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Riverbank History
Mystery Surrounding Jedidiah Smith
Riverbank Museum

There is a mystery surrounding the legendary figure of Jedidiah Smith and whether or not he helped to incite the Indian rebellion lead by Chief Estanislao in the summer of 1828.

Smith was born in 1799 and in his adulthood was a clerk, frontiersman, hunter, trapper, author and cartographer. He explored the Rocky Mountains, the North American West and Southwest during the early 19th century.

At the age of 28, Smith was the first Anglo American to reach the California province by land. He and his men trekked to Mission San Gabriel and received a warm reception, however, when Governor Jose Maria Echeandia heard about Smith’s unauthorized visit, he was suspicious and had him arrested and brought to San Diego. Smith’s men stayed at Mission San Gabriel while he was interrogated. He was told to leave immediately in the same way he had arrived, travelling from mission to mission. Smith traded with a ship in Monterey and eventually met back up with his men.

Instead of obeying Mexican orders, however, Smith and his trappers headed northward through the Great Central Valley looking for beaver pelts and a better way home.

Once Father Duran, who led Mission San Jose found out what Smith was doing, he was very concerned and believed that Smith might have visited the rancherias of the Muquelemnes and the Cosomnes. It was rumored that he was offering the Indians protection if they chose to abandon mission life along with their Christian obligations and die as gentiles.

While travelling up the valley, Smith found the southern Yokuts and used some of the Spanish speaking fugitives from the missions as guides. They informed him of California’s vast river delta and plentiful beaver population. The Indians frequently visited Smith’s camp and supplied him with meat and entertainment in the form of tribal dances. When he found the Stanislaus River, he named it the Appleaminy.

At some point, Smith left his men in the Central Valley and attempted to find an escape route by heading up the American River. He had planned to make his way to a camp at Great Salt Lake, but the mountains were unpassable due to snow. After losing his horses, he retraced his steps back to the Muquelemne and Cosomne Indians.

The Mexicans found out about Smith’s activities from Indian informants. John Wilson and Daniel Ferguson, who were members of Smith’s party, had gone to missions Monterey and San Gabriel to replenish their supplies as well and informed Comandante Echeandia Martinez of Smith’s activities. Martinez wrote the governor in May of 1827, specifically blaming the flight of the Indians from the missions on Jedidiah Smith and his men.

Indian testimony confirmed the fears of the churches and the government. The Americans were said to have both guns and knives and were rumored to be busy mapping the interior. The Indians told the Mexicans that Smith had asked about the distance to the missions as well as how far away the coast was. The Indians said that he had also asked about how many soldiers were at each mission and how large the Mexican settlements were. The government took the accounts as evidence that Smith was inciting the Indians to stage a rebellion.

While all of this was taking place, Smith decided to head east up the Stanislaus River Canyon, with two of his men, Silas Gable and Robert Evans in an effort to cross the mountains and arrive at a rendezvous point at the Great Salt Lake. Harrison G. Rogers remained camped along the Stanislaus River with eight other men. While Smith was away the Indian testimony given to the Mexicans was found to be false. Sergeant Francisco Soto was dispatched to the interior to bring in runaways and determine the influence of the foreigners. When he found Smith’s camp he found them to be minding their own business and awaiting Smith’s return.

When Smith returned from the Great Salt Lake, his men told him that the Mexican government was looking for him and he decided to turn himself in to Father Duran and Jose Viader. He received a cold reception and was placed under guard for some months while the missions sought advice from the government.

Smith was eventually allowed to confront his accuser, an Indian by the name of Narciso. In the end Narciso was found to be inciting rebellion and thus he was flogged. Smith was released and sold hides to an American trade ship and eventually made his way back to his men, and leaves California in the summer of 1828. Shortly afterwards Estanislao leads the Indian rebellion against the missions.

So, did Jedidiah incite the rebellion? When the Spanish finally confronted the Indians, they were met with a palisade made out of logs which also had trenches in front and behind. One can question how the Indians had the knowledge and capability to construct such defenses when they had not constructed them before. It is a matter of fact that Estanislao did study Spanish battle techniques at Mission San Jose, so this manner of defense may have been learned here. No one knows for sure. Did Smith supply guns? This is also uncertain. While in jail, Smith presented no evidence to suggest he was involved with the Indians so one can only guess. If there was any complacency in the matter of the Indian rebellion on his part, he never admitted to it. Dead men tell no tales, and Smith’s ghost isn’t talking.