It was one hundred and ninety-eight years ago last Wednesday that the first act of Christian worship was recorded in South Dakota. A prayer had been offered by Jedediah Smith along the Missouri River near the mouth of the Cheyenne River for members of Ashley’s fur trading group who had been killed by the Arikara.
They had floated down the river from the Arikara villages which were located above the Grand River. The battle between the Arikara and Ashley’s party was the worst disaster in the history of the Western fur trade. Twelve of the men were killed and eleven more were wounded, two of which would later die. They acted with coolness and bravery; however, this was a total defeat.
In the exploration of the American west, Jedediah Smith was one of the strongest individuals the West has known. He was a close observer and his diaries are filled with observations pertaining to the natural history and resources of the western frontier.
His notes are amazing for their accuracy, considering the conditions of his time. He is overshadowed only by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Their expedition to the Pacific Ocean and back to St. Louis was funded by Congress. Smith first came up the Missouri River in 1823 as a member of the Ashley and Henry fur company. They had placed an ad in a St. Louis newspaper for some “Enterprising Young Men.” He was employed as a hunter at the age of eighteen.
Jedediah was perhaps the most unlikely person to be a part of an adventuresome group who planned to ascend the Missouri to its source in search of beaver. He was an unassuming modest fellow, quiet, and mild of manner. He never smoked or chewed tobacco and never uttered a profane word. He never violated a woman and he shaved daily, even when in the wilderness.
In almost every respect, Smith differed from the typical mountain man. Unlike the vast majority of his associates, he adhered to the tenets of Methodism which were instilled in all fourteen of his brothers and sisters by their parents. He entered the American West with his King James Bible, rifle, copies of the Lewis and Clark journals, and the clothes on his back.
It is said that his Bible and his rifle were his inseparable companions. He was a devout Christian who took his religion with him into the wilderness. Nothing corroded his faith. His closest colleagues said he made religion “an active principle from the duties of which nothing could seduce him.”
In early June of 1823, Ashley and his party were attacked by Arikaras in northern South Dakota, a few miles above the Grand River. Twelve of Ashley’s men were killed and the rest were forced to retreat. They drifted down the Missouri River and stopped on an island near the mouth of the Cheyenne River where they could defend themselves. It was on this island where they buried John Gardner and other members of their crew.
In a letter to his parents, Hugh Glass (someone who should be well known to all South Dakotans) wrote: “My painful duty is to tell you of the death of your son . . . 2nd June in the early morning. He lived a little while after he was shot and asked me to inform you of his sad fate. We brought him to the ship when he soon died. Mr. Smith a young man of our company made a powerful prayer which moved us all greatly and I am persuaded John died in peace. His body we buried with others near this camp and marked the grave with a log. His things we will send to you.”
The men who went with Ashley to the mountains were a diverse group. However, the company of seventy men did not include an ordained minister. Dale Morgan in his book Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West writes: “Jedediah Smith stepped forward, and while the men stood silent around, with bowed head he prayed to God in whose sternness all were prepared to believe, in whose compassion at this moment they much needed to believe. The prayer was a powerful one.”
Historians have called that prayer the first recorded act of public worship in South Dakota. This event of June 2, 1823, is depicted in the painting entitled, “The Peace That Passes Understanding” by Charles Holloway in the Capitol. It is located at the front of the Chamber of the House of Representatives and looks down on the representatives when in session.
In his lifetime, Smith would travel more miles of unexplored territory than any other single mountain man. He traveled to the central Rockies, then down to Arizona, and across the Mojave Desert. He then traveled overland into California, making him the first American to travel overland to California through the southwest.
In a most amazing journey, he also came back from California across the Great Basin Desert. The heat was so unbearable they had to bury themselves in sand to keep cool.
Everywhere he went, he wrote in his journal about the beauty of God’s creation. He was a man of faith among a very irreverent crowd of trappers. He was cool under pressure, with strength and leadership ability that was grounded in his faith.
The next time you are in Pierre, take a few minutes and go to the capitol to view “The Peace That Passes Understanding.” It tells the story of a young man who had a positive impact on all those he met.
We should all be like Jedediah Smith.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on June 9, 2021