American pioneer and mountain man
James H. Bridger was born in Richmond, Virginia on March 17, Saint Patrick's Day, 1804. Bridger's father, a surveyor and innkeeper, moved the family to a farm near Saint Louis, Missouri when Jim was 12. The family soon all died with the exception of young Jim, who found himself an apprentice to a blacksmith.
At the age of 17 Jim Bridger, along with Jedediah Smith, Hugh Glass, and Thomas Fitzpatrick, signed up as members of General William Henry Ashley's Upper Missouri Expedition. He was the youngest member of the expedition. This expedition was to be an assembly of 100 men who would ascend the Missouri River and open it to the fur trade. This group would become known as Ashley's 100.
The expedition was led by Andrew Henry, partner of General Ashley, and was to ascend the Missouri, then up the valley of the Grand River in South Dakota, thence across to the Yellowstone River valley. Along the way Bridger earned the nickname 'Old Gabe' from Jedediah Smith, who proclaimed Bridger's manner and certainty to resemble proclamations by the Archangel Gabriel himself. Later in life he also came by the nickname Blanket Chief.
The expedition was to travel the 1800 miles by keel boat. They met with many obstacles, among them the mauling of Hugh Glass by a she-grizzly with cubs. Glass, with the aid of Bridger and Fitzpatrick, killed the bear. In the fight, Glass was horribly wounded, and expedition leader Henry became convinced that Glass couldn't survive the wounds when he lost consciousness. Henry asked for volunteers to stay with Glass until he died, and who were then to bury him. Bridger and Fitzpatrick agreed and the expedition continued. The pair started to dig the grave then took Glass' gun, knife and provisions and left him. They overtook the expedition and claimed to have been assailed by a band of Arikaree Indians and reported that Glass had died. The trek of Glass, who was far from dead, back to civilization through 200 miles of wilderness became one of the most enduring legends of the American West. Hugh Glass forswore vengence upon Bridger, attributing the desertion to Bridger's youth.
As part of this expedition, young Jim Bridger became one of the first white men to see the glory of what would one day become Yellowstone Park.
Young mountain man
After the expedition Bridger returned to the mountains as a trapper in his own right. Bridger, to settle a wager in the trapping party winter camp of 1824, set out to discover the course of the Bear River from the Cache Valley. In following the stream, he discovered that it emptied into a vast body of salt water. The others thought he had found an arm of the Pacific Ocean, but it turned out that Jim Bridger had discovered the Great Salt Lake.
Bridger continued to trap and explore, becoming reknowned for his ability to recall routes through the uncharted wilderness. He was a very skilled trapper, and he avoided conflict with the native residents of his chosen trapping grounds. He managed to keep his hair and turn a profit year after year. He became a partner in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1830.
In the 1830's the beaver trade softened and, combined with competition from John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, led Bridger and his partners to trap farther north into hostile Blackfoot Indian territory. The Rocky Mountain Fur Company disbanded in 1834 and by the end of the decade the fur trade itself had died.
A different trade
In 1839 Bridger, along with partner Henry Fraeb, built a small trading post in the Wyoming Territory a few miles south of the confluence of the Green River and the Big Sandy River. Fraeb was killed by Indians in 1841 and Bridger abandoned the outpost.
Bridger, with new partner Louis Vasquez, built a store and trading base at Black's Fork on the Green River in 1843. The site is near 7,000 feet in elevation on a broad grassy plain. It was well watered and had generous amounts of timber available.
When the first emigrants and missionaries came by wagon, they were delighted to find a source for supplies and readily lay down their cash in exchange. Also as part of the outpost was a small smithy which was capable of making repairs and fashioning badly needed tools. Although Bridger wasn't aware of the significance of his trading post when he first started construction, he later knew how important it was to those who came through that area. His crude complex was to become Fort Bridger, an important stop on the Oregon Trail.
Bridger occupied the outpost with at least two native women and numerous offspring. Bridger was known to have been married to at least three different native women. The first was to a Flathead Indian woman in 1835. They had 3 children before her death in 1846. He then wed a Shoshone Indian chief's daughter who died in childbirth three years later. In 1850 he married another Shoshone woman and they had two children.
At the time there was no school available and Bridger sent a daughter to a missionary boarding school in Oregon. The school was attacked by Indians, the missionaries killed, and Bridger's daughter was abducted. She was never heard of again. Other children were sent back east for their education.
In its heyday the outpost served pilgrims, Mormons, Indians, the military, gold seekers, and his fellow mountain men.
