in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: July 8, 2024

Podcast #999: The Epic Adventures of America’s Forgotten Mountain Man

Plenty of famous explorers and frontiersmen emerged from America’s periods of expansion and exploration, and today the likes of Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and Davy Crockett remain household names.

You’re probably not familiar, but should be, with the name of another prominent pioneer: Jedediah Smith. Smith was a hunter, trapper, writer, cartographer, mountain man, and explorer who notched a lot of firsts: He was the first to lead a documented exploration from the Salt Lake frontier to the Colorado River and was part of the first parties of U.S. citizens to cross the Mojave Desert, the Sierra Nevada, and the Great Basin Desert. Having survived three attacks by Native Americans and one mauling by a grizzly bear, Smith’s explorations became resources for those who followed after and led to the use of the South Pass as the dominant route across the Continental Divide for pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

In the new book he co-authored, Throne of Grace: A Mountain Man, an Epic Adventure, and the Bloody Conquest of the American West, my guest, Bob Drury, uses the oft-forgotten Smith as a guide to an oft-forgotten period in American history. Today on the show, Bob paints a picture of a volatile American landscape in which trappers and Native Americans collided and clashed in the early decades of the 19th century. We discuss how the Lewis and Clark expedition created a lust for adventure among young men, how the humble beaver played an outsized role in settling the Western frontier, and how warfare changed amongst Native American tribes with the introduction of the horse. Along the way, Bob shows us how the life of Jed Smith intersected with all these historic trends and shares the epic exploits that he and other mountain men took part in while exploring and mapping the American West.

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Brett McKay: Hey, this is Brett. I wanna let you know that we have an enrollment going on right now for our summer cohort of The Strenuous Life. The Strenuous Life is an online-offline program that we created to help you put into action all the things we’ve been talking about and writing about on AOM for the past 16 years. And we’ve done that in a few ways. First, we created 50 different badges based around 50 different skills. There’s hard skills like wilderness survival, outdoorsman-ship, knot tying, building fires, but also soft skills like how to be a better host, how to improve your social skills, how to be a better husband, better father. We also provide weekly challenges that are gonna push you outside of your comfort zone, mentally, physically, and socially. We also provide daily accountability for physical activity and doing a good deed. And every new member of The Strenuous Life goes through what we call The Strenuous Life challenge. It’s a twelve-week bootcamp that’s gonna help you develop a bias toward action that’s gonna carry over to other areas of your life. And at the end of the twelve-week bootcamp, if you completed all the requirements, we’ll send you a challenge coin that’ll commemorate your achievement.

If you want to learn more about The Strenuous Life, head over to You can also sign up if you want to sign up. Deadline to sign up is Thursday, June 13th at 09:00 PM Central Time. And then the challenge, the bootcamp challenge starts on Saturday, June 15th. Go check it out. I hope to see you on The Strenuous Life.

Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Plenty of famous explorers and frontiersmen emerged from America’s periods of expansion and exploration, and today the likes of Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and Davy Crockett remain household names. You’re probably not familiar, but should be with the name of another prominent pioneer, Jedediah Smith. Smith was a hunter, trapper, rider, cartographer, mountain man, and explorer who notched a lot of firsts. He was the first to lead a documented exploration from the Salt Lake frontier to the Colorado River and was part of the first parties of US citizens to cross the Mojave Desert, the Sierra Nevada, and the Great Basin Desert. Having survived three attacks by Native Americans and one mauling by a grizzly bear, Smith’s explorations became resources for those who followed after and led to the use of the South Pass as the dominant route across the continental divide for pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

In the new book he co-authored, Throne of Grace, a Mountain man, an epic adventure in the bloody conquest of the American West. My guest, Bob Drury, uses the oft-forgotten Smith as a guide to an oft-forgotten period in American history. Today on the show, Bob paints a picture of a volatile American landscape in which trappers and Native Americans collided and clashed in the early decades of the 19th century. We discuss how the Lewis and Clark expedition created a lust for adventure among young men, how the humble beaver played an outsized role in settling the western frontier, and how warfare changed amongst Native American tribes with the introduction of the horse. Along the way, Bob shows us how the life of Jed Smith intersected with all these historic trends and shares the epic exploits that he and other mountain men took part in while exploring and mapping the American West. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right? Bob Drury, welcome back to the show.

Bob Drury: Oh, thank you, Brett. Thank you. It’s always a pleasure.

Brett McKay: So, you’ve got a new book out with your co-author, Tom Clavin. I really enjoyed this book. It’s called Throne of Grace a Mountain man, an epic adventure in the bloody conquest of the American West. And what I liked about this book is it covers a period of American history that I think gets overlooked by a lot of people. This is the period after the Lewis and Clark expedition, but before the mass migration of Americans into the West, starting in the 1830s, 1840s. And then you tell the story about this period through the life of this guy named Jedediah Smith. And this guy, I didn’t know this guy existed. He had an epic life. So, let’s do some background here before we get into Jedediah Smith and these mountain men. So, in 1803, the Louisiana Purchase happens, the US acquires a ton of new land from France, and Thomas Jefferson sends out Lewis and Clark to go check it out. So, what was the purpose of that expedition, and then how did that expedition influence American culture afterwards?

