The Jed Smith expedition.
THE UMPQUA FIGHT.The first white men to set foot within what is now known as Southern Oregon were, as far as is known, the party of fur hunters and trappers led by Jedediah S. Smith. It happened in 1828. Smith was a partner in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, with Sublette and Jackson, and had been in the habit of leading parties of men into the fastnesses of the Rocky Range, and in the spring of 1826 he, with forty companions, penetrated into the country west of the great Salt Lake, called afterward by Fremont the Great American Desert. They discovered Humboldt River, naming it Mary's River, and following down that singular stream, which diminishes instead of increasing its volume as it flows, they came to Humboldt Lake and the sink of Carson, and, still traveling southward, reached the Colorado, and in July got safely into Southern California, the first of Americans to invade the Golden State, then inhabited only by a few priests, soldiers and settlers, all of the Mexican persuasion, and none too hospitable or favorable to foreigners of any sort. The priestly missionaries were the oligarchs of the country. Cattle and horses grazing upon a thousand hills had by their natural increase enriched the few mission establishments whose foundations had so painfully been laid half a century before by Fathers Serra and Paton and their devoted brothers in the faith. In each of these great religious establishments a thousand Indians were daily and nightly herded like beasts, their involuntary labor in the field or workshop going to offset their brief but no doubt efficacious religious instruction. Isolation was the reason for the existence of such institutions, and a profound jealousy of outsiders testified that the priests deemed their reign none too secure. It was upon such a scene that Smith, with fifteen of his men, burst in the year of 1826.
The First Indian Difficulty in Southern Oregon.
Jedediah S. Smith and His Trappers--Their Errand in California--
A Bold Journey--The Massacre of the Umpqua.
(Written for the Sunday Oregonian.)
THEY CAME TO EXPLOREMore than to hunt, setting out betimes from their mountain fastnesses along Green River, and following down the Colorado to Mohave and thence across the country to Mission San Gabriel, where they were coldly received by Father Boscana, the superior of the mission and a man of many languages. He sent them to San Diego, the then seat of Echeandia, governor of the province--for the trappers had given up their arms and surrendered upon a charge of being filibusters and ill-intentioned intruders. This was in December, 1826. Smith had brought a passport, and he kept a diary, and these papers falling into the Mexicans' hands were regarded with suspicion until providentially an American trading vessel arrived, whose officers came and certified to the good character of Smith and his companions, and they were set free, but with the injunction to depart instantly by way of the east, and not to linger in the interior of the Mexican territories. So much for national courtesy. Smith, however, did not depart so precipitately as his unwilling hosts might have wished. Instead, he moved leisurely along the coast northward, spending two months in going to San Bernardino, and in May, 1827, they were encamped near the mission San Jose, not far from Oakland, California, whence Father Duran, prefect of the northern missions, sent to know their object. To him Smith addressed the following letter, which was long preserved among the archives of the establishment:
"Reverend Father:--I understand that you are anxious to know who we are, as some Indians have told you of certain white people being in the country. We are Americans, on our way to the Columbia River. We were at San Gabriel in December last. We saw the general at San Diego and got a passport. I have tried several times to cross the mountains, but the snow being deep, I had to return to this place (it being the only point to kill meat) to wait until the snow melts. The Indians here being friendly I consider it the safest place to remain until I can cross with my horses, of which I lost a great many on my last attempt. I am a long ways from home and anxious to get there as soon as possible. Our situation is quite unpleasant, being destitute of clothing and most of the necessaries of life, wild meat being our principal subsistence. I am, Reverend Father, your strange but real friend and Christian brother,
May 19, 1827. "J. S. SMITH."
THERE IS NO RECORDOf Smith having fought a battle with the Indians on Colorado River as stated by many writers. The stories diverge intolerably, some saying that he had in the previous year left a party of hunters on the American River, and making other statements as hard to reconcile. It is astounding with what a slight adherence to truth many people pursue historical narratives, and there can be excellent exemplifications thereof in this Smith episode.
Just after writing the letter to Padre Duran, Smith set out for Green River (May 20, 1827), crossed the Sierra and probably the first time that mortal man--or at least civilized man--performed that feat, reached his friends at the headquarters on Green River, and performing his errand, returned to California as quickly and quietly as he left. No one knows the route he took, but his arrival occurred on October 27 of the same year. In November he went to Monterey, the capital of upper California, with eighteen men, and meeting his excellency, the civil governor, got permission to hunt and trap on the Pacific coast north of the 42nd parallel, the line of separation between Oregon and California.
Taking his men on board of the American trader Franklin, Smith went to San Francisco, afterward called Yerba Buena, and organized his forces for a trip northward or coastward. He left four or five men in California from illness or other causes, and with the rest proceeded to Oregon.
