The Death of Jed Smith
by: Ed Lewis

Ed Lewis

     Among the great tragedies of the trail days was the senseless death of a great man, Jedediah Strong Smith.

     Jedediah Smith, the bible carrying mountain man and fur trapper, explored and mapped most of the Far West in the 1820's from Colorado and Wyoming, to Utah, California and Oregon. Many times during his explorations, he narrowly escaped death from hostile Indians, thirst and hunger. He survived all the dangers of those regions.

     It is a disgrace to think that men like Jed Smith, Davy Jackson, Bill Sublette and Tom Fitz Patrick, four of the best fur trappers and mountain men the West had ever seen, became lost on a 60 mile stretch of well-traveled trail. The Santa Fe Trail, from the Arkansas River crossing at Fort Cimarron to Lower Springs on the Cimarron River was a 64 mile stretch of prairie buffalo grass, that had been traveled by thousands of wagons in the nine years, from 1822, when William Becknell brought the first wagon train across it, to 1831, when Jed Smith and party traversed it. I am sure that Jed had maps that showed the way, and I am also sure he had a good compass with him.

     On the 25th of May, Smith's wagons broke camp on the south side of the Arkansas River. I am sure that every water barrel and canteen was full of good water when they left the Arkansas River. According to history, the Smith wagon camped at Lower Springs on the 27th of May, just three days on the trail. How could they have been lost and wondering around for three or four days without water, as some history writers have written? The wagon train would have had to push hard in a straight line to travel 64 miles in three days.

     Now, the only logical explanation of what happened is this: The morning of the 27th, Jed Smith and Tom Fitz Patrick left ahead of the wagon train that was camped at a big basin. The Santa Fe Trail came by the north edge of this. This big basin can still be seen on State Highway 160, just 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile east of the Grant and Haskell County line. It is a distance of 18 miles from the big basin to Lower Springs. Jed and Tom rode out early and came to Sand Creek, which is now known as the North Fork of the Cimarron.

     This was 9 1/2miles down the trail from big basin. Here Jed decided to ride on ahead and find Lower Springs. Tom would ride back and meet the wagons, as they would have had to be on the move to make it to Lower Springs by night fall.

     Jed left Sand Creek, which had to have had water in it, because there has always been springs on this small stream, although it was not fit for humans, but livestock could drink it. About 1 1/2miles down the trail the wagon tram had a choice of two ways to reach the Lower Springs, where there was fresh drinking water: the right fork of the trail, which went southwesterly on a straight lie to Lower Springs, or the left fork of the trail, which went almost straight south and reached the Cimarron River faster, and then followed the river to Lower Springs. This was the route that Jed Smith took. About 5 miles from where Jed left the fork, was a fairly large meadow where the river made a big bend south. On the south side of the river are several ravines running south from the river. Here is where Smith was surprised and ambushed by the Indians.

     As it has been stated by other historians, Smith killed the Indian Chief before he was killed. My belief is that on the morning of May 27th, 1831, for some unknown reason Jed Smith was wearing a U.S. Army Jacket. Otherwise the Indians would probably have left him alone. I think that this happened because in the early 1930's a group of boys from Moscow, Kansas camped on the Cimarron River. Then it was the Ed Towler Ranch, who was my Granddad. In a rock outcropping at the head of these ravines, the boys and their leader, Dr. O.K. Pierce found a big packrat den. The den was back under the rock outcropping in a cave. The boys decided to see what the rats had put under their den. Under the sticks and brush the packrats had built, they found the remains of two individuals. One was an Indian Chief. They said a chief, because many Indian beads were found. The other remains were from a white individual. They said he was an army officer, because of the army buttons found. There is no record of any other men being killed in this area.

Is it possible that this was the grave of Jedediah Smith?

Santa Fe Trail Research Site

Santa Fe Trail Research Site
"E-Mail & Home Page"
Larry & Carolyn
St. John, Ks.
© "Forever"