Bob Drury: Alright, so you have 1803. With the acquisition infix the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon, we doubled the size, veritably, of the United States. Now, President Thomas Jefferson, “What’s out there? What beasts are out there?” There were all kinds of rumors of cyclops and sirens, and it was almost like a Homeric that the monsters that could be out there in the mountains, the Rocky Mountains and beyond. So, of course, Jefferson extracts from Congress money for the Lewis and Clark expedition. That takes two years, from 1804 to 1806, they make it to the Pacific, and now they have a vague idea of how big this continent is. Or how big the North American continent is. And not only politicians, but businessmen back east, or the germ of a coast-to-coast empire started to germinate. If I may repeat myself, “How do we make this happen?” Now at the same time, you mentioned in your intro about this is an era that is really not been covered too much. And when my co-author, Tom Clavin and I, looked into this, we were shocked, as we think most Americans will be, about the violent mechanizations that were going on and the political mechanizations that were going on west of the Mississippi.

I mean, the Northwest, the Oregon Country, not the Oregon Territory. The Oregon territory became the state of Oregon, but the Oregon Country at the time, which today states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, the western sliver of Montana, the top of Utah, Nevada. It was contested territory. We did not have a Canadian border. In fact, we were negotiating in London where the border would be between Canada and the United States. It was the 49th parallel, but that only ran to the Rocky Mountains. So, Jefferson and presidents after him, from Madison to Monroe, they were worried that the British were going to. We had thrown them out during the American Revolution. We had repelled them during the War of 1812. And here they were using a private proxy, the Hudson’s Bay Company, to kind of filter down from Canada and come in the back door of the North American continent. And businessmen, railroad magnates, politicians were rather up in arms about this because the trappers, the beaver trappers from the Hudson’s Bay Company, they were building stockades and forts along the same route that Lewis and Clark had taken to the Pacific. So, everyone 3000 miles away in Washington, DC, was urging the westerners, and by westerners at this point, I mean, the newly elected state of Missouri.

We’ve got to get people, trappers up into those Rocky Mountains and beyond. I mean, everyone knew that, it was a Scotsman who coined the phrase, “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” So, whoever gets a foot in that back door, so to speak, they’re gonna have. Man, the cliches are rolling out of me today, but they’re gonna have a leg up on settling this land and colonizing this land. Of course, what I’m really saying is stealing this land from the Indians.

Brett McKay: And then not only were there the political conflict between the United States and Great Britain, there was Mexico was kind of there too, a little bit. And then you also had, in this area, speaking of Native Americans, we’re gonna talk about this here in a bit. The conflict between Native American tribes started going up and you also started seeing that conflict carry over to white Americans. And you also mentioned after this Lewis and Clark expedition, it really did. It set a fire, particularly under young men, to go out there. They saw these guys. They were celebrities. These guys were rock stars, Lewis and Clark. And they’re like, “I want to be like this guy.”

Bob Drury: Correct.

Brett McKay: And so you had all these young men signing up with these trapping companies to go out and be like Lewis and Clark.

Bob Drury: Well, you hit it on the head because I only mentioned the Northwest Territory. We didn’t realize during the research for this book. I mean, you think of the Alamo in 1836 and Texas becomes a republic, the Mexican-American War 10 years later. But as early as the beginning of the 19th century, Americans were already casting covetous glances at the northern Mexican territory, which of course, at the time was Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and the jewel in the crown, California, not to mention large swaths of Nevada and Utah and Colorado. And so you have the Brits to the northwest, you have the Mexicans to the southwest. And in between are these tribes which had, over the centuries, pretty much delineated their territory. Whether it was the Sioux, Arikara in the Missouri River corridor, whether it was the Pawnee, Cheyenne, Arapaho out on the plains, the Blackfeet and the Gros Ventre, the Shoshone up in the mountains. And these tribes, they warred among themselves to secure this territory. And what most people are, I think, unaware of and probably because Hollywood influence, a lot of these tribes that we think of being horseback raiders. The Cheyenne, the Pawnee, they were sedentary tribes.

They were farmers who lived in mud wattle houses and till the ground, until the great North American horse dispersal, when in the 1500s, the late 1500s, the Pueblos rose, overthrew the Spanish overseers who were basically enslaved them and wanted nothing to do with European culture. So they freed all these horses, all these mustangs who just started proliferating across the west. And they followed the old trading traces. So the Apache were first to get horses, then the Comanche, then the chia, and if you would almost follow the northern trail until the Cree in Canada had horses. And these horses changed everything.

Now where previously you really had to think about making war, if the Sioux were going to attack the Arikara, or if the crow were going to attack the Cheyenne, it meant a 100 mile march, a 200 mile march, and then a siege. But now with the horse, everything changed. And everything in the west became so fluid, so into this fluidity steps these American beaver trapping outfits. At the time, they were all, most of them were outfitted in St. Louis. And the best way to get up into the mountains was by Flatboat up the Missouri River.

It was a long, arduous journey. Each flat boat did have a sail, but mostly you were just poling or pulling through rapids. And in the beginning, the tribes helped Lewis and Clark. Lewis and Clark would have not made it to the Pacific if it wasn’t for the help of several different tribes. Everybody knows about Sacagawea, who was a Shoshone, by the way, but the Blackfeet showed them how to get through the Rockies. The Arikara put them up for several weeks. They didn’t mind this small group of white men. White hairy beasts, they called them. They didn’t mind them passing through. But as more and more of these trappers started trespassing into their territory, they became violent.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And part of the problem too, is these white settlers, these white mountain men they were stepping into, they didn’t understand completely the fluidity of the geopolitics amongst Native American nations. They’d think, like, “Oh, I’ll work with the Kiowa.” But they didn’t understand. Well, the Kiowa don’t doesn’t like this tribe. And then, like that other tribes gonna attack, and they just… They stepped in it several times because of that.

