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Jim Bridger | One of the Major Pioneers and Explorers of his Time

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J.R.R Tolkien once wrote "Not all those who wander are lost", this quote, now well known, describes rather well the life of Jim Bridger. Old Gabe, as he was known, "wandered" the western United States at a time when the area was little known, yet he was one of the few who were not lost. He was one of the major explorers of the first half of the 19th century. 

When it comes to explaining who Jim Bridger was in a few words, I don't even know where to start. In the course of his life, Jim became known as a:

  • Mountain men
  • Trapper
  • Explorer
  • Guide
  • Scout 
  • And even an Entrepreneur

His knowledge of the American West played a key role in the geographical discovery of the territory. He is also famous for being a mediator between the European settlers and the Native American tribes.

James Felix Bridger, his real name, had no formal education and could not read or write. But these few shortcomings were offset by his sense of direction, his extraordinary memory and his exceptional survival skills. Throughout his career, he demonstrated his ability to find his way around and map the West in his mind. To top it all off, he could hold conversations in French, Spanish and several indigenous languages.

But who really was Jim Bridger, and why did this explorer leave his mark? 

Identity card 

Jim bridger

Jim Bridger (1804-1881). Source: Denver Public Library, Call Number: Z-314. From the Noah H. Rose collection.

  • Last name: Bridger
  • First name: James, Felix, more commonly known as "Jim”
  • Gender: M
  • Date of birth: 17 March 1804 - Richmond
  • Date of Death: 17 July 1881 - Kansas City (age 77)
  • Activity: Mountain man, Trapper, Explorer, Guide, Scout and Entrepreneur
  • Books dedicated to him: Jim Bridger, mountain man by Stanley Vestal / Jim Bridger by J. Cecil Alter / Jim Bridger Trailblazer of the American West by Jerry Enzler etc. 
  • Film dedicated to him: "Bridger" (1976) by David Lowell Rich
  • "The Revenant" (2015) by Alejandro González Iñárritu
  • A song is also dedicated to him: Jim Bridger by Johnny Horton 🎶

📷 Credit: mrtibbs6912's Youtube Channel

The expedition of Hugh Glass, John Fitzgerald and "Bridges"

Jim was born on 17 March 1804 in Richmond, Virginia. Around 1812, he and his parents moved near St. Louis, Missouri. Orphaned at 13, young Jim had to learn to fend for himself. In his youth, he was apprenticed to a blacksmith, where he learned how to use a gun and handle a boat. This is more or less when our story begins, with Jim Bridger's first expedition.

Jim was only 17 years old and the youngest member of the expedition when he answered the recruitment advertisement of the Ashley-Henry fur trade. The company paid its trappers/traders to trade with the Indians around the Missouri River. Bridger was hired in 1822, so far, nothing remarkable. It was the following year, 1823, that things got interesting. 

Hugh Glass, one of the traders who worked with Jim, had an unexpected encounter. A female grizzly bear and her two cubs, the mother, wanting to defend her cubs, attacked Glass. The result, the mother dead, and a man on the verge of death, mauled by the beast. Hugh survived but his condition was critical. John Fitzgerald and Bridges (Jim) volunteered to look after him in his last moments while the rest of the company moved on. Claiming an Arikara attack, the two men took the poor man's rifle and other belongings and left him for dead. They then caught up with the group to tell them that Hugh was dead. 🐻

hugh glass attached by a bear illustration

Illustration of Hugh Glass and his legendary bear attack published at the time for a newspaper, Unknown author

What they didn't see coming was that Glass had survived, and after several months of absence, "the revenant" had miraculously recovered from his injuries. He decides to go looking for the two men who abandoned him and ripped him off. He travelled more than 1400 miles (about 2200 km) from Missouri to the Bighorn River in Montana. To give you an idea, that's the equivalent of a 20-hour drive these days, and he was on foot and badly injured. 

So after several months, he finally found young Bridger in Bighorn, and forgave him because of his youth. It was Fitzgerald that Glass blamed the most, when he learned that Fitzgerald had joined the army, the revenant decided to visit him. Not to kill him, because Hugh knew he couldn't kill an American soldier without being executed afterwards. Glass came to see Fitzgerald and warned him never to leave the army or he would kill him. He even managed to get his rifle back, along with $300 in compensation for all the suffering he had gone through.  

No source is completely sure that "Bridges" is in fact Jim Bridger. But Jim was hired by Ashley's, the nickname is very similar to our protagonist's last name and the age is very appropriate for Bridger's age at the time. So it is not impossible that Jim Bridger is an integral part of this incredible story. 