Bridger operated the post for about 10 years, then went on to other ventures. By that time new routes had become popular, making Fort Bridger an off the beaten path diversion, having outlived its usefulness.
Jim Bridger and the Mormons met for the first time in 1847. Bridger discussed with Brigham Young the merits of settling in the Salt Lake area with Bridger expressing some misgivings about the venture. By 1853 the
Mormons and Bridger's relationship had become a sour one. Bridger resented that the Mormons had drawn off traffic from Fort Bridger, cutting into his profits. The Mormons in turn suspected that Bridger had been trading guns and ammunition with the Indians as well as fomenting animosity toward the Mormons. They had his license to trade revoked and issued a warrant for his arrest, but Bridger escaped before the posse could apprehend him. He returned in 1855 and sold Fort Bridger to the Mormons for $8,000.00, taking half as a down payment. The remainder was paid to partner Louis Vasquez in 1858. The new owners burned the outpost in the Utah War of 1857 to hinder the advance of the army of Albert Sidney Johnson. Johnson's army was led by former owner Jim Bridger. The post was occupied again, this time by the military, and remained occupied until 1890. Throughout the 1870's and 1880's Bridger tried to lease the property to the military, claiming he had been unwillingly forced out by the Mormons. He was not successful in this pursuit.
Jim Bridger made his most important contribution to the future when in 1850 Captain Howard Stanbury came by Fort Bridger to inquire if there was a shorter way over the Rockies than via the already established South Pass. South Pass was originally discovered in 1812 by Robert Stuart and 6 companions from the Pacific Fur Company and rediscovered by Jedediah Smith in 1824. Bridger showed him the way through a pass that bore south from the Great Basin. This route was to become Bridger's Pass and became a mail route and route for the Union Pacific Railroad. Modern I-80 utilizes the historic route today.
Jim Bridger led several expeditions into the Powder River country between 1865-1868 along the famous Bozeman Trail.
Legendary yarn spinner
Part of Bridger's personna was his sense of humor. He loved to yarn the tenderfoot newcomers with tall tales. He'd recount how he could recall when Pike's Peak was just a little hole in the ground. He'd recount how he had heard 'peetrified' birds sing 'peetrified' songs in a 'peetrified' forest. His sober way of relaying these tales made even the most sober doubtful whether they were being made sport of or being told the truth. Bridger's laughter betrayed him in the end. His sense of humor sometimes backfired on him, though. When he reported the geysers of Yellowstone, no one initially would believe him.
An accomplished man
Bridger's other accomplishments are staggering to modern folks who struggle to be accomplished in a single area. Bridger was a scout, translator, Indian fighter, storekeeper, trapper, trader, and explorer. He spoke English, French, and Spanish, as well as six Indian dialects. He guided prospectors to the Montana gold fields and laid out routes for stage lines. One such line was for the Central Overland and Pike's Peak Express Company westward from Denver.
Jim Bridger bought a farm in Kansas City, Missouri in 1855. The scout's failing eyesight forced him to retire from his wanderings to his farm in 1867. He lived out the rest of his days as a farmer. Jim Bridger died July 17, 1881 at the age of 77 on his Missouri farm.
He was laid to rest nearby. For 25 years Bridger remained, but in 1904 Major General Grenville Dodge had his remains moved to the Mount Washington Cemetery and had an impressive monument erected to mark the site of one of America's foremost explorers. Dodge had consulted with Bridger concerning the Union Pacific Railroad's route through the mountains and onward to the Pacific. Bridger's aid made the UP first to realize that goal. Dodge arranged for Bridger's new resting place out of gratitude for his help.
After his death, the government paid Bridger's widow for the improvements made to Fort Bridger. Ironically, the improvements had been constructed by the Mormons during their occupancy.
Passing of a giant
With his death passed one of the last of the true mountain men.
Jim Bridger was born before the War of 1812 and died after the last battle of the Indian Wars of the American West. He was a figure who was larger than life in a country that too was larger than life. Bridger's America was truly free in a way no longer possible. All a man needed was to go off into the great uncharted wilderness to find that freedom. The challenges were many, the dangers very real and the rewards uncertain. Jim Bridger and his peers opened the vastness of the Rocky Mountains to thousands of newcomers and in the process changed their beloved wilderness forever. He lived and roamed a region where giants really did walk, dressed in skins and armed with single shot rifles. His story is not that of a perfect man but of a real man who sometimes failed. Jim Bridger didn't always succeed but he never gave up. He leaves us with a lesson to be valued by all men of all times.