Bob Drury: You trade with the Sioux. Sioux were bitter enemies with the Arikara. You trade with the Sioux. And then you mentioned Jedediah Smith. His outfit would go up and then attempt to trade with the Arikara. And they say, “Well, wait a minute, you were just with our mortal enemies.” I mean, the Sioux hated the Arikara and the Pawnee. The Blackfeet hated the Cheyenne. The Cheyenne hated the Crow. So it was almost. It reminds me when I was in Afghanistan, every other valley was at war with the next valley until either Genghis Khan or the British or the Russians or eventually us came in. And then they banded together, more or less, to fight us. Well, it was almost the same in the early 19th century American West. Okay, I hate you, and I’ve hated you for centuries. But here come these white men, and they don’t want to just pass through. They want to take our land. And the concept of owning land, of course, was foreign to most of the Western tribes, and it just created a really violent mess. I mean, the throne of grace is not for the queasy. I mean, we depict many ways to die, whether it’s disemboweling s or beheadings or burnings at the stake.

By both sides, Brett, by both sides. And it created a dangerous milieu for these trappers who became known as mountain men, to be entering into.

Brett McKay: Yeah. The chapter about how the horse and the gun changed Native American warfare was really fascinating. You talk about this. That was really interesting how tribes in the West, we’re talking, like, west of the Mississippi, they fought differently than tribes in the East. And so you had these trappers who were coming from the East, who were maybe familiar with the Iroquois and how they did things.

Bob Drury: The Shawnee and the Mohawk, they were kind of hit and run. They didn’t have horses. They did have horses, but horses weren’t as proficient. And also, horses weren’t as expedient in the woodlands as they were in the plains. So the eastern woodland tribes would raid for say, they had been wiped out by… A village had been wiped out by drought. They needed men. They would kidnap kids. The tribes in the West, they had vast, vast territories to cover. And the tribes in the East never kind of raided for territory, but the tribes in the West did. And that came down to one thing, the buffalo. Where are the buffalo trails? Where are the buffalo moving? That’s the land we want. And if the Crow happened to be on that land, then the Sioux was gonna push them out. If the Blackfeet happened to be on that land, then the Shoshone is gonna make war on the Blackfeet. And once again, I’m repeating myself, but it was such a fluid sense of violence that here we come. We, I mean, Euro Americans, here we come walking into this, and we really have no clue. We just want beaver.

Beaver pelts at the time, were the most expensive fur in the world. And if we happen to step on some Blackfeet toes or some Arikara toes or some Gros Ventre toes as we’re going after the beavers, so be it.

Brett McKay: And you also talk about how a lot of these mountain men, they were shocked about how Western tribes fought ’cause, like, it was no quarter given.

Bob Drury: No, no.

Brett McKay: And everyone understood, all the tribes understood, if you get killed or you get captured, you’re gonna have a bad time, you’re gonna get mutilated ’cause I guess it’s just part of their belief that…

Bob Drury: A happy hunting ground. They believed most, I don’t want to put 100%, but I’d say a good 85% to 90% of the Western Plains and mountain tribes believed that you went to the afterlife, the happy hunting ground, in the shape in which you died. So if you wounded or captured or, and then you killed one of your captives, first you were going to take out his eyes because this afterlife was beautiful. It was filled with game. It was filled with fair maidens. It was the land of milk and honey, so to speak. But if you went there with no eyes and you couldn’t see it, well, that was your problem. If you went there with no fingers or no arms to draw back a bow to take this game, well then that was your problem. If you went there with no penis, would they cut your penis off and you could not take advantage of these wonderful, beautiful maidens, well you were almost in a living hell, even though it was heaven to them. It was almost like sending your enemy to hell. And that was another reason. When the Euro Americans and later Americans stepped into this violence, they were just aghast.

I mean, there were many soldiers that. We’re not talking soldiers yet from… We got another 50 years to go. Even though the first declared war against the Native American tribe did take place against the Arikara in 1820. But for the most part, the mountain men and the early soldiers, they would take a boot strap or even a piece of string and they would tie it to the trigger of their long rifles. And before, if they were losing a fight and they knew they were going to get killed, they’d turn that long rifle around and put the loop of the string around their toe and they blow their own heads off rather than be captured.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s crazy. So, you mentioned the beaver trapping, and I didn’t know this. I think most people think about the Western expansion. They think of buffalo and what happened in the 1850s and 1860s with the buffalo hunting. You hear those stories of hunters just riding on trains and shooting buffalo.

Bob Drury: Right.

Brett McKay: But, the next time you see a beaver, you see these little animals. I see them when I’m out on hikes. We have to thank that animal for Western expansion. That animal had such a big part in expanding the American territory. So tell us about this. What did the beaver fur industry look like in the 19th century? You alluded to it a little bit, but flesh us out more.

