Jedediah Smith’s Travels Through Northern California – Part 1: The First White Settlers of NorCal

There is little doubt the standards have changed for what it means to qualify as a “bad dude.” NorCal has its share of extreme athletes, river runners, mountain climbers, tough hombres and mujeres, but mountain men like Jedediah Smith were in a class by themselves. He only lived to be 32 years old, yet in that time managed to chalk up an impressive list of “firsts,” and a few in early California.

What was life like in Northern California in the days before statehood, before “civilization” by white settlers? Mainly due to the mild climate, historians suggest NorCal was among the most densely populated areas of pre-Columbian North America. The first European explorers visited our coastline as early as the 1500s, but there was already a Native population here numbering in the hundreds of thousands. 

The first non-Native inhabitants were Spanish missionaries who built a series of missions up the coast, but they seldom ventured more than 50 miles inland. The Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 between Spain and a young United States established the 42nd parallel as the northern boundary of Spanish claims, the line we recognise today as the California-Oregon border. Yet the vast inland, what we know as the Sacramento Valley, might as well have been part of outer space to non-Natives. 

All the familiar NorCal landmarks we recognize today; Mt. Shasta, Lassen Peak, the Sacramento River were there, though the Natives had known them by other names for thousands of years. 

My imagination aches to know what NorCal must have been like in those days, a pristine outdoor paradise where you didn’t have to worry about drinking pure water from the lakes and streams. The Native population had numerous food sources, but none so seemingly unlimited as the salmon runs choking virtually every waterway. While it’s possible the Sacramento Valley had been visited by non-Native explorers before the 1820s, the majority of people in those days could not read or write, so reliable accounts are sketchy at best. 

Spanish explorers might have been the first Europeans to breach the Sacramento Valley, but records simply don’t exist before the 1820s. Then seemingly all at once, three non-Natives are known to have wandered through NorCal; Luis Argüello, Peter Ogden Skene and Jedediah Smith.

Luis Argüello was then a Spanish officer born in San Francisco. He was the first non-Native to record spotting Lassen Peak, and named it San José, Mount St. Joseph. (Today it is known as Lassen Peak after Danish explorer Peter Lassen.) 1821 was a pivotal year because that’s when Mexico gained its independence from Spain. The name “Alta,” California was given to the Mexican territory which included all of California, Nevada and Utah, and parts of Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. Argüello was the first Governor of Alta, California.

Peter Skene Ogden was the first Hudson’s Bay trapper who moved through the area in 1826 and recorded “discovering” Mt. Shasta. Many more trappers were to follow in the 1830s. Last but not least to wander through NorCal in 1826-7 was celebrated mountain man and explorer Jedediah Strong Smith. 

Before ever coming to California Smith was well known for finding the South Pass through the Rocky Mountains in southern Wyoming, which eventually became part of the Oregon Trail. He was first to explore the Black Hills of South Dakota, Eastern Wyoming, California’s Mojave Desert, and Sierra Nevada mountains, and the Nevada’s Great Basin Desert. He was known to communicate regularly with William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition who was then serving as Superintendent of Indian Affairs. He was rumored to carry a copy of Lewis and Clark’s book on their explorations with him for his entire life. 

Before Smith’s several trips to California he had already survived several Indian attacks and being mauled by a grizzly bear in Montana. The enraged beast ripped open his side, broke several ribs and took Smith’s whole head into its mouth, ripping off his scalp and one ear. Smith convinced friend Jim Clyman to sew his hair and ear back on (OUCH!), then wore his hair long from then on to cover the hideous scar.

Smith traveled through Utah and Nevada, then to Southern California’s San Gabriel Mission with the intention of finding new areas in which to trap beaver. A day later the rest of Smith’s party arrived, and the head of the mission garrison confiscated all of their guns. Shortly thereafter Smith was summoned to San Diego to meet with Governor José María Echeandía, who suspected he was an American spy. The Governor detained Smith for about two weeks before releasing him and ordering his party to leave by the same route they had taken into Mexican territory.

Once Smith’s party was well away from the Mexicans, he diverted his men up the Kings River to trap beaver. Ultimately they continued north in hopes of discovering the legendary Buenaventura River, an imagined waterway running from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Finding no such river, Smith determined to explore the rivers flowing into San Francisco Bay. His party followed the Cosumnes River (south of present-day Sacramento) and also the American River. Since Smith was also working as a trapper, he took a small party of men and 7,400 pounds of furs over the Sierra Nevada mountains (the first non-Native to do so) in the snow to rendezvous with his partners and bring more provisions back to California. He also passed on a letter to William Clark describing all that he’d seen over the last year.

Crossing over the Colorado River on the way back to California Smith’s party was attacked by 400-500 Mojave Indians. Ten of his men were killed and two women taken captive. Making a stand on the western bank of the river, Smith’s men were able to kill several Indians before retreating across the Mojave Desert on foot. 

Once again in southern California, Smith’s party made their way up to Monterey (the capital of Alta, California) and San Francisco. Once again the Governor had Smith arrested for not leaving California as he’d been ordered, but eventually let him off with orders to leave California permanently. Maybe Smith had a problem with authority, but once again he ignored the Governor and led his party up the Sacramento Valley.

“Having been so long absent from the business of trapping and so much perplexed and harrassed by the folly of men in power I returned again to the woods, the river, the prairie, the Camp & the Game with a feeling somewhat like that of a prisoner escaped from his dungeon and his chains.” (Jedediah Smith’s Journal – Second Expedition to California, 13 Jul 1827 – 3 Jul 1828)

Coming up in Part 2: Jedediah Smith describes the Buenaventura (Sacramento) River valley in 1828.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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