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James Bridger

James Bridger

American trapper, fur trader, and wilderness guide, James Bridger (1804-1881), was one of the most famous frontiersmen. He is credited with discovering the Great Salt Lake, Utah.

James Bridger was born on March 17, 1804, at Richmond, Va. In 1812 the family moved west to Missouri, where all but Jim soon died. At 13 he became a black-smith's apprentice and apparently learned how to handle machinery, horses, and guns. In March 1822 Bridger started his frontier life by joining the party of trappers being organized at St. Louis by William H. Ashley. That year the men traveled up the Missouri to trap along its tributaries in the Rocky Mountains.

For the next 20 years Bridger and other mountain men roamed throughout the western third of the United States. While trapping in late 1824, Bridger reached the Great Salt Lake, which he thought was part of the Pacific Ocean. Historians are unsure if Bridger was alone when he found the lake but credit him with first reporting it.

During his years in the West, Bridger trapped for several leading fur companies and in 1830 became one of five partners in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. By the early 1840s, however, he realized that the supply of furs was nearly exhausted, and with Louis Vasquez he established Ft. Bridger. Built on the Green River in south-western Wyoming, this post became a major way station on the Oregon and California trails, a military fort, and a Pony Express station. In 1853 the Mormons drove Bridger and his partner away and confiscated their property because they purportedly had provided guns and anti-Mormon information to the Native Americans.

Bridger's career as a guide spanned from 1849 to 1868. During this time he led Capt. Howard Stansbury to Utah, Col. Albert S. Johnston during the so-called Mormon War, and Capt. William Raynolds to the Yellowstone. In 1861 he led Capt. E.L. Berthoud and his survey party west from Denver through the mountains to Salt Lake City, and for the next several years he guided army units sent west to guard overland mail. Between 1865 and 1868 he guided several expeditions and survey parties over the Bozeman, or Powder River, Trail. In 1868 he retired to his farm in Missouri, where he died on July 17, 1881.

During his years on the frontier Bridger had been married three times to Native American women. In 1835 he married the daughter of a Flathead chief. When she died, he acquired a Ute wife, and after her death he wed the daughter of a Shoshone chief. Described as tall and muscular by his contemporaries, Bridger was considered shrewd, honest, and brave. His life exemplifies the achievements of a leading frontiersman of the mid-19th century.

Further Reading

The best study of Bridger's career is J. Cecil Alter, James Bridger, Trapper, Frontiersman, Scout, and Guide (1925; rev. ed. 1962). This includes a thorough discussion of his actions and an evaluation of the many folktales surrounding his life. An earlier account is Grenville M. Dodge, Biographical Sketch of James Bridger (1905), supposedly based on stories Bridger told to the author. Dale L. Morgan, Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West (1953), examines many of the same people and events from a different perspective and provides additional insight into Bridger's life and contributions. □

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Bridger, James

James Bridger, 1804–81, American fur trader, one of the most celebrated of the mountain men, b. Virginia. He was working as a blacksmith in St. Louis when he joined the Missouri River expedition of William H. Ashley in 1822. From that time until the fur trade declined in the 1840s he was a trader and trapper in the mountains, becoming familiar with most of the country N of Spanish New Mexico and E of California. He was associated with Thomas Fitzpatrick and Jedediah Smith in many of their journeys, and he is generally credited with being the first white man to see (1825) Great Salt Lake. He was the guide for the party of Marcus Whitman, and in 1843 he and a partner, Louis Vasquez, opened Fort Bridger on the Oregon Trail. They later were forced by the Mormons to give up the post. Bridger was a guide, notably to Gen. A. S. Johnston on the Mormon campaign in 1857, to an expedition to the present Yellowstone Park (a region he did much to publicize), and to the surveying party of Gen. G. M. Dodge for the Union Pacific RR. He came to be famous for his talk, was a fine spinner of "tall tales," and was one of the most picturesque figures of the frontier.

See biographies by J. C. Alter (1925; rev. ed. 1962, repr. 1967), S. Vestal (pseud. of W. S. Campbell; 1946, repr. 1970), and G. Caesar (1961); B. De Voto, Across the Wide Missouri (1947).

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"Bridger, James." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 29 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Bridger, James." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 29, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bridger-james