The last time I encountered Jedediah Smith between book covers was in Oregon-California Trails by Charles George Davis. (See Writer Working Exploring with Charley, Feb 23 2010.) Even though that book is chock full of wonderful stories and details, it’s kind of a monster of a work, a labyrinth of disorganized detail and bad writing. And, of course, its focus is not on Smith alone.
Baron H. Barbour’s Jedediah Smith No Ordinary Mountain Man is an entirely different animal. Clearly written and well-documented, it pays homage to a man whose role in American history has been neglected, distorted, mythologized, and mistreated in every other way you can think of. But while Barbour admires Smith, he doesn’t idolize or romanticize him. And therein, I think, lies the strength of this terrifically readable biography.
The introduction doesn’t just frame the historical narrative.It pulls you into it immediately by recounting what little is known of his killing in 1831 at age 32. From there, Barbour goes on in a more conventional fashion to outline the historical and family context of Smith’s era and to set the backdrop for his journey west. However, knowing all the time where the adventure is going gives a dramatic tension to the tale that heightens the read nicely.
As to Smith himself, as reader, you find yourself living with an abstemious man of Christian (if narrowly protestant, anti-Catholic) principles who is a quick thinker, a natural leader, and an entrepreneur with a powerful ego and great ambition. He is also astoundingly perseverant and brave. Just the one incident where he literally has half his face chewed off by a grizzly bear, then directs his shaken companions in the task of sewing up own his wounds (no drugs, of course) is enough to give him mountain man creds for life.
But that’s not the half of it. Driven by equal parts lust to explore and lust for lucre in the fur trade, Smith insists on seeking out situations wherein his life is threatened by bad weather, no water, hostile natives, and hostile governments. What gets him through is a combination of guts and wile, which are also (probably) what finally get him killed. The Mexicans imprison him twice, let him go twice. He breaks his contracts with them both times. The Hudson Bay Company–chief rivals in his hunt for furry wealth–helps and supports him, and he bad mouths them to all and sundry. He tries to get along with the Indians, but doesn’t hesitate to murder them, or at least condone their murder, when it suits him. In the process, he covers more territory, makes his imprint on more places from St. Louis to the Pacific, from San Diego to Oregon, and all points in between than I suppose anyone except maybe John Fremont. (I leave out Lewis and Clark because they only went once and did it together, and with government support.) And even Fremont didn’t try to drive 300 horses from the Bay Area to Northern Oregon.
Given his ambition and planned writing projects when he died, there’s a good chance Smith would have outstripped even that politician-soldier-nomad in the end.
So thanks to Mr. Barbour for an enlightening and exciting volume, to Dave for turning me on to it, and for some art director for having the sense to use the superb C.M. Russell detail for the cover. A perfect package from one end to the other.