Bridger or not, the story is true and inspired the Oscar-winning film The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Hugh Glass), Will Poulter (young Jim Bridger) and Tom Hardy (John Fitzgerald). The film took a lot of liberty with the original story but faithfully retraced some of the key points of the expedition. 🎬

Yellowstone and the Great Salt Lake

Some years after the grizzly bear attack, in 1824, Bridger was part of an exploration party in the Yellowstone area. The purpose of the expedition was to discover and better understand the sights of the area and potentially map them. 

Yellowstone is known today for its beautiful landscapes, geysers and the Great Salt Lake. Jim was the first Anglo known to have explored this area, aged just 21. Jim mistakenly believed that the Great Salt Lake was the Pacific Ocean. Bridger is also known to have explored the BigHorn River, north-east of the lake, in Montana. He was by himself on this expedition.

In the years that followed, Jim continued to explore the sights of the American West. During this period he earned a living as a guide and trapper. He even married a woman from the Flathead tribe in 1835. But in time, he grew tired of the trapper's life and saw an opportunity to make a living in other ways. 💲

Fort Bridger 

It was in 1843 that Bridger and his business partner Louis Vasquez founded Fort Bridger in southwest Wyoming. If you think about it, it's not a stupid idea, Bridger saw the increase in migrants going to the West Coast in Oregon or California. A fort with supplies, provisions and good advice during this time in this location was strategic. 

Fort bridger

Fort Bridger, 1851, Author, james Ackerman. Source: Stansbury, Capt. Howard (Corps of Topographical Engineers, U.S. Army) "Exploration and Survey of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah", Washington, DC: United States Senate (Special Session, March, 1851, Executive Document #3). 1852

Fort Bridger had become a well-known place in the country, and for fifteen years Bridger resided there. He lived with his first wife whom he called 'Emma' or 'Cora' depending on the source, but she died in 1846 of a fever. He married a second time to the daughter of a Shoshone chief, who also died three years later in childbirth... To top it off, one of his daughters was murdered by Indians. 

At this point in his life, Bridger, lost, wanders between the fort, the mountains where he hunts and traps, and some Indian tribes. He married a third time in 1850 to the daughter of the Shoshone Washakie chief with whom he had two more children, spent the summers at the fort, the winters with his wife's tribe, and just when he thought he had a happier life, another tragedy struck Bridger. 

Only three years after his marriage, in 1853, Fort Bridger, a victim of his success, was burned and destroyed by jealous competitors! Members of the LDS (Latter-day Saints) church decided to put an end to Jim's business, and he, his wife and children managed to escape, but the fort was torn down along with all of Bridger's possessions. He sold the fort in 1858 for good and became a guide/scout/adviser to the US Army. Bridger, his wife and children headed east to Missouri where he bought a farm. His family lived on the farm while Bridger traveled west. 🏠

But Jim Bridger's greatest discovery was a few years earlier, in 1850, because despite running the fort, Jim continued to lead expeditions. 

Bridger's Pass

In 1849, Captain Howard Stanbury visited Bridger with a proposal: The US government wanted to fund an expedition to learn more about the American West and facilitate the construction of railways and find coal deposits. 

Bridger guided him to a road now known as Bridger's Pass in memory of Jim. This road was so much faster that it shortened the journey by 61 miles (almost 100km). The pass is still in use today, and its influence on the development of this part of the USA is undeniable.

As you can imagine, Jim Bridger didn't just do one expedition, he did so many, that to list them all would be too long, but here are the most 

bridger pass

Bridger's Pass, 18 August 2011, 09:39:43. Author, Ericshawwhite. Hiking along Bridger Pass Road in the Divide Basin. This is an image of a place or building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the United States of America. Its reference number is 70000669.

Guide, Scout and Adviser

After leaving the fort, Bridger became a guide for the US Army. Quite simply, whenever a guide was needed in this area for an important mission, Jim Bridger was the default choice. However, in 1846, Jim was indirectly involved in a disastrous expedition known as the Donner Party

The Donner Party commemorative plaque

“The Donner Party” commemorative plaque,1 November 2015, 09:17:09. Author, Famartin

A man named Lansford Hastings proposed what he thought was a faster route to California. This route would take the party through Fort Bridger and across the Great Salt Lake, a good deal for Jim and his partner. So he approved Hastings' proposed route knowing that he was getting paid in the process. But the route was not shorter and safer, on the contrary, it was twice as long as expected and the group never found the "nice flat roads" promised by Jim. 😫

As a result, of the original 87 members, 40 died to the Nevada winter, the survivors having to resort to cannibalism to stay alive... This is without doubt the least glowing anecdote I've found about Jim Bridger, who according to several sources is a rather respectable man as well as being an accomplished adventurer. 