Bob Drury: All right, so the beaver has pretty much gone extinct in the mountains of Europe. Beaver, of course, live in high altitude, cool territories where they make their burrows and they dam up rivers and streams, and they live in these ponds. And so at the time, beaver fur, as I mentioned, was the most expensive fur in the world, more expensive than mink, than otter. And the reason was, I don’t wanna get too much in the weeds here about the science of the lanolin in the beaver fur made beaver fur waterproof. So the hat-making industry in Europe, here’s a stat that just blew my mind. Between 1800 and 1850, British milliners shipped 20 million beaver headpieces to the continent. They were couture in Paris. They were wanted in Italy and Spain. The Russians had killed off all their own beaver. And even the Chinese would make long beaver coats. And because of the oddity of the beaver fur being waterproof. And, in fact, here’s a little aside. I love these little asides. When they would make the mash to shape the beaver hat, hat makers would add mercury. Now, if you got mercury poisoning, it mimicked the symptoms of insanity.

And that’s where the saying “mad as a hatter” came from, because of people making beaver hats and adding the mercury. So, anyway, you could get rich, and many people did, including our protagonist, Jedediah Smith. You could get very wealthy going up into the North American mountains, which was the last bastion on Earth. We had even played out the Daniel Boone generation, had played out the beaver in the Appalachians. So the last place on Earth were in the Rocky Mountains stretching down from Canada all the way down into New Mexico. And so when we started going after this beaver, it just upended politically, socially, and culturally, everything that had happened in the previous millennia in the Western United States.

Brett McKay: Okay, so you have this situation. The United States has acquired New territory. They are worried about the geopolitics. They’re worried about Britain coming in and taking territory that belongs to us. Connected to that is the beaver trapping industry, ’cause Great Britain was basically using the beaver trapping industry as a front basically.

Bob Drury: Yeah right, there was a slow cold war going on in the Northwest.

Brett McKay: And then it all came out of St. Louis as sort of the starting off point for all these things. And you talk about. There’s basically, there was at the time, in the 1820s, started in the 1820s, there was this race, like, we got to get as much beaver as we can and acquire as much territory over there and claim it. And there was, I think there was like four big trading outfits that were in competition. Right?

Bob Drury: Right. Three of them out of St. Louis and one of them overland out of Minnesota. And they were all egged on is not strong enough. They were all encouraged, as I said, by the politicians, by the business magnets back west. We got to get a foothole here in both the southwest and the northwest.

So you got these outfits going into the mountains and beyond into the Snake River, to the Snake River country, into what was then the Oregon country. And most people think the Monroe Doctrine was aimed at Spain because of their Caribbean holdings, their Central American holdings, but it was really aimed at the Brits. It was Monroe telling them, stay out of the Oregon country. That’s our country. We had Lewis and Clark out there a decade and a half ago, and we aim to keep that country. So you’ve got this mechanism, and when you have the Hudson’s Bay Company trappers running into the American trappers out of St. Louis, there are near gunfights. And so how is all this gonna be settled? It’s all gonna be settled by getting the most people in there. And that’s what we tried to do, and that’s exactly what we did.

Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for you. Word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So, Jed Smith, Jedediah Smith came of age in this milieu, and this is the protagonist of your story. Tell us about this guy. What was his origins, where was he born? And then how did he end up becoming a beaver trapper?

Bob Drury: Well, here’s the deal Brett, Tom Clavin and I, I don’t know, especially with our frontier books, not so much our World War II books and our other combat books but with our frontier books, blood and treasure, the heart of everything, that is. We like to think that we write biographies of eras as opposed to of people. But if we’re going to write a biography of an era, and once again, when we started looking into this, the first half of the 19th century, you want to call that an epoch? We said, there’s stuff here, there’s great stuff here, but who is going to be our guide to take us through? And just as Daniel Boone was our guide through blood and treasure, just as the Sioux warrior chief Red Cloud was our guy through the heart of everything, that is, we started digging into the logical place to start was in St. Louis. In 1822, the lieutenant governor of St. Louis put out an advertisement in all the St. Louis papers asking for 100 good men to ascend the river Missouri to its source right on the continental divide, and to stay for one, two or three years trapping beaver.

So we started going through, who are these guys? It’s the Butch Cassidy question to the Sundance Kid, who are these guys that answered this ad? And there were so many to choose from. I mean, Jim Bridger, I’m surprised he’s not a bigger name today. He was only a teenager when he signed up, but he knew more than men, well I wouldn’t say twice his age, because there weren’t that many old mountain men, but he was teaching people. Oh, your buckskins are riddled with lice. Take them off and put them over a red anthill. The ants will eat the other insects. It was said about Bridger that however many bullets he went out with, that’s how many buffalo he would come back with. And broken hand. Fitzpatrick. Thomas Fitzpatrick is an Irish born. He became a scout, and he was probably the most… He handled horses better than any mountain man we read about. There was this one journal keeper Jim Kleiman. He was born in Virginia, and he had had something of an early education from Methodist circuit riders. And when we were reading his journals, you could tell he was an educated man.

He would write things like, the troop I am riding with now makes Falstaff’s battalion look genteel. But we could not find anyone who was kind of our Zellig, our Daniel Boone, our Red Cloud, until we ran across Jedediah Strong Smith. Jed had been born in 1899 in New York, Susquehanna Valley…

Brett McKay: 1799.

Bob Drury: 1799, I am sorry. And his family, hard Puritan stock, had moved west with the expanding nation, first to Pennsylvania, then to Ohio, then to Illinois. By the time he was in his late teens, he had already worked as a seaman on supply boats in the Great Lakes, supply ships on the Great Lakes. He was a crack shot. And when he saw General Ashley’s ad, Ashley being the lieutenant governor of Missouri, he took a skiff from Illinois down the Mississippi to St. Louis, and he signed up, and Ashley immediately hired him as a hunter-trapper. Ashley liked the cut of Smith’s jib, so to speak. I mean, among all these whiskey swilling, cigar-smoking, womaning up mountain men with a wife, “in every tribe”, Smith carried that Puritanism with him. I mean, in his saddlebags, he carried the family Bible.