Those who have represented the expedition as purely for trapping purposes have doubtless overlooked the fact that whatever of furs had been taken must necessarily be borne along with the cavalcade, which itself is a sufficient answer to writers like Mr. Gray, who, as will be seen, credited the few trappers with a catch in so short a time as the period of their sojourn in California of $10,000--a manifest improbability. Had the take been so valuable they never would have dreamed of bringing it through the entirely unknown wilds between the northernmost missions and the little settlement on the Columbia; so it is well to deem their take of furs thus far very moderate.
They set out probably from Bodega Bay to thread the wilds, though some deem that their course lay upward through the Sacramento Valley, for 200 miles. There are faint traditions of a course along Cache Creek and a debouchement upon the coast above Fort Ross, now held by the Russians. A. L. Wells,
IN THE HISTORY OF SISKIYOU COUNTY,After carefully analyzing accounts, concludes that the party turned aside when near the head of the Sacramento and came down upon the coast, striking it at or near the mouth of Russian River. But that stream is far south of the region "west of the head of the Sacramento," and if the party proceeded west it is reasonable to suppose that they reached the Pacific nearer the mouth of the Klamath than the Russian. Next they made their way north along the coast, being all the while encumbered with packs of furs, and it is probable that they had no horses left, for the country over which they traveled would hardly admit of their preservation. Coming with infinite pains and difficulty to the mouth of the Umpqua, or thereabouts, they fell in with hostile Indians and the party were killed save Smith, Daniel Prior, John Turner and Arthur Black. Almost the only evidence that exists in reference to this affair is embodied in certain passages in Dr. John McLoughlin's diary, which will be quoted. The doctor, it should be remembered, was at that time in charge of the affairs of the Hudson's Bay Company in Oregon, with his headquarters at Vancouver. He wrote:
One night in August, 1828, I was surprised by the Indians making a great noise at the gate of the fort, saying they had brought an American. The gate was opened, the man came in, but was so affected he could not speak. After sitting down some minutes to recover himself, he told me he was, he thought, the sole survivor of eighteen, conducted by the late Jedediah S. Smith. All the rest, he thought, were murdered. The party left California bound for the rendezvous at the Salt Lake. They ascended the Sacramento River, but finding no opening in the mountains to go east, they bent their course to the coast, which they reached at the mouth of the Rogue River (?), then came along the beach to the Umpqua, where the Indians stole their ax, and as it was the only one they had, and as they absolutely required it to make rafts to cross rivers, they took the chief prisoner, and their ax was returned. Early the following morning Smith started in a canoe with two men and an Indian and left orders as usual for no Indians to be allowed to come into camp. But the men neglected the order, allowed the natives to enter, and at
AN INDIAN YELL,Five or six Indians fell upon each white man. At that time the survivor, Black, was out of the crowd and had just finished cleaning and loading his rifle. Three Indians jumped on him, but he shook them off and seeing all his comrades struggling on the ground and the Indians stabbing them, he fired on the crowd and rushed to the woods pursued by the Indians, but fortunately escaped, swam across the Umpqua and went northward in the hope of reaching the Columbia, where we were. But broken down by hunger and misery, and having nothing to eat save a few wild berries, he determined to give himself up to the Killmoux (Tillamooks), a tribe on the coast at Cape Lookout, who treated him with the greatest humanity, relieved his wants and brought him to the fort, for which, in case whites might again fall into their power and to induce them to act kindly to them, I rewarded them most liberally. But, as Smith and his two men might have escaped, at break of day next morning I sent runners to all the Willamette chiefs to tell them to send people in search of Smith, and if they found them to bring them to the fort and I would pay them, but if they hurt them we would punish them, and also immediately equipped a strong party of forty well-armed men. But as our force was embarking, to our great joy, Smith and his two men arrived.
I then arranged as strong a party as I could to recover all we could of Smith's property, divulged my plan to no one, but gave written instructions to the officer to be opened when he reached the Umpqua, because if known before they got there the officers would talk of it among themselves, the men would hear it, and their Indian wives, who were spies, would get hold of it and my plan would be defeated. My plan was that the officer was to invite the Indians to trade their furs as usual, but when the skins were produced to lay aside those belonging to Smith--as the American trappers always marked their furs with a peculiar mark--and keeping these separate, to give them to Mr. Smith and not pay the Indians for them, telling them that they belonged to him. They denied having
MURDERED SMITH'S PEOPLE,But admitted having bought the skins of the murderers. The officers told them that they must look to the murderers for payment, which they did, and as the murderers would not restore the property, a war was kindled among themselves, and the murderers were punished more severely than we could have done it ourselves, as Mr. Smith admitted, and to be much preferable to going to war against them. In this way we recovered property to the value of $3200 to Mr. Smith, without expense to him, and which was done from a principle of Christian duty and as a lesson to the Indians, to show them they could not wrong the whites with impunity.
