Tracking Jedediah Smith

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by Tom Clavin

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“Over the course of twelve months Jedediah Smith had become the first European American to lead a party across the Mojave Desert, over the Sierra Nevada, and through North America’s Great Basin. His subsequent reports of these extraordinary travels, brimming with detailed geographic, topographic, military, cultural, and political observations, were soon being over by America’s fledgling military-industrial complex. Particularly interested in the obscure Mountain Man’s insights were men Smith had never heard of—statesmen and railroad entrepreneurs, army officers and mining magnates—already envisioning a transcontinental land bridge connecting the eastern seaboard to the golden shores of California.”

 

Jedediah Smith

A big reason why Bob Drury and I wrote Throne of Grace: A Mountain Man, An Epic Adventure, and the Bloody Conquest of the American West is contained in that paragraph. Jedediah Smith was one of the most remarkable and resilient explorers in American history and his achievements connected people across a continent. He became the point of the spear for the movement later to be called Manifest Destiny. This was good for the expansion of the United States but, of course, not so good for the Indigenous inhabitants of the lands being visited and then overrun.

Another reason is Smith has been mostly overlooked in the history books. In several ways, he out-explored the Corps of Discovery expedition yet everyone knows of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. And more famous are contemporaries like Davy Crockett and trailblazers who came after Smith, like Kit Carson and John C. Fremont. Throne of Grace, we hope, will introduce readers to one of the most pivotal players in the American saga.

A third reason: This book completes a trilogy, albeit an accidental one. It was in 2013 that The Heart of Everything That Is was published. This was a story about the Lakota Sioux and their leader, Red Cloud, and their war against the U.S. government to save the Black Hills in South Dakota. For Drury and me, it was our top best seller but we had other fish to fry—our next two books were Lucky 666 and Valley Forge. But then we had a hankering to return to the American frontier and tell the story of the first forays west, into Kentucky, Missouri, and the Ohio Valley, with Daniel Boone as our guide. So, in 2021, Blood and Treasure was published.

Drury and I began work on another war story, this one focusing more on espionage, then we hit the pause button. There was a hinky feeling that something was missing. A light bulb went off: We had an opportunity to complete an American frontier saga that began on the East Coast and ended on the Great Plains. Blood and Treasure took place mostly in the 1700s and ended with Boone’s death in 1820. The Heart of Everything That Is pretty much began with the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1851 and ended 20 years later with most of the Indigenous tribes in the West being forced onto reservations and the beginning of the end of the American frontier. What about those three decades in between? Sprouting from that seed was Throne of Grace, which fits snugly in between those two other books, the events occurring in the 1820s and ‘30s.

One more reason: A remarkable discovery for us was how huge a role these rough-hewn mountain men and fur trappers played in the geopolitics that created the North America we know today. They were appropriate representatives, both the good and bad, of a young America’s restless and avaricious spirit. And so many colorful characters! There was the legendary boatman Mike Fink, the Corps of Discovery holdover John Colter, Hugh Glass was the model for the main character in The Revenant, Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick, the legendary Jim Bridger, and of course the Native Americans who increasingly found these strange white men foraging in their traditional hunting grounds.

A major character is the American West itself, which in the 1820s began in St. Louis. Reading Throne of Grace—if we did our job right—is like you’re there, having traveled back in time to a pre-pollution paradise, equal parts glorious and dangerous. During these few decades, many of the wonders of the American West were first encountered by Americans, such as the Great Salt Lake.

Okay, one more reason: Jedediah Smith. Where did he come from? How, at age 23, did he show up in St. Louis and embark on journeys that would make him arguably America’s greatest explorer? And why have most people never heard of him? His resilience and determination were unparalleled, enabling him to survive snow-packed mountain passes and miles of waterless desert. Ultimately, thanks to Jed Smith, Throne of Grace is a grand adventure story and, we think, a gripping one.

Originally published on Tom Clavin’s The Overlook.

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Tom Clavin

Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—as well as Blood and Treasure, The Last Hill, and Throne of Grace with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.

The post Tracking Jedediah Smith appeared first on The History Reader.

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