He abhorred the smell of tobacco smoke. He drank. He would sip a wine when necessary just for politesse, but he was not a drinker. He never womaned up. One of the contemporaneous descriptions of him in the St. Louis newspaper was, and I like this phrase, I want to make sure I get it right, the mountaintop was his altar, the forest glade, his confessional. I mean, Brett, the guy shaved every day. Have you ever envisioned a mountain man without a big, burly beard? But what really drew Tom and I to Jed Smith was that he was an assiduous journal keeper and letter writer.

And his journals and his letters. We feel that contemporaneous writing is the key to the books we write. And Jed Smith supplied us with. He was the trailbreaker, and we followed his trail via his journals and via his letters, and he had nothing against commerce. He wanted to get rich but more important, Lewis and Clark were his idols. When he was a teenager, a country doctor had given him the Lewis and Clark journals, and he yearned to follow in their footsteps. And he wanted to be an explorer like Lewis and Clark. If he happened to make some money trapping beaver along the way, all the better.

And so here was our guy, and I know I’m going on, but when we kind of started digging into Jed Smith, Tom and I were like, we found our man. I mean, we never used the word discover in our books. I mean, Daniel Boone no more discovered the Cumberland Gap than Jed Smith discovered South Pass. Which of course is that break in the Rockies that became the Oregon Trail. It was wagon friendly, but I got to say, Jed Smith was the first American to pass through, to stumble through South Pass in the middle of a blizzard with the help of the Crows. He had gotten direction from the Crow tribe, and the only reason he knew he crossed the continental divide was because he dug down into the snow, and he could see beneath the ice that the frozen streams were running west. He was the first American to cross the Escalante and Mojave deserts and lead a party into California from the east. He was the first American to scout from San Diego up to what is today the Canadian border.

Then he came back east along the Canadian border and dropped back down to Utah around the Great Salt Lake. If you can envision this in your mind’s eye, and our book has plenty of maps to help you envision this, this man filled out the blank spaces that today are the contiguous United States. So when we found Smith, we said, we have our guide, we have our Boone, we have our Red Cloud, and we just ran with him.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And this guy, you mentioned all the stuff that he did, the firsts that he notched, but you also talk about the things that he encountered along his expeditions on these trapping trips, he had encountered a couple conflicts with Native Americans. There’s that first one with the Arikara.

Bob Drury: Arikara.

Brett McKay: Arikara tribe.

Bob Drury: Arikara. That was the war I mentioned before. That was the first declared war the United States declared on any Indian tribes west of the Mississippi. It was Smith’s trapping outfit who were ambushed by Arikaras on the beach below their villages, and they were pretty much wiped out. Smith survived, as did a dozen others, but that forced the blue coats in Missouri to march up the Missouri River. And it wasn’t much of a war. The Arikaras just scattered. Once the Americans started firing cannons and howitzers, the Arikaras just disappeared into the vast plains. But Smith, he led an expedition and his outfit was ambushed by Mojave Indians. And he and just a few survived. When he made it into California, he was immediately jailed as an American spy. And when he escaped from the jail near San Diego, made his way back up and he left his trapping crew on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Once again another first he was the first man to cross the Sierra Nevada in the middle of winter and then crossed the great man-killing Great Basin across Utah, Nevada recruited another party to rescue the men he left behind.

When he got there, they made a run for the Oregon country, and on the way they were ambushed by Umpqua Indians south of the Willamette Valley. And everyone but Smith and two others were wiped out. So he knew Indian fighting, he knew trapping. He was an inveterate, as I said, journal keeper, and here’s someone one day is sending plant cuttings, new plants he had never seen before, sending them by dispatch rider back east to botanists so they could study them. And the next day, he’s fighting Mojaves in the desert, outside the Mojave Desert. The man was a well-rounded man, Brad. He was a well-rounded man.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And so some of the things you talked about, that first attack by the Arakara, that was 1823, and then his trip out west to California where he was taken prisoner, then escaped and then got another attack that was like 1826.

Bob Drury: Correct.

Brett McKay: So he was constantly on the move during this period. He was never resting.

Bob Drury: No.

Brett McKay: And also during this time, I think he got attacked by a grizzly bear, right?

Bob Drury: Oh, yeah. Well, it’s almost like the word “hivernant” from the French “hibernation.” If you had spent a winter in the high peaks, in the high Rockies, you were considered a hivernant, which was a mountain man. Now, you’re a true mountain man, but you weren’t a really, really, really true mountain man until you were mauled by a grizzly. And of course, Jed was mauled by a grizzly as he was passing through the black hills. Took off the top of his head, and he always wore his hair long after that. Took off his eyebrows, took off part of his ear. But he survived. And I find that so many, Hugh Glass, Jed Smith, I feel that it was kind of accepted the flatlanders called the mountain men French Indians, and they were true mountain men if they had spent at least one winter. Well, I feel you weren’t a true mountain man until you got mauled by a grizzly bear.

Brett McKay: Also you mentioned Hugh Glass. This is another guy you talk about, famous mountain man. If you’ve seen that Leonardo DiCaprio movie.

