Born March 17, 1804
Died July 17, 1881
Mountain man, trapper, guide
"Only a man with extraordinary and relentless powers of observation, only a man with an utterly reliable memory could possibly gain and retain exact knowledge of the mighty welter of mountains, the endless tangle of streams and valleys which formed Bridger's vast hunting grounds."
Stanley Vestal in Jim Bridger: Mountain Man
One of the American West's most infamous mountain men and scouts, Jim Bridger also operated a key trading post on the trail to California and served as a guide for mapping expeditions and military crusades against the Indians. He is credited with discovering the Great Salt Lake in present-day Utah, as well as the pass that was later used by the Overland Mail and the Pony Express.
Difficult early life
Bridger was born on March 17, 1804, in Richmond, Virginia, where he spent his youth working at the family business, a tavern (restaurant and bar). When he was eight years old, his family journeyed westward to Missouri Territory in a covered wagon, finally settling on a farm in Six-Mile-Prairie, which was not far from the booming city of St. Louis. Jim quickly learned the skills of a frontier boy—hunting, fishing, learning the lay of the land, and keeping a sharp eye out for Indians. However, his life was turned upside down when his mother, his brother, and then his father died, leaving fourteen-year-old Jim and his younger sister alone.
To earn a living, Bridger got a job operating a flatboat that ferried people across the Mississippi River. He was then hired as an apprentice to a blacksmith in St. Louis. It was there that he overheard the stories of the trappers and traders who flowed in and out of the bustling city. He soon hungered for adventures of his own. When trapper William Henry Ashley posted a notice seeking "enterprising young men" to join his expedition to the West in 1822, Bridger was quick to sign on.
To the mountains!
Ashley's expedition would become legendary, for it launched the careers of several renowned mountain men, including Jim Beckwourth (1800–1866; see entry), Tom Fitzpatrick (1799–1854; see entry), William Sublette, and Jim Bridger (1804–1881). Many men who had no experience living in the wilderness soon found themselves dressing in buckskins (leather clothes), trapping beaver, and shooting guns. It was a difficult life on the trail, but for a young man who liked hard work and adventure it was a great life.
By 1824 Bridger believed that he knew enough about living off the land to become a "free trapper." Beaver were plentiful in the Rocky Mountains, and a man could make a good living if he knew how to read the land and find good rivers. According to biographer Stanley Vestal, "Only a man with extraordinary and relentless powers of observation, only a man with an utterly reliable memory could possibly gain and retain exact knowledge of the mighty welter of mountains, the endless tangle of streams and valleys which formed Bridger's vast hunting grounds." Bridger was that man, and he became known even among other mountain men for his exceptional knowledge of the present-day states of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado.
In 1824, while camping with other trappers along the Bear River, in present-day Idaho, Bridger volunteered to find out where the river ended. He built himself a "bullboat," a round basketlike boat covered in buffalo hide, and set off down the turbulent stream. Miles later the stream emptied out into a huge lake. When Bridger dipped his hands in for a drink, he was surprised to find that it was salty. When he returned to meet his friends they all swore that he had reached the Pacific Ocean. In truth, he had discovered the Great Salt Lake and the Salt Lake Valley in present-day Utah. Bridger always felt a special connection to the Great Salt Lake area, and his detailed memory of its layout would come in handy to the Mormons who traveled there some years later.
In 1830 Bridger, Fitzpatrick, Milton Sublette, and several other mountain men founded a fur trading company of their own, known as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Competition from the Hudson's Bay Company and the American Fur Company was fierce, and the situation worsened when the market for furs began to decline. By 1834 the company—which had lost nearly one hundred thousand dollars in property and had seen seventy of its trappers killed in accidents or fights with Indians—was dissolved. Bridger trapped on his own for a few more years, but by 1840 the fur trade had collapsed due to overtrading and changes in the fashion industry. There was no more money to be made; Bridger had to find another way of life.
In 1842 Bridger settled at Fort Laramie in present-day Wyoming, the main trading post on the Oregon Trail. The travelers passing through were eager to soak up the advice of an experienced mountain man like Bridger. He decided to take advantage of that need, and with partner Louis Vasquez he built a fort on Black's Fork of the Green River, in the southwest corner of present-day Wyoming. The fort, called Fort Bridger, was situated near the point where the Oregon Trail forked, sending some travelers to Oregon and others south toward California. It was, writes Vestal, "not only 'an oasis in the desert' for all travelers, the haven of all the swarming emigrants who needed repairs, supplies, and fresh livestock, but also the trading post for all the tribes around, the rendezvous for wandering Mountain Men, and a great information bureau for all and sundry."
In 1847 Brigham Young (1801–1877; see entry) led a large group of Mormons westward on the Oregon Trail. The Mormons were a religious group fleeing persecution in the eastern United States. They believed that in the Salt Lake Valley they might be free of religious intolerance. They consulted Bridger, who praised the Salt Lake Valley as a place for settlement; according to Vestal, Bridger told Young, "It's my paradise, but you kin settle in it along with me." He provided the Mormons with maps and tips for avoiding trouble with Native Americans living in the region. However, Brigham Young didn't invite Bridger to be their guide. Young wanted the area just for the Mormons.
Whose Valley Was It?