Bridger is also remembered for guiding Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston and his troops during the Utah War of 1857-58. The 2500 troops were guided by Jim to re-establish the American government in Utah. His knowledge of the land and the Indian tribes made all these expeditions successful. 

His ability to guide was so great that he became a major and chief guide from 1860 onwards. He served as a guide on a few expeditions, notably in 1864, but they were not as significant. He held the position of major at Fort Laramie (eastern Wyoming) until his retirement in 1868. 

Death

Old Gabe, as he was named in his later years, ended his life on his farm in Missouri. He became blind in 1875, and also suffered from a goiter (enlarged thyroid) and rheumatism (joint problems). James Felix Bridger died on 17 July 1881 at the age of 77. 👴

The storyteller

To end on a lighter note, Jim Bridger was also known for the stories he told the guests when he was still at the Fort. Some of these stories were true, such as the geyser at Yellowstone, but the majority of his stories were completely made-up and just intended to amuse the crowd. 

There was a story about a petrified forest with petrified birds singing petrified songs, but his most famous story is that of a pursuit between a group of Indians and himself: 

“Well, I think the most thrilling adventure I ever had on the frontier was in the winter of 1855 when Jack Robinson and I went trapping about 200 miles down the green river in ute country. We knew the utes were unfriendly, but we did not think they were warlike so we got two horses in a pack outfit and in December went into camp on green river.

We’d spent two months trapping and we’re about ready to return when early one morning we saw a large party of warriors coming up the stream. We had only time to saddle our horses and gather our rifles and ammunition. We estimated their party at about 100, started up the river at full speed abandoning everything we had in camp as we became hard pressed. One of us would dismount fire and then mount and pass the other and he would dismount fire and so continue, checking our pursuers until we gained some ground.

Their horses were not only fresh, but they had lead horses with them, which gave them a great advantage over us who had but one horse each. We continued this method of defence all day and by night had killed 30 of the Indians. But our horses were so tired we feared the enemy would take us. At the foot of a mountain where there was dense timber, we took shelter about dusk knowing the Indians would not follow us in the dark.

We spent the night in great fear as to what would become of us the next day knowing that at dawn they would be after us we started to lead our horses out of the valley. But had no sooner started than we heard the Indians behind us we continued our defence until about two o’clock when we had killed 30 more of the Indians. This left only about 40 to continue to pursuit but they did not seem at all discouraged, if anything, they were more active than ever.

By this time, our broken horses began to give way at the knees. Observing a narrow canyon, we’ve concluded to follow it as it gave us a better chance of defence than the open. The canyon was narrow with a swift stream running down it. We made our way as fast as we could for two or three miles looking around. We saw immediately in our rear the whole force of Indians.

Matters were desperate, the canyon walls were perpendicular. 300 foot high and growing narrower every mile. Suddenly around abandoned the canyon we saw a waterfall 200 feet high completely blocking our exit.

Here Mr. Bridger paused, the captain all aglow with interest cried out anxiously go on Mr. Bridger go on, how did you get out? Oh, bless your soul captain, answered Bridger, we never did get out, Indians killed us right there.”

Legacy

Mountain Man Jim Bridger bronze sculpture by David Alan Clark, at the entrance to Ft. Bridger, Wyoming.

Mountain Man Jim Bridger bronze sculpture by David Alan Clark, at the entrance to Ft. Bridger, Wyoming. Sculpture located at Business Loop I-80 37,000, Fort Bridger WY 82933. 8 August 2008. Author, Hunakai MJ Clark, artwork by David Alan Clark

With such an eventful life, Jim Bridger left quite a legacy, especially in the United States. 

  • There is of course Fort Bridger 
  • Bridger's Pass
  • Several sculptures dedicated to him (One of the sculptures devoted to him faces west, a symbol of the life he led. )
  • Many places are named after him (mainly in Montana and Wyoming). 
  • A commemoration was even organised in 1904, to celebrate Old Gabe's 100th birthday with a monument recalling the great moments of his life. 🎂

Conclusion

He was described as "a very companionable man. In person he was over six feet tall, spare, straight as an arrow, agile, rawboned and of powerful frame, eyes gray, hair brown and abundant even in old age, expression mild and manners agreeable. He was hospitable and generous, and was always trusted and respected.”

Today, not many people know the story of Jim Bridger, yet his fascinating story shows how radically different the men of that time lived. The pioneering spirit and quest for adventure of this man inspires, and I don't know about you, but I suddenly feel like going on an exciting adventure in the Wild West! 🤠

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auteur

Author: Felix

Felix is a very curious person who is always looking to learn and explore. Always in search of the unknown, he hopes through this blog to share with you his passion for adventure and vintage objects

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