Mountain Man Peter Ranne, the first black American in California

Peter Ranne was a black mountain man. We would know nothing about him, but for the journal of Harrison Rogers, hired as his clerk by Jedediah “Diah” Smith for his epic South West Expedition of 1826.

The new firm of Smith, Jackson and Sublette had just been formed to trap beaver in the Rockies and all the Far West. While his partners led expeditions to established fur bearing country, Smith left the second fur rendezvous at Cache Valley, Utah with 19 picked men to explore and hunt for beaver in the virgin territory of the American Southwest. Peter Ranne was one of these men. They were not employees. They were free mountain men, who sold their furs to the firm which engaged them at $3.00 a pound.

From the Idaho-Utah border they headed southwest, across what Smith called a Country of Starvation, until they reached the Virgin River near present day St. George Utah, following it down to the Colorado. Then west, across the Mojave Desert, reaching the San Bernadino Valley on November 26, 1826. They stayed at Mission San Gabriel, waiting for the Mexican authorities to grant them permission to travel north, in search of beaver. After a long delay, the were granted an interview with the Governor-General in San Diego. Smith chose Peter Ranne to accompany him for this critical meeting.

Ordered to leave the country the way they came in, Smith and his party headed back east, but decided to ignore their instructions and follow the western side of the Sierras to the north, in a search of pelts. They harvested 1500 pounds of beaver, and in May of 1827 attempted to cross the Sierras up the rugged canyon of the American River. Unable to make the passage with their goods, they retreated back into California,

Smith needed to meet his partners at the summer rendezvous of 1827, so he left his party and all his goods in California, and headed back across the Sierras through Ebbetts Pass with two men. This was the first crossing of the Sierra Nevada by any man other than an Indian.

After conferring with his partners, Smith left the third rendezvous at Bear Lake, on the Idaho -Utah border, on July 13, 1827, with a party of 18 men. He returned to California, again crossing the Mojave Desert into the San Bernadino Valley, and eventually rejoined Ranne and eight others remaining from the 1826 expedition. Rather than try again to pack out all their pelts, they were sold to a ship’s captain. With the proceeds Smith purchased 250 horses, at $10 a head. They headed north into Oregon with this herd, intending to drive them east, back to the fur country in the Rockies, where they could be sold at great profit.

Half way up the Oregon Coast, they camped where the now named Smith River joins the Umpqua. On the morning of July 14. 1828 Smith and two others left to scout the trail for the day’s journey. The remaining 16 men, including Ranne, were attacked by a band of 100 Kelawatset Indians. Only one, Arthur Black, escaped alive.

Thus ends the tale of Peter Ranne, the first black American to reach California by land, and the first to see the state for himself, from San Diego to Oregon. He survived great hardships, and died young, but lived the life a free American man, free as only the mountain men of the American far west ever were.

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