From the moment they first met in 1847, Jim Bridger and Mormon leader Brigham Young were at odds. Bridger claimed the Salt Lake Valley as his own, but offered to share it with the Mormons. Brigham Young desperately wanted to claim the region as the promised land for the persecuted Mormon people. Though Bridger helped the Mormons find their way to the Salt Lake Valley, Young suspected him of inciting Indian attacks on Mormon settlements and of spying on the Mormons for the U.S. government, which was somewhat threatened by the separatist Mormon community. According to Bridger biographer Stanley Vestal, Young wrote in 1849, "I believe that Old Bridger is death on us."
In 1853 the Mormons sought to end Bridger's influence in "their" valley. They sent a band of men to take over Bridger's lucrative ferry service across the Green River but were driven off by the well-armed mountain men. Then, charging that Bridger was inciting Indian raids, a Mormon sheriff led a posse of 150 men to capture Jim Bridger and take his fort. They took the fort, but not Bridger, who had left the scene. After looting the fort and killing some of Bridger's men, the Mormons left and Bridger returned—but his influence in the valley was never the same. The Mormons built Fort Supply to maintain their influence, and in 1855 they bought Fort Bridger for the sum of eight thousand dollars. In 1857, during the so-called Mormon War (see box on p. 36), the Mormons destroyed the fort in order to slow down U.S. forces marching on Salt Lake City. For his part, Bridger disputed Mormon ownership of the land around the fort until his death.
Guide to the West
In the summer of 1849 Bridger accepted a huge challenge. Captain Howard Stansbury of the U.S. Army asked if Bridger could blaze a shorter trail from Fort Bridger to the South Platte River, thus shortening the route of the Oregon Trail. "Bridger stared," writes Vestal, "but had the grace not to laugh in the officer's face. Find it! Without leaving his seat, in five minutes' time, Jim told the Captain where that wagon road must run, scratching a map ... on the earthen floor." Bridger soon led Stansbury over this trail, which later became the route used by the Overland Stage Coach, the Pony Express, the Union Pacific Railroad, and Interstate 80.
The Mormon War
The Mormon community lived in the Salt Lake Valley free from interference from the U.S. government until 1850, when Utah became a U.S. territory. Mormon leader Brigham Young was named governor of the territory. Over time, non-Mormon public leaders began objecting to the amount of power that the religious figure held over the territory. Government officials appointed to positions in Utah soon complained that Young's influence was too strong and that he was leading a theocracy (a government in which church and state are one). Moreover, non-Mormons were uncomfortable with some of the church's practices. The Mormon Church's official adoption of plural marriages (marriage to more than one partner at a time) in 1852 created a public outcry against Mormon immorality. Some charged that Mormons believed that they could live outside U.S. law. In 1857, convinced that the Mormons were considering rebellion, President James Buchanan (1791–1868) sent two thousand troops to Utah to install a new governor, Alfred Cumming. Fearful of renewed persecution and bloodshed, Young ordered the Mormons to evacuate Salt Lake City and hide in communities to the south. In June 1857, after the U.S. troops marched without resistance into Salt Lake City, a peace commission negotiated a deal that made Cumming governor but left the real power in Young's hands. The Mormon War was over, and life returned to normal.
From 1849 to 1868 Bridger served as a guide in various capacities throughout the West. He led Captain William Raynolds of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on his journey to the Yellowstone area. (For years Bridger had told stories of the geysers and bubbling hot springs at Yellowstone, though most people wrote them off as the "tall tales" of a mountain man.) In 1861 he led Captain E. L. Berthoud and his survey party west from Denver through the mountains to Salt Lake City, and for the next several years he aided army units guarding the overland mail. With his encyclopedic knowledge of the western landscape, Bridger was the best guide in the West.
Bridger continued to serve as a guide after the end of the Civil War (1861–65; a war fought between the Northern and Southern United States over the issue of slavery). Meanwhile, the army was determined to protect gold seekers and settlers who were traveling on the Bozeman Trail, which extended across northeastern Wyoming and into Montana. However, they faced the determined resistance of the Sioux and Cheyenne. Bridger counseled the soldiers about how to deal with these Native American groups, but the eager young military men did not take the advice of the aging mountain man. They ignored Bridger with fatal consequences in 1866, when Captain William Fetterman led a party of eighty soldiers into an Indian ambush; all eighty soldiers were killed. When the army abandoned the Bozeman Trail in 1868, Bridger knew that his days as a guide were over.
Eventually, Bridger settled with his children in Missouri. He had been married three times to Native American women. His grandchildren loved to hear the stories told by their grandfather. By 1875 he was totally blind. He died on July 17, 1881, and was buried in Kansas City. Unable to read or write, Bridger left no written record of his life, but the Bridger Mountains, Fort Bridger, and Bridger's Pass all bear his name. Perhaps more importantly, he helped lead numbers of Americans into the West, thus paving the way for white settlement.
For More Information
Alter, Cecil J. Jim Bridger: A Historical Narrative. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.
Gowans, Fred R., and Eugene E. Campbell. Fort Bridger: Island in the Wilderness. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1975.
Hafen, LeRoy R., and Harvey L. Carter, eds. Mountain Men and Fur Traders of the Far West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
Luce, Willard, and Celia Luce. Jim Bridger: Man of the Mountains. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.
Vestal, Stanley. Jim Bridger: Mountain Man. 1946. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.
"Mountain Man Jim Bridger." [Online] http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/HNS/Mtmen/jimbrid.html (accessed on May 9, 2000).
Despain, S. Matthew, and Fred R. Gowans. "James Bridger." [Online] http://www.media.utah.edu/medsol/UCME/b/BRIDGER%2CJAMES.html (accessed on May 9, 2000).
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.
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. □