Bob Drury: You’ve heard about the Richard Harris movie before, right?

Brett McKay: Right. For those who aren’t familiar with Hugh Glass, tell us about this guy ’cause it’s unbelievable what happened to this guy.

Bob Drury: Well, to be a true and good mountain man and to live, they’ve, not many of them lived long lives, but to live, you had to have a little luck. And Hugh Glass was one lucky man. He was moving up to Missouri with one of Smith’s outfits. And actually, Smith had broken off to explore the Black Hills, and he was attacked by a silverback. And basically, he was mauled so badly that Andrew Henry, the man who was in charge of the party, paid two men, one of whom was Jim Bridger, “Stay with him until he dies and bury him.” But they were surrounded by hostile Arikara. And Bridger was just a kid, but the older man said, “He’s dead. We got to get out of here.” That’s the shortened version of it. And so Hugh Glass wakes up. His gun is gone, his knife is gone. All he’s got is his flint in his possible sack. Possible sack was what mountain men carried that because anything you possibly needed was in this sack. And he made his hundreds and hundreds of miles. He stumbled, walked, crawled, eating dead buffalo calves that wolves had chewed over. He made it back.

Then when he made it back, he survived an Indian attack, and he vowed to go back up into the mountains to kill the men who left him for dead. By the time he gets back up into the mountains, he only finds Bridger. And he changes his mind. He goes, “You’re a kid. I should kill you, but you’re a kid.” So, anyway, now he’s trapping again, and Andrew Henry, his foreman, sends him back. “I need to get a message to St. Louis but don’t go back down the Missouri River. It’s too dangerous.” So he goes south, and he’s coming back down the Platte, and he’s attacked. He and four others are attacked by Pawnee. Two are killed right away. Glass, once again is left. He escapes. He finds kind of a caveish mountain, rocky outcrop that he hides in. But he still, once again, he’s hundreds of miles from what was then called civilization, an army outpost. He makes his way back to the army outpost. He straggles in and once again, is like, ” Hugh Glass. We thought you were dead.” For the second time, for the third time. And after that, I don’t want to give away what happened to Hugh Glass.

But after that, he temporarily abandoned beaver trapping to try his hand at trading down in Santa Fe. But he does end up back in the mountains at the end of our book, and he meets, no pun intended, a grisly end.

Brett McKay: So if you were a Boy Scout, you probably did something. I did this, the mountain man rendezvous. So you’d get together with, like, a bunch of other Boy Scout troops from a big geographic area.

Bob Drury: Jamborees. Didn’t they call them jamborees out west?

Brett McKay: Yeah, there was jamborees, but I did. There was like, they called them rendezvous, and it was supposed to mimic the mountain men rendezvous that happened during this period, where you’d go and you’d trade stuff. You’d trade pocket knives and patches and things like that. It was fun. So tell us about, this was an important part of mountain man culture, and Smith played a big role in that. What was the rendezvous?

Bob Drury: Well, in the early 1820s, they realized by the day, I mean, the trappers and their backers, the money men behind the trappers. They realized they were losing money, taking these keelboats up the Missouri River and then down its tributaries, whether it was the Yellowstone or the powder or the tongue or the Musselshell or up the Judith. There’s got to be a better way. And after Jed Smith more or less stumbled through South Pass and sent word back, hey, here’s a way through the mountains where we don’t need the rivers anymore. Well, this enabled, first, it took a while. It took several years before wagons actually came through, but this enabled long pack trains to go overland.

So they realized going all the way, hundreds and hundreds of miles from St. Louis through South Pass and then to pick up these beaver furs and deliver supplies and then come back, we have to have some system to this. So Jed Smith and his benefactor and boss, by this time, Jed Smith is partners with General Henry, the lieutenant governor of Missouri. They said, “You know what? Why don’t we do this every summer? We’ll set a place where all the mountain men throughout the west will come in June and they’ll bring in their beaver pelts, plews, they were called. They’ll bring in their plews, and we’ll sell them their moccasin oils, their new buckskins, their knives, their saws, their ammunition and shot their new guns and most of all, their whiskey in rumenous.

And this is how the rendezvous started. It almost started by accident. And of course, I think if you ask most people today, what they know about the mountain men, it would be, oh, the rendezvous. So these rendezvous went on for a good 15 years. They kind of petered out in the late 1830s as sadly for the mountain men, not only had they denuded the northwest and the mountains of beaver, but the new silk trade with newly opened China, British silk trade. Silk kind of took over as headgear, fashionable headgear from beaver headgear. But for a good 15 years, these mountain men rendezvous. Brett, I can’t imagine you or I what we would… How wide would our eyes be if we saw we’re standing on a bare plot of land where the rendezvous was supposed to be. Say we’re there two days early, and here comes men from hundreds of miles all over the west trickling in, carrying, leading horses with hundreds of pounds of beaver pelts. A, how did they find it? B, where did all the Indians come from? Because the Indians knew what was going on, and they came to trade. And C, the gunshots, the games, the drinking, the athletic contest, the shooting contest it’s just something that I can’t imagine in a modern world. It’s just, it’s something uniquely American that only happened for 15 years. And I’m not nostalgic about it at all. I’m just, I just wondered what would I be like if I were there. So.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it was crazy. It was all word of mouth. They didn’t have like the postal service wasn’t really set up.

