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Jim Bridger Archive

Greatest Mountain Man
Jim Bridger: Greatest Mountain Man [source unknown]James Bridger: Greatest Mountain Man [source unknown]
These pictures of James Bridger (1804-1881) are the most commonly seen pair of three portraits widely available on the net. I have been unable to ascertain their owners, though I guess by now they must be out of copyright.

If anyone claims or notifies ownership I will be pleased to give full credits and provide links to their true home pages.

Jim was born in Richmond, VA, on St. Patrick's Day in the same year that Lewis & Clark stopped at Waverly, MO, to repair their oars on a journey up the Missouri River that was to herald the opening of The West. When he was only twenty years old, Jim was the first white American to see the Great Salt Lake. He was a trapper, trader, scout, map maker, and teller of tall stories. He died in Independence, MO on the farm he bought for his 'retirement', revered by his contempories as 'Old Gabe'. Surprisingly many Americans I have spoken to either did not know his name, or were unsure of just who he was, when he lived, and what he did. Over the next few days I hope to provide all that information, with links to the best Jim Bridger resources on the web.

This item was the first of three parts:

American Spirit
Thomas Jefferson © [www.whitehouse.gov]Sandi Browne [www.concentric.net/~Sbrowne/]
Before looking at the life of James Bridger, I thought it worthwhile to look at the historical context of his achievements. Three important factors were 'Manifest Destiny', the demand for Top Hats, and 'American Spirit'. As the nineteenth century dawned the newly created nation of America was looking west beyond the frontier of white civilization to the unknown, but potentially exploitable, lands beyond. Thomas Jefferson, pictured above left, sent Merriwether Lewis and William Clark on the famous expedition. It was not until 1845 that John L. O'Sullivan would use the expression 'Manifest Destiny' when he wrote "".... the right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federaltive development of self government entrusted to us. It is right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth." The idea had clearly taken a firm hold long before. The expedition failed to achieve the intended goal of establishing an easy route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but imaginations were fired.

As they returned downriver to the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississipi, there were already trappers following the trail blazed by the Corps of Discovery. The prize they sought was the pelt of the beaver, to supply the European demand for Top Hats. The thing that ties all this together is the 'American Spirit' of people prepared to be highly mobile in pursuit of opportunity. The lady pictured is Sandi Browne: with her husband Stan, the tradition of "American Spirit' continues as they explore America together in their motorhome. Sandi's bio records her life in the airshows when "I also waved at the crowd from the top wing of a huge Stearman bi-plane while it flew upside down close to the ground." Stan's bio records his life in the electronic components industry. 'Average' Americans if such a thing exists. In the picture Sandi models a real beaver pelt top hat in the factor's house at Fort Vancouver, WA the regional headquarters for the Hudson Bay Company.

To follow up on these three threads I recommend the following links: Thomas Jefferson's brief biography on the White House website; Manifest Destiny on the Revolution to Reconstruction website; Lewis and Clark on the PBS website and on the VIAs website; Beaver Fur Hats on the White Oak website (which provides 'living history' interpretations of the fur trade era within the Great Lakes region), and The Fur Trade: Beaver Powered Mountaineering on the Mountain Men: 1810-1860 website; an excellent (worthwhile 1Mb download -- scrollable graphic) map of the Westward Explorations 1800-20 from the University of Texas online library; and Sandi and Stan Browne's website, with picture galleries of their travels.

This item was the second of three parts:

Jim Bridger Biography

Picture credits: the portrait of Jim Bridger from Utah State Historical Society; the Ashley-Henry advertisement from the Missouri Historical Society (to comply with the requirements of the copyright holders we regret that we had to remove this resource, but it can be seen courtesy of Earl Cook on his William Henry Ashley page; and the drawing of Jim Bridger as a trapper from The Kansas City Star.
Jim Bridger © Utah State Historical SocietyAshley-Henry Advertisement © Missouri Historical SocietyJim Bridger © Kansas City Star
James Bridger (17 March 1804 - 17 July 1881) Bridger was born in Richmond, Virginia and soon after moved with his family to the American Bottoms, on the opposite bank of the river to St. Louis. In 1817, after both parents died, Bridger supported himself and his sister by operating a ferry boat across the Mississippi. Later he was apprenticed to a local blacksmith. In those days St. Louis, then later Independence, and by 1840 Westport were 'The Frontier', for reasons explained on the Westport Historical Society website.

Tiring of his apprenticeship, in 1822 Bridger signed on with other legendary 'Mountain Men' Hugh Glass, Jedediah Smith, and Thomas Fitzpatrick to be a member of General William Henry Ashley's Upper Missouri expedition. At the age of 17, he was the youngest member of the expedition.

Lewis and Clark had followed the Missouri as far as they could, presumably in the hope of finding a trans–continental route that was, as far as possible, by water to make for the easiest method of transport. This route, however, goes far north almost to the modern Canadian border, which means the high passes were only open for a short late-summer season. Even today the passes used by Lewis and Clark make a very difficult passage. The key to crossing the Rockies was South Pass.

Who discovered the Pass depends on whom you read. The invaluable Mountain Men and the Fur Trade website contains an important letter among its library of historical source documents, dating the discovery to 1812. Certainly by 1822 Ashley, with Bridger in the party, was headed that way. Ashley is credited with instigating the 'Rendezvous System', whereby his trappers would work in the field for a whole year, then meet at a predetermined time and place to trade their stash of pelts for supplies. The Green River Rendezvous was reckoned to be the biggest of these meets. William Earl Cook has several photo webpages on the Green River Rendezvous re–enactment near Pinedale, which will give you modern visualisations of those times. Bridger's rifle can be seen on the Museum of the Mountain Man website, and his binocular and Hawken rifle from c. 1850 on the Montana Historical website.