Having recovered Smith's furs, or a portion of them, the cavalcade returned to Vancouver, where the peltries were bought by Dr. McLoughlin, as Smith, who was about to start eastward to rejoin his friends on the Rockies, had no means of transporting them. This transaction has been represented in doubtful colors in Gray's History of Oregon, wherein it is attempted to show on the evidence of an Indian squaw, wife of a half-breed, that the Hudson's Bay Company instigated the savages to attack Smith's party on the Umpqua in order to deter him and others of his kind from entering Oregon. The story has no foundation, nor has any statement which ascribes improper motives to Dr. McLoughlin's conduct during the affair. He was actuated by the same motives of liberality and kindness which governed his treatment of the early immigrants in subsequent years, and have endeared his memory among the descendants of these immigrants.
THE EXACT LOCALITYWhere Smith's fight with the natives occurred is not known to a certainty, though the best evidence seems to indicate that an island in the lower Umpqua between Scottsburg and the river's mouth was the scene. It was while ferrying their effects across the river that the attack began, and Smith's account, while not specifying the stream, was to the effect that he with Daniel Prior and an Indian were on a raft together when the fight began on shore, and the Indian seizing Smith's rifle sprang overboard to escape with it, but was shot by Smith with Prior's rifle. There is a tradition current at Scottsburg and generally on the coast of Southern Oregon that the affair took place on an island in the Umpqua near the mouth of Smith's River, which is said, and plausibly, to have been named for the boss trapper. Mr. D. J. Lyons, of Marshfield, in former years publisher of the Umpqua Gazette at Scottsburg, holds this opinion, but the people there, having all come at a later day by over twenty years, can know very little about it, unless we except the old voyageur Garnier, or Gagnier, of Siuslaw, who was one of the Hudson's Bay employees who regained Smith's goods from the robbers, and who has lived in the vicinity ever since, having charge for many years of the company's post at Elkton, on the Umpqua. Bancroft's account, evidently prepared with much care and scrutiny of many documents, places the scene of the massacre "on an island in the Umpqua opposite the mouth of a river, which island and river have since borne the name of Smith." Those who escaped, he says, numbered four, being Smith, Prior, Arthur Black and John Turner. Other accounts make mention of Richard Laughlin, but the probabilities are that no such individual escaped, the more so as the exploits of killing several Indians with a burning brand ascribed to him are also and with better evidence alleged of Black.
GREAT DIVERSITY EXISTSIn the published details of the fight as well as of the place where it occurred. One writer, following traditional accounts, speaks of Smith's departure from camp on foot, looking for a practicable ford where the pack horses might be led across the Umpqua. This is a manifest error, for allowing that the party had retained their pack horses, which would have been difficult indeed, considering the terribly rough country over which, in any case, they had passed, the Umpqua is not a stream to be forded by a cavalcade of any sort. Bancroft says that the fur packs of Smith's party were worth $20,000, of which, as has been shown in Dr. McLoughlin's testimony, $3200 was recovered. Gray's History of Oregon presents a tale to the effect that the furs lost to Smith were worth $40,000, and accuses the Hudson's Bay Company of having instigated the onslaught for the purpose of discouraging the American trappers from coming into Oregon at all. But Mr. Gray has been completely refuted in the statement, chiefly by the researches of Mrs. Victor, whose very competent powers have been successfully applied to clearing up a great many important questions in Oregonian history. I more than suspect that it is to this lady that is owing the completeness of research that marks that portion of Bancroft's history which is devoted to the Northwest; yet possibly the lady, if unhampered, would have performed the task much better. As it is, one cannot help perceiving that whatever of the volumes in question is good is Mrs. Victor's, and whatever is not Mrs. Victor's is not good.
THE MISTS OF ANTIQUITY.When writing of things occurring at the apparently remote date of 1828, it is as one who endeavors to explore the mists of antiquity. Oregon had not at that time a single white inhabitant, other than the Hudson's Bay Company's employees. There was not a single settlement on this side of the Rocky Mountains, excepting Vancouver, then four years old, and Fort George, now Astoria. The culture of grains and vegetables, never before tried west of the Rockies, had just been begun at Vancouver. The whole white population of the Northwest did not number 300 persons. In California Echeandia was governor, but the priests were the real rulers of the country, for this was five years before "secularization," the legal term for the destruction of their power and influence, was talked of. Mexico had been a republic for seven years. The United States was living under the administration of the younger Adams, and it was not for twenty years after that the people in power learned fairly of the existence of a valuable country upon the Pacific which might be had for the asking. Twenty years of fur-hunting, moccasin-wearing and chewing of jerked venison had to pass before, in the fullness of time, Oregon was advanced far enough on the road to civilization to become a desirable part of the United States. However far her civilization may extend, it should never efface the memory of one of the most memorable feats of exploration ever recorded--the passage of Jedediah Smith through 600 miles of a perfectly unknown and terribly difficult region.
Sunday Oregonian, Portland, August 15, 1886, page 2
Last revised January 27, 2020