Jedediah S. Smith (1799-1831), trapper, fur trader, and explorer in the American West, was one of the most skillful of the mountain men, although most of his accomplishments were recognized only recently.
Jedediah Smith’s activities in the West occurred between 1822 and 1831, a period of rapid American penetration into the Rocky Mountain area and of phenomenal growth in American fur trading and trapping. He was the first reported American to travel overland to California, the first to cross the Sierra Nevada from the west, the first to travel across the Great Basin, north and south as well as east and west, the first to travel north up the California coast to Oregon, and the first to provide a usable description of South Pass.
As he explored the West, Smith filled his journal, describing the wonders of God’s creation. When he faced hardship or peril, he looked to Scripture for strength. Smith’s letters home to his relatives reflect his faith. In one he wrote “Jesus is always entreating us with His love, and uses every means except compulsion to bring us to Him, that we may have life more abundantly.”
Smith and his party were also one of the first to explore the Black Hills region. It was along the Cheyenne River (near Buffalo Gap and Beaver Creek in current-day southwestern South Dakota) where Smith was savagely attacked by a Grizzly bear, and where fellow explorer Jim Clyman stitched Smith’s scalp back to his head.
The bear came out of a thicket and mauled Smith violently, throwing him to the ground, smashing his ribs and literally ripping off his scalp. His head was in the bear’s mouth and it chewed off his ear, but somehow, perhaps playing dead, Smith survived. The scalp was hanging on to his head by an ear. As he waited for his men to come with help, he found comfort in the 23rd Psalm.
The men found him in such condition and were horrified. Calmly, Smith instructed Clyman to sew the hanging flesh back on. Clyman did the best he could, but thought nothing could be done for the severed ear. Smith insisted that he try.
According to Clyman, “I put my needle sticking it through and through and over and over laying the lacerated parts together as nice as I could with my hands.” After a ten-day recuperation while the men explored the Black Hills, Smith was again leading his expedition forward.
An 1832 eulogy in the Illinois Monthly called Jedediah Smith “a man whom none could approach without respect, and whom none could know without esteem.”