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Nick Cataldo

The legacy of the fur trade opened the West to travel and settlement, much to the understandable resentment of the Indigenous people.

The trade — beginning with the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition — flourished into the 1820s and early ’30s before fading into obscurity by 1840.

Jedediah Strong Smith (1799-1831) and his fur trading party became the first group of Americans to make an overland journey to California.

Smith, a 27-year-old from Bainbridge, New York, was literate, self educated, and deeply religious, a sharp contrast to the typical “mountain man.”

Jedediah Smith (Courtesy of San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society)
Jedediah Smith (Courtesy of San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society)

Anxious to explore the country between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Smith and 17 men left Cache Valley in northern Utah in August 1826 and traveled to the Mohave villages near the Colorado River, arriving in late October.

With the help of Mohave guides, the expedition followed what we now refer to as the Mohave Indian Trail through a long, hilly stretch of desert in which there were three watering holes a day’s journey apart. The end of this stretch was the sink of the Mojave River at Soda Lake.

The group continued along the trail, which followed what Smith called the “Inconstant River,” because of its peculiar habit of running underground much of the time, from Soda Lake to a Vanyume village near today’s Hesperia and then to the river’s forks at the northern foot of the San Bernardino Mountains.

The explorers turned up the West Fork, crossed a low ridge into Summit Valley, near today’s Silverwood Lake, and struggled up Sawpit Canyon to the crest of the mountains near today’s Monument Peak. Then they went down the long ridge between Devil and Cable canyons into the lower Cajon Creek and the northwestern edge of the San Bernardino Valley.

The ragged, dirty, and half-starved band of trappers headed for Mission San Gabriel, where they arrived Nov. 28, 1826.

The Smith party was detained for over two months while Jose Maria Echeandia, the Mexican governor of Alta California, investigated the reasons why these uninvited guests arrived. California was under Mexican rule, and any report of “foreigners” entering illegally from the east was disturbing. When the governor granted permission for them to leave California, the trappers headed back to Utah on Jan. 18, 1827, but not before stopping in the San Bernardino Valley.

They camped at Jumuba, an Indian village a few miles west of San Gabriel Mission’s Rancho San Bernardino, in the vicinity of today’s Mission Road in Loma Linda.

Mohave Trail Monument at Monument Peak in the San Bernardino Mountains (Courtesy of Nick Cataldo)
Mohave Trail Monument at Monument Peak in the San Bernardino Mountains (Courtesy of Nick Cataldo)

While gathering supplies and breaking wild horses, it was at this camp that Smith’s clerk Harrison G. Rogers wrote about the climate, recorded the trouble the men experienced with horses, and made note of the Native Americans of the San Bernardino Valley. Here are some of those writings:

Sunday 21st – All hands were up early and getting their horses packed, we were under way in pretty good season, in the morning, and had an Ind. (Indian) boy as a pilot, we started and traveled, a N.E. and By East course, 25 or 30 m and reached an Ind. farm house, about 4 m. distant from San Bernardo (Bernardino), where we have an order from old Father Joseph Sanchus (Sanchez), at the mission of San Gabriel, for all the supplies we stand in need of the country (quite) mountainous and stony.”

Monday 22nd – Mr. S (Jedediah Smith) and the Interpreter started early this morning up to San Bernardino for to see the Steward, and get supplies we intend killing some beef here and drying meat. I expect we shall remain here two or three days – all hands get milk this morning.”

Rogers’ penmanship was adequate. His spelling was from listening to words being spoken and then writing them. This was quite evident every time he attempted to spell San Bernardino.

Tuesday 23rd — Still at the Ind.(Indian) farm 3 m from San Burnandeino some of the men are employed in braking Horses, and others making pack saddles and rigging them, mr. S sent a letter back this morning to old Father Sanchius concerning the horses we lossed at Saint Ann (Santa Ana del Chino), six in number, he will wait the result of his answer.”

“Wednesday 24th — We are still remaining at the Ind. farm waiting the result of the Priests answer, and drying meat, and repairing saddles for our journey. Some of the men we kept employed braking wild Horses, Daniel Ferguson one of our men, when leaving the mission on the 18th Inst. hid himself and we could not find him, the corporal who commands at the mission promised to find him, and send him on to us, but I suspect we shall not see him again, the weather continues fine.”

Thursday 25th — No answer from the priest this morning, and we are obliged to remain here another day. The men will keep at work, braking young horses, Mr. S discharged one of the men John Wilson, on the 17th Inst., and he could not get permission to stay in the country, therefor we obliged to let him come back to us, he remains with the company but not under pay as yet. I expect he will go on with us. The weather still continues beautiful — things about our camp as usual. Inds (Indians) traveling back and forward from the mission steady the Inds here call themselves the Farrahoots.”

Close up of Mohave Indian Trail monument on Monument Peak in the San Bernardino Mountains. (Courtesy of Nick Cataldo)
Close up of Mohave Indian Trail monument on Monument Peak in the San Bernardino Mountains. (Courtesy of Nick Cataldo)

Friday 26th — Early this morning we collected our Horses — and counted them and two was missing. Mr. S sent a man in search of them, he returned with them about 10 o’clock, we are still at the Ind-farm house, waiting an answer from the priest — at San Gabriel. I expect we shall remain here today — if the courier does not arrive. In the Evening James Reed and myself concluded we could go into the cowpen and rope some cows, and milk them, after the Ind-fashion, and accordingly we made ready our rope, and haltered four cows, and tied their heads up to a steak (stake), and made fast their hind feet and milked them, but did not get much milk on account of not letting their calves to them. So soon as we were done Capt Smith and Silas Gobel followed our Example, this country in many respects is the most desirable part of the world I ever was in, the climate so regular and beautiful, the thermometer stands daily from 65 to 70 degrees — and I am told it is about the same in the summer.”

Saturday 27th — Still at the Ind farm House waiting the answer from the priest, 2 of our horses missing this morning — and four men sent in search of them. Mr. S and Lapoint is gone up to San burnondeino to see the old steward on the business.”

On Feb. 1, Smith and his men finally departed the San Bernardino Valley and headed north across the mountains toward the desert.

However, once away from the eyes of Mexican authorities, the Smith party disobeyed Governor Echeandia’s instructions and took their time heading back to Utah, traveling northwest and doing more exploring. When they finally reached the trappers’ rendezvous at Bear Lake in northeastern Utah, it was July 3, 1827.

Ten days later, Smith and company headed back to California and another stop in the San Bernardino Valley.

For certain, the man had flaws. He disrespected Mexican sovereignty, broke rules, and lied to officials during his two sojourns to California.

But during his short life, Jedediah Smith became known as one of the nation’s greatest frontiersmen and became known for many firsts. He made the discovery of South Pass through California, and was the first White man to reach California overland, the first to cross the Sierra Nevada, the first to travel the length and width of the Great Basin, and the first to go by land from California to Oregon.

He did all of this by age 32, when a group from the Comanche tribe killed him on May 27, 1831, while leading a caravan on the Santa Fe Trail. Smith had left the group to scout for water near the Lower Spring on the Cimarron River in what is southwest Kansas today. He never returned.

You can contact Nick Cataldo at Yankeenut15@gmail.com and read more of his local history articles at .

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