Jim Bridger, mountain man
extraordinaire, was born in 1804 in Richmond, Virginia. In 1812, Bridgers
father moved the family to a farm near St. Louis, Missouri. Ten years
later, at the age of 22, young Bridger began his life as a trapper by
joining the expedition led by William Ashley and Andrew Henry up the Missouri
River as a beaver trapper. Along with Bridger on the expedition went three
other future giants of the frontier Jedediah Smith, Thomas Fitzpatrick
and Hugh Glass. Jedediah Smith, who was known for reading his Bible around
the campfire, gave Bridger a nickname which would stick for life. He called
him Old Gabe because Bridger, with his self assured manner,
reminded him of the angel Gabriel spreading the word of God. The party
travelled in keelboats some 1,800 miles up the mouth of the Yellowstone
River. Jims education grew by leaps and bounds as he found out how
to survive on the land. He came to know the uncharted lands like the back
of his hand.
Jim Bridger had undoubtedly found his niche. He would spend much of the
next 60 years at the head of groups of trappers and fur hunters for the
Rocky Mountain Fur Company, of which he was a founder, and the American
Fur Company. In 1842, however Bridger and fellow trapper Louis Vasquez
set about building a settlement on Blacks Fork of the Green River
in what is now Wyoming. The settlement, known as Fort Bridger, would become
a vital stopping off point for wary travellers on the overland trail west.
The travellers found in Jim Bridger an excellent host. One diary reported
the following about the man behind Fort Bridger: He was excessively
kind and patient with me in laying down the route to Salt Lake, taking
the trouble of drawing a chart with charcoal on the door, pointing out
a new line that had never been attempted, which would be a short cut of
That account underscores Bridgers vast knowledge of the west. According
to Captain John W. Gunnison in an 1834 report, With a buffalo skin
and a piece of charcoal he will map out any portion of this vast region
with wonderful accuracy. His renown in the area of plotting and charting
maps grew. In 1851, he was assigned by the United States Government to
draw the official maps that established the tribal boundaries according
to the Fort Laramie Peace Treaty.
By his mid thirties Jim Bridger had grown into a fine specimen of a man.
He stood at just over six feet, had a lean, muscular physique and sharp
facial features. According to an 1837 copy of the Cincinnati Atlas, His
cheekbones were high, his nose hooked or acquiline, the expression of
his eyes mild and thoughtful, that of his face grave almost to solemnity.
The highlight of the trappers year was the annual rendezvous. Bridger
richly enjoyed such get togethers. He was a natural fireside entertainer.
He would amaze his listeners with stories about his adventures and the
sights he had seen. Bridger had the ability to mesmerize Indians as well
as white men with his tales. On one occasion a Captain Howard Stansbury
was amazed to see him keep a circle of Sioux and Cheyenne intrigued for
over an hour with a tall tale that was told completely in sign language.
Bridger kept himself busy trapping and scouting after Fort Bridger was
established. He laid out a stage route west from Denver for the Central
Overland and Pikes Peak Express Company. He also guided 300 prospectors
to Montana goldfields. He also spent some time as a guide for the U.S.
Army in their quest for hostile Indians.
One day while scouting ahead of an army column near Tongue River in Wyoming
Territory in 1865, Bridger pointed out some smoke rising at a distant
point. The Captain, however, saw nothing, even with the aid of field glasses.
As they advanced other scouts began reporting an Indian village with campfires
Just two years later, however, failing eyesight caused Bridger to retire
from his position as an army scout. He purchased a farm in Kansas City,
Missouri and settled into the life of a farmer. He died there in 1881.
He was 77 years of age.
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