Jedediah Smith’s Grizzly Encounter
Hugh Glass was not the only Ashley man to suffer a savage grizzly attack in the fall of 1823. Jedediah Smith had signed on as a hunter with William Ashley and Andrew Henry in 1822. Like Glass, Smith was present during Ashley’s disastrous attempt to get by the Arikara villages along the Missouri River in the summer of 1823. Abandoning the river, Ashely tasked the twenty-four-year-old Smith to captain a ten-man trapping brigade, leading them overland west into Absaroka, also known as Crow, territory where they planned to spend the winter while looking for new beaver trapping ground. This mounted team included Thomas Fitzpatrick as second-in-command, as well as other men who would gain their own prominence in the fur trade such as William Sublette, Edward Rose, Thomas Eddy and James Clyman. At the same time, Andrew Henry led a second contingent, which included Hugh Glass, that moved northwest toward prime beaver trapping ground in the Yellowstone region.
In late September 1823, Smith’s party left Fort Kiowa, southeast of modern Pierre, South Dakota, and soon forded the White River. Riding northwest, the men headed for the South Fork of the Cheyenne River. Crossing a ridge, they entered the Black Hills, descended into the Badlands, and headed toward the Powder River.
Smith and his trappers were picking their way single-file through brushy bottomland. Afoot, they led the horses through a dense thicket, west of Beaver Creek. All at once, the afternoon silence was shattered by thrashing in the undergrowth as a large grizzly bear burst clear and barreled its way down the valley. Growling ferociously, its fangs bared, the bruin struck the line of men near the center, turned and ran parallel with it toward the head of the column.
The brigade was instantly thrown into pandemonium; maddened horses snorted and the yells of struggling men filled the air. James Clyman, the only eye witness to record the event, said Smith, who was in the lead, ran to open ground, drawing the bear’s attention. As Smith emerged from the thicket, his path melded with that of the bruin and the two met face-to-face. Smith had no time to raise his rifle. By Clyman’s report,
Grissly did not hesitate a moment but sprung on the capt taking him by the head first pitc[h]ing sprawling on the earth he gave him a grab by the middle fortunately cat[c]hing by the ball pouch and Butcher K[n]ife which he broke but breaking several of his ribs and cutting his head badly
The powerful embrace could easily have been fatal had the silver-tip’s claws not snagged on Smith’s possibles bag and blade. Once Smith was on the ground, razor-sharp claws ripped and slashed. Clyman declared the grizzly
Had taken nearly all [Smith’s] head in his capcious mouth close to his left eye on one side and clos[e] to his right ear on the other and laid the skull bare to near the crown of the head leaving a white streak whare his teeth passed one of his ears was torn from his head out to the outer rim
One of the trappers, (perhaps Arthur Black who would later be credited with having twice saved Smith from a grizzly), managed to kill the furry monster before it slaughtered their captain. The bloody Smith, still conscious, lay torn and mangled at the feet of his men who milled about in confusion, sickened by the gory sight. Clyman wrote, “none of us having any sugical Knowledge what was to be done one Said come take hold and he wuld say why not you so it went around.” No one seemed to have the nerve to touch Smith’s mangled head, face, and nearly removed scalp, much less administer any sort of first aid.
It was Clyman who finally asked Smith was should be done. With stoic composure, the captain issued instructions for his own medical care. Sending a couple of men for water, Smith told Clyman, “if you have a needle and thread git it out and sew up my wounds around my head which was bleeding freely.” Clyman thus rummaged in his gear, found some scissors and began snipping at the hairs that were matted to his leader’s bloody scalp.
Having merely a common sewing kit and no medicine or pain killers, Clyman began his first ever job of dressing a wound. Threading his needle with ordinary household thread, the would-be surgeon began “stitching all the other wounds in the best way I was capabl[e] and according to the captains directions the ear being the last I told him I could do nothing for his Eare.”
But that would not do. The unappeased Smith proclaimed, “0[h] you must try to stich up some way or other,” Clyman remembered. Resigned, the persevering apprentice steadied himself and redoubled his efforts to salvage Smith’s face; “I put in my needle stiching it through and through and over and over laying the lacerated parts togather as nice as I could with my hands.”
In a few minutes, the crude needlework on Smith’s nearly-severed ear was completed though he bore the marks of this grizzly encounter for the rest of his life. With his eyebrow torn away, his ear ripped and scarred, Jedediah Smith would grow his hair long from then on, letting it hang down over the left side to cover his disfigured appearance. As Clyman put it, “this gave us a lisson on the charcter of the grissly Baare which we did not forget.”
Water had been found about a mile distant from the scene of the gruesome mishap. Remarkably, the iron-willed Smith was able to climb onto his horse and ride to where the trappers had relocated their camp. There, Clyman wrote, “we pitched a tent the onley one we had and made him as comfortable as circumstances would permit.”
Fitzpatrick would later report that he pushed ahead with the most of the party, leaving two men to stay with Smith while his wounds healed. After about two weeks of recuperation, Smith was able to ride and the men were all soon back together. They worked their way westward into the high country and spent the winter with an Absaroka village along the Wind River, probably in the vicinity of present Dubois, Wyoming.
Smith family lore insisted that Jedediah killed the bear that nearly killed him, though that seems highly unlikely. Legend also has it that Smith brought the skin and a claw of his attacker with him on his return to St. Louis though, if that is true, what became of those keepsakes is not known.
Although exact dates are unknown, Jedediah Smith was likely struggling to survive his attack along the Cheyenne River at the same time Hugh Glass was trying to save himself and crawling along the Grand River just a couple hundred miles away. Glass would become a legend because of his grizzly attack and remarkable survival, while Smith would become a legend among mountain men as a leader and explorer.
Barton H. Barbour, Jedediah Smith, No Ordinary Mountain Man (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), 49-53.
Charles L. Camp, ed., James Clyman, Frontiersman; The Adventures of a Trapper and Covered-Wagon Emigrant as Told in His Own Reminiscences and Diaries (Portland, OR: The Champoeg Press, 1960), 17-19.
Leroy R. Hafen, Broken Hand, The Life of Thomas Fitzpatrick: Mountain Man, Guide and Indian Agent (Denver, CO: The Old West Publishing Company, 1973), 23-27, 338-339.
Dale L. Morgan, Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West (Indianapolis, IN: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1953), 81-85.
Maurice S. Sullivan, Jedediah Smith, Trader and Trail Breaker (New York, NY: Press of the Pioneers, Inc., 1936), 38-45.