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“Exploration of the Sierra Nevada” (1925)
by Francis P. Farquhar


Jedediah Smith and the American Trappers

The first white men to visit the Sierra Nevada were undoubtedly the American trappers. In 1826 Jedediah Strong Smith, having recently formed a partnership with David E. Jackson and William L. Sublette in the fur trade, set out from Great Salt Lake towards the southwest, prospecting for a new and untried beaver country. 6 He passed through southwestern Utah by way of the Muddy and Virgin rivers and came to the Spanish settlements at San Gabriel late in November. 7 American trappers were not welcome in Spanish California, and he was obliged to move on promptly. Crossing the mountains, probably by the Tehachapi, he came into the great valley of California and travelled north through a fertile country with a high range of mountains on his right. The precise movements of Jedediah Smith and his party will probably never be known, as the record of the next few months is very meager. That he camped for some time near the Kings River seems to be established beyond question by Dr. C. Hart Merriam through Smith’s references to the Wimmelche Indians. 8 It also seems clear that he tried to cross the Sierra in the vicinity of the Kings River, where he was turned back by deep snows after losing some mules. Whether he made other attempts in the immediate vicinity or whether he first went a considerable distance to the north is not so clear, At all events, on May 20, 1827, Jedediah Smith, with two companions, started on a successful attempt to cross the mountains. 9 There has been much discussion over the route of this crossing, but in my opinion the evidence so far brought to light is not conclusive enough to prove beyond a doubt any one of the suggested routes. 10 In eight days Smith had crossed the range and at the end of twenty days more reached Great Salt Lake. This is the first recorded crossing of the Sierra Nevada by white men.

Other trappers soon followed Jedediah Smith in the San Joaquin and undoubtedly ascended the Sierra streams for considerable distances. Ewing Young, with Kit Carson (then unknown to fame), entered the San Joaquin Valley from the south in 1829 and there met a party of Hudson Bay trappers under Peter Skene Ogden. 11 The Ewing Young party returned by the southern route, apparently without attempting to cross the Sierra. Little is known of the Ogden party, but it is presumed that they came into California across the Siskiyou mountains or by way of the Klamath, although they may have crossed the Sierra by mine route north of the Feather River, and possibly, as some say, by Smith’s route. The character and capabilities of the men were such that it would not have been out of the question for them to have come down the eastern side of the Sierra and over one of the passes that later became well known.

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6 Dale: The Ashley-Smith Explorations, 1918, pp. 183-186.

7 Merriam, in California Historical Society Quarterly, October 1923, II, pp. 228-233.

8 California Historical Society Quarterly, April 1924, III, pp. 25-26.

9 Smith’s letter to General Clark, quoted in Dale, pp. 191-193, and in California Historical Society Quarterly, October 1923, II, pp. 233-236.

10 Merriam, in Sierra Club Bulletin, 1923, XI, 4, pp. 375-379; in California Historical Society Quarterly, April 1924, III, pp. 25-29; Fletcher, in California Historical Society Quarterly, January 1924, II, pp. 344-349.

11 California Historical Society Quarterly, October 1922, I, p. 114.


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