Bob Drury: There was no telegraph, no smoke signals. No, it was just meet you and meet you in a year. In the Valley, the Aspen Valley, just Northwest of the Great Salt Lake. Okay, we’ll find you. Actually, that Aspen Valley became known as Cache Valley, C-A-C-H-E, because the mountain men would return every once in a while and cache their beaver pelts and then go back out again, waiting for the rendezvous to occur.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And again, Smith, he helped set this up. He was definitely, so that advertisement that he answered to, it was Henry. The advertisement said to enterprising young men, and Smith was an enterprising young man.

Bob Drury: Yeah. Well, when you think about it, I mean, not only, I mean, I don’t want to paint this guy as a religious prude because he was a leader. All those, the Broken Hand and Jim Bridger and Kleiman, they all gravitated towards Smith because they knew that he had the right stuff for his day. Probably would have been an astronaut in the 1960s. And just think about it. Here’s this, well, he’s not a kid. He’s 23 years old. He just turned 23 in 1822. He answers Henry’s ad. So he’s hired as a green horn hunter trapper. Within two years, he is partners with the general. And within four years, he and two other partners have bought the general out. So he’s running his own outfit as a 27 year old man. The guy knew his stuff.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned earlier, once we acquired the Louisiana Purchase, it was sort of like Darby monsters there. We didn’t really know what was going on. We thought there’s these, might’ve been these mythical creatures, but there’s also this idea that there was this mythical river that went to the Pacific ocean. I didn’t know about this.

Bob Drury: The Rio Buenaventura.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Tell us about this. ‘Cause this seemed like this was like the Eldorado of Americans.

Bob Drury: Precisely, precisely. In the mid 1700s, a couple of lost Spanish monks, they went North out of Mexico to proselytize and they ran into some Indians in Utah, of course, who told them about this river that ran to the salty water. Now, of course they were talking about the three rivers that ran into the great salt lake, but the monks misunderstood them. And for a good century, different map makers, both European and American, they had places Rio Buenaventura, my Spanish is… Buenaventura, the river of good fortune, running out of the Rocky mountains and entering the Pacific somewhere, usually around Monterey, sometimes into San Francisco Bay.

And politicians from Jefferson on were thirsting to discover this river because if we can find this river that will truly glue this country together as a coast to coast nation. And so every trapper or every foreman of every trapping company had two orders, bring in as much beaver as you can and find the Rio Buenaventura. And Jed Smith took a troop out and he had them circle the great salt lake. And he said, there’s nothing coming out of here. There’s three rivers coming into it. There’s nothing coming out of here. But wherever he went, he kept his eye. And finally he realized there is no river Rio Buenaventura, but no matter how many times he tried to tell the people back east through dispatch riders, there is no river. It continued to appear on maps, some maps into the 1850s.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And that looking for, when he was looking for that river, that’s when he got picked up by Mexico. What are you, you’re a spy. What are you doing here? And he was taking prisoner for a while.

Bob Drury: Right. Right. And he escaped and high-tailed it and trapped the Sierra Nevada as they were running. And he had two that that’s why he didn’t take his men with him over the Sierra Nevada. They had 2000 pounds of beaver pelts. So they caged him and he said, wait here for me. I’m gonna go get a company. I’m gonna come back and we’re gonna get this stuff out of here. And that’s when they made the run for Oregon. And that’s where they were ambushed by Umpqua Indians. And it just one thing after another, I mean, really. And Jed Smith lived all through it. He lived through it and well for a while anyway.

Brett McKay: Yeah. It’s a lot to live through and you can’t be a mountain man forever. So how does Jedidiah plot the next phase of his life? What happens to him?

Bob Drury: He’s five years into mountains. Hasn’t seen St. Louis. Hasn’t seen “civilization for five years”, but he’s getting homesick and he’s a wealthy man at this point. So he finds out that his mother has died back in Illinois and he decides to come out of the mountains and cash in his chips. He sells his company and this is how much money he had accrued. He made sure that St. Louis banks set up an annuity for his widowed father, which would today be the equivalent of $75,000 a year to, how did Jed Smith… To ease the pillow of his old age. But you can tell that he’s had it with the mountains. He’s only in his early 30s, but his letters back home, while he’s in St. Louis, he’s writing letters, not only to his father and to his brother. And there’s a religious, I mentioned before he was a hard Puritan. There’s a religious motif running through these letters.

He wrote to his father, the greatest pleasure I could enjoy would to be in the company of my family and my parish. He used the word home eight times in one paragraph with the assistance of divine Providence. I will be coming home soon, father. He was even more upfront to his older brother, Ralph. I just, I’m reading as it respects my spiritual welfare, dear brother, I hardly dare speak. Oh, when shall I be under the care of a Christian church? I have need of your prayers, my brother, I wish our society to bear me up before the almighty throne of grace. Well, when Tom and I read that letter, that’s what I said, there’s our title right there.

So anyway, he’s in St. Louis and not only is he writing letters home, but he’s writing these long missives reports really to president Andrew Jackson’s secretary of war, John Eaton. And when I told you before the specificity of his journals, he is telling Eaton exactly how many cannon the Mexicans have in each military Presidio. He is telling Eaton the disposition of the British along the Columbia river, what ship building capabilities they have at Fort Astoria, which is in Fort George, how many farmsteads they’re opening on the river. And he is pretty much railing saying we have to get out there. Americans have to get out there or this is never going to be part of the United States.