At the Rendezvous Bridger was noted for the tall stories told around the campfire. Once, when pressed by a British journalist to describe how he'd escaped from a box canyon, penned in by attacking Indians, he explained, "Oh, that time I never did. They killed us right there." Bridger had a Blackfoot arrowhead stuck in his back from an Indian battle. It had been there three years. At one Rendezvous Dr. Whitman did surgery on Bridger's back to get the arrowhead out. Dr. Whitman asked Bridger how he lived so long and Jim said, "Meat does not spoil fast in the Rockies."

To settle a bet in the winter camp of his trapping party of 1824, Bridger set out to find the exact course of the Bear River from the Cache Valley. On his return he told that it emptied into a vast lake of salt water. People were convinced he had found an arm of the Pacific Ocean, but we now know that he was the first white man to view The Great Salt Lake.

In the summer of 1842, aware that the market for beaver was waning and anticipating America's westward migration, he and fellow trapper Louis Vasquez founded a trading post on Black's Fork of the Green River, in what is now southwest Wyoming. Fort Bridger quickly evolved into an important way station on the Oregon Trail. He described it thus in his approaches to suppliers: "I have established a small store, with a Black Smith Shop, and a supply of Iron on the road of the Emigrants on Black's Fork Green River, which promises fairly, they in coming out are generally well supplied with money, but by the time they get there are in want of all kinds of supplies. Horses, Provisions, Smith work etc brings ready Cash from them and should I receive the goods hereby ordered will do a considerable business in that way with them. The same establishment trades with the Indians in the neighborhood, who have mostly a good number of Beaver amongst them."

Bridger's most important discovery came in 1850. Captain Howard Stanbury stopped at Fort Bridger and inquired about the possibility of a shorter route across the Rockies than the South Pass. Bridger guided him through a pass that ran south from the Great Basin. This pass would soon be rightfully called Bridger's Pass and would be the route for overland mail, the Union Pacific Railroad, and finally Interstate 80.

Fort Bridger grew in importance as emigration westward increased on what became known as the 'Oregon Trail'. The wagon trains carried people bound for the gold fields of California, the lands and forests of the northwest, and the Mormons escaping religious persecution to found the 'Desert Empire' in the Salt Lake Valley. In 1859 the Lander Cutoff opened, between the South Pass and the Snake River valleys, and that year 13,000 emigrants used the route. Many of them scratched their names on Names Hill where you may still see Bridger's 'signature', scratched when he passed that way in 1844. In 1847 Bridger met Brigham Young, president of the LDS church. At first relations between the owners of Fort bridger and the Mormons were good, but later frictions resulted in the sale of Fort Bridger to the Mormons for $8,000 (the LDS website says $18,000) in 1855, though the second half of the payment was not made until 1858 when Vasquez collected the debt in Salt lake City. Eventually the federal army occupied the Fort, even paying Bridger's widow for improvements made by the Mormons during their occupation. The full story of those times may be read on a highly recommended website www.utahhistorytogo.org, where there is a detailed page dedicated to Bridger, containing many interesting facts.

By 1855 Bridger had 'retired' to a farm in Independence, MO in the old community of Dallas on State Line Road, running from 103rd to 107th Street and east to Wornall Road, presumably bought with the earnings from the sale of Fort Bridger to the LDS Church. On the crest of the hill south of Indian Creek he built a stone farmhouse. He was revered by his contempories as 'Old Gabe', and must have been a very colourful member of his local community. In 1866 he bought Chouteau's store, 504 Westport Road, one of the oldest buildings still standing in Westport. He never ran a Westport dance hall and saloon, as has been claimed. His eyesight failed and he died there aged 77 years.

He was buried about 200 yards northwest of 101st and Jefferson Streets on the Stubbins Watts Farm, north of Watts Mill, in the old community of Dallas, MO where he lay for almost 25 years. In 1904 Major General Grenville Dodge, the Union Pacific's engineer who had consulted with Bridger on the railway's route through the Rockies, had Bridger's remains moved to Mt. Washington Cemetery in Independence. A suitably modest memorial marks the place, recording Bridger's achievements, and with an engaging sculpture of his head set below the plinth. Recently a bronze sculpture with larger than life figures, was unveiled at the new Pioneer Park, Broadway and Westport Road. It depicts the full figures of James Bridger, John Calvin McCoy, "Father of Kansas" and Alexander Majors, "The Great Freighter", sculpted by Tom Beard.

Bridger had three Indian wives: Flathead, Ute and Snake. He was not a 'squaw-man', however, marrying all the women, and when they died sending his children east to Missouri to be educated. Bridger himself, although illiterate was highly intelligent, and once employed a German boy at $40 a month to read Shakespeare to him, which he would later quote extensively. There was a First Day of Issue 29 cent US Postal Service stamp on 18 October 1994. Beer, a hat, and even a power generating plant have been named after Bridger. More than 20 places, including a wilderness area, carry Bridger's name: the most fitting memorials to this legendary explorer.

My interest in finding out more about James Bridger stems from a tale my father told me as a small boy in the UK: he said that Bridger once claimed that on his wanderings in uncharted territory, "Often I didn't know where I was, but I was never lost". That's a fair summary of my own life.

This item was the third of three parts:
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Jules Laforgue (1860-1887)
"Ah! que la vie est quotidienne."
Oh, what a day-to-day business life is.
'Complainte sur certains ennuis' (1885)