Jed Smith, Scientist

Jed is remembered mainly as a hunter, trapper, explorer, fur trader, and guide—and rightfully so. However, his interests extended beyond those typically associated with a mountain man.

In their remarkable book, Jedediah Smith and His Maps of the West, Dale L. Morgan and Carl I. Wheat devote their final chapter to Jed’s scientific contributions, noting that Jed “was a close and accurate observer and a student of nature.” The authors enumerate several of Jed’s scientific achievements.

  1. Geography and Cartography: Jed had an “intimate knowledge” of the West, recognizing that many of the maps of this region were inaccurate—a problem that would have fatal consequences for travelers unless these maps were corrected.
  2. Zoology: His journals identify and briefly describe—though not scientifically—many of the animals he observed. Morgan and Wheat report that Jed was “perhaps the first to realize the importance for the West of the distribution of buffalo over its reaches” and that Jed’s map reveals his awareness of the important role of horses in the West, too.
  3. Ethnology: Just a few months before his death, Jed told a newspaper reporter that he had wanted to learn “the character and habits of the Indians.” In less than a decade in the West, Jed achieved this goal. Morgan and Wheat claim that Jed “was the first man to produce an ethnographic survey of the West as a whole.” Time and again in his journals Jed describes the Natives he encountered and locates them on his map. Jed became familiar with at least 30 Indian tribes.
  4. Botany: In one letter Jed writes “one of earliest descriptions of the barrel cactus,” and in his journal he describes a tree, which Morgan and Wheat say was probably the madroño. Jed also collected the seeds of shrubs and plants, including the gooseberry, the chokecherry, the yellow and the black currant, the buffalo berry, grass seed, and a tree similar to the apple tree—perhaps one of “the first botanical collections ever made in the Rocky Mountains south of the track of Lewis and Clark.”

Had he lived a few centuries earlier, Jed would have fit the definition of the Renaissance Man, a person with varied intellectual interests and an insatiable desire to learn. Along with his interest in science, he was successful in business, he studied his Bible, he read history, he was literate . . . the list of his attainments is lengthy and impressive.