So anyway, while he’s doing this, sending his father money, he sends his brother Ralph money. There’s a farmstead. He buys a farmstead next to Ralph’s farmstead in Illinois. And he decides he’s going to retire there. And like his idols, his heroes, Lewis and Clark, he’s going to write his encyclopedia of the West, everything he’s seen. He even hires a professional map maker to put together, to professionalize his crude drawings. He hires a magazine editor to collate all his journals and his letters and his notes. As he’s ready to ship back East, three of his younger brothers show up in St. Louis, Ira, Benjamin, and Nelson. They all want to be mountain men. He’s like, he’s aghast. No, you do not want to be mountain men. You don’t know what it’s like up in those mountains.

So Nelson was only 16. So he sends him, he puts him in a college across the river in Illinois. He goes, Ira and Benjamin, I can’t forbid them to go up into the mountain, but let me give them a taste of what the frontier life is like. So he organizes a wagon train full of supplies that they’re gonna trade in Mexican Santa Fe. They’re gonna take the Santa Fe trail. Now the Santa Fe trail had been open maybe eight years before, so it was still rough and it was still frontier, but it wasn’t the mountains by any means. He figures, okay, let me give my brothers a little shakedown cruise here to let them know what they’re going to be up against.

So they set out in the spring of 1833 and they make, they’re following the trail, but Jed had bought a map that showed a shortcut across this arid desert piece of land. They called it the water scrape. So they crossed the Arkansas river, which was then the boundary, the border between Mexico and the United States. And they’re about eight days out and they’re out of water. They’ve run out of water. Jed is looking for the Cimarron river. Now the Cimarron, like the Mojave river is a dry river, which means it runs underground. It only surfaces during heavy rains or when it hits impermeable rock underground. He sees this rock outcropping several three miles away and he says, that’s got to be the Cimarron.

So he starts riding toward, the tongue of his Mustang is lolling out of its mouth. The horse is staggering. And he gets about a half mile away and he sees 15 to 20 riders come out from behind the rock outcropping. He recognizes them immediately as a combination of Kiowa and Comanche. The Kiowa and Comanche formed an alliance that became the most fierce, the fierce warriors in the Southwest. They had cowed the Spanish, the Mexicans after them. They’d even driven the mighty Apaches out of the territory. Now they had been watching wagon trains along the Santa Fe trail bisect their territory for seven, eight years now. And so they’re on the war path.

So Smith sees them and he figures, okay, I could try to make a run for it, but he notices their horses are well-watered, which means he was right. The Cimarron river was out there. Two, he could find some cover, a sand hill maybe, draw his creamer long rifle and his brace of flintlock pistols, try to fight them off and hope that the wagon train, which is maybe eight miles behind him, will hear the shots and send reinforcements or he can brazen it out and he could ride right into them and try to parley. And so those are three choices. Brett, I don’t know what choice you would make in that situation. I’m not sure what choice I would make in that situation, but if you wanna know what choice Jed Smith made in that situation, you’re just gonna have to read the damn book, aren’t you?

Brett McKay: So what was the legacy of this guy in the end? What influence did he have on American culture?

Bob Drury: I think at the time he would have been on the 19th century Mount Rushmore with Bridger, with Kit Carson, and probably with Boone. The reason that he’s not as well known as Boone or Crockett or Kit Carson is A, he wasn’t a self-aggrandizer. I mean, John C. Fremont wanted to run for president, so he made sure everyone knew every second of what he was doing. It was almost like they had Facebook in those days. And Crockett couldn’t say a sentence without the word Davy Crockett in it. And Carson and Boone were lucky enough to live to a fairly old age.

So dime novelists and newspaper men and magazine reporters and biographers, hagiographers really, they could talk to these men and I think that’s what made them famous. I think Jed Smith just died too young and I hope that his achievements, I hope our book, Throne of Grace, will somehow bring them a little more to light than they happen.

Brett McKay: Yeah, again, like think about all the firsts that he did. He filled in the gaps that Americans had at the time of their newly acquired territory.

Bob Drury: If you envision his travels, that’s the western half of the contiguous United States.

Brett McKay: When did The Age of the Mountain Man finally end in America?

Bob Drury: By the 1830s, the beaver were pretty much played out. And also, as I said, beaver couture in Europe was being overtaken by silk headwear. So late 1830s, I think the last rendezvous might’ve been 1840, 1841, there were mountain men who just stayed up in the mountains through the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s. But I’d say the heyday was the 1820s to the late 1830s. It was a very short period in our nation’s history, but it was certainly an exciting period. And due to the exploration that these men made, it was an important period.

Brett McKay: Well, Bob, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Bob Drury: Oh, anywhere. I mean, as you well know, Brett, we’re everywhere. I understand. I prefer, I give my business to independent bookstores, but I know that Amazon is cheaper. And if you want to buy the book on Amazon, that’s fine. And I’ll be interested in seeing what kind of, the book’s only been out a week and a half now. I’ll be interested in seeing what kind of feedback we get from historians, which we always do about how this may or may not raise Smith’s profile in that pantheon of American explorers that we talked about before.

Brett McKay: Well, Bob Drury, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Bob Drury: Brett, thank you. I appreciate it. Always a pleasure.

Brett McKay: My guest today is Bob Drury. He’s the co-author of the book, Throne of Grace. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. Check out our show notes at We find links to resources. We delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute to give us a read on our podcast or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member you think read something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, it’s Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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