the valley of the Buenaventura1 which discharges its waters into the Bay of St. Francisco I have traveled across the Sand Plain to the Great Salt Lake. With the country in the vicinity of the Lake I am familiar. From the Bay of St. Francisco alternately on the sea coast and through the interior I traveled to the Columbia River discovering some considerable rivers south of the Columbia. The Multnomah River2 I have traced through it course. From the mouth of the Columbia I followed its course to the source of its principle branch and in the mountains on the heads of the several tributaries of the Columbia I have traveled in many directions acquiring a knowledge of nearly all the passes between the waters of the Missouri and the Columbia and Colorado of the West” (Smith 2001, 5)

Smith went on to write: “I have a Map just finished which combines all the information I have personally collected with all that was before known of our Western Territory. I have also notes of my travels.” Smith’s map and notes have long been missing, but before they disappeared they were used as the source of several published maps and Smith’s memoirs, which were found in two pieces, the first one in the 1920 by Smith biographer Maurice Sullivan, and the other by a descendant of Ashley’s lawyer in 1967. From these maps, the memoir and the journals of Smith’s contemporaries, Smith’s routes during his nearly nine years west of St. Louis can be conjectured with varying degrees of accuracy.

Some segments of Smith’s routes can be depicted very accurately if say, Smith followed or traveled on a particular river, or described traveling in easily identified canyons. But, most of Smith’s overland travels can only be conjectured from descriptions of landmarks along the way. The maps drawn for this project are based on the best postulates of their creators, based on their knowledge of the geography and topography of the region. Published maps derived from Smith’s maps provide clues, as does the Frémont-Gibbs-Smith map; an 1844 published map of John Charles Frémont’s travels upon which ethnographer George Gibbs annotated Smith’s map in the early 1850’s. These maps are described in The Maps of Jedediah Smith in the American West, published by Carl Wheat and Dale Morgan in 1954.

The takeaway of these maps is not to try to assert the exact routes Smith traveled, but to put his travels into the historical context of events that took place before or after his presence, providing on overview of Smith’s place in “The Opening of the West.”

[1] The Sacramento River Valley
[2] Willamette River

An organization dedicated to learning about and sharing the history of Jedediah Smith and other explorers and mountain men.