Fort Bridger takes its name from one of the most famous scouts of the West.
James Bridger was born in Richmond, Virginia, March 17, 1804. There is but little known of the family except that there was an older brother and a sister younger than James, and that the parents kept a hotel in Richmond and owned a farm near by. Although this would indicate that they were in comfortable circumstances, James never had the advantages of schooling, and he never learned to read and write. In 1812 the family moved to St. Louis, and five years later he and his sister were left alone, his parents and the brother having died. Thrown on his own resources, he worked f or a time on a flatboat and later in a blacksmith shop. At the age of eighteen Bridger decided to seek his fortune in the West, and in April, 1822, joined the Ashley party led by Andrew Henry. They ascended the Missouri as far as the mouth of the Yellowstone, and after being compelled to abandon the trading post there built by them, as related in Chapter Four, they crossed to the Big Horn and worked south along its course. From here they crossed over to Green River by way of South Pass.
In the winter of 1824 a party of Ashley men, of which Bridger was a member, was encamped on Upper Bear River, and to settle a dispute as to its course, Bridger, who seems to have had a liking for solitude, followed the stream down to its outlet in Great Salt Lake. As far as we know, he was the first white man to visit this inland sea.1 It strikes us as a singular mistake that in spite of its altitude he should, on account of the salinity of its waters, have mistaken it for an arm of the sea, but such was his report to his companions when he joined them at the Green River rendezvous in July.
In 1830 Bridger, with other members of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, traveled north as far as the Great Falls of the Missouri River. From there they turned south and followed the Jefferson River to its source. It was probably on the return trip that Bridger strayed into the geyser region. His descriptions of this wonderland were greeted with the same incredulity as were those of Colter some twenty years earlier. The story of a spring the waters of which divided to flow to the east and the west to find their way to the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, was one that was universally disbelieved, though today it is a well-known object of interest.2 Finding himself discredited when recounting facts, he determined to make good his reputation as a liar, and related the most fanciful tales imaginable, one being of a petrified forest, where birds as well as trees, and even the songs issuing from their throats, had been turned to stone. Unlike Colter, he had the satisfaction of living to see his true accounts verified, but his friends said that he suffered more than the scoffers realized from the doubts cast upon his veracity.
In the year 1834 the fur traders, Robert Campbell and William Sublette, established a trading post in what is now eastern Wyoming and called it Fort William on the Laramie. This name was soon shortened to Fort Laramie. The next year Milton Sublette and James Bridger took over this post, and a few months later it became the property of the American Fur Company.3
From the time when “Jack Robinson” had first settled on Black’s Fork of Green River, he had lost no opportunity of urging on his friend, James Bridger, the building of a trading post in this well-watered valley, and in 1842 this advice bore fruit. A log house was built, a stock of provisions moved in, and all was surrounded by a fence eight feet high that served as a corral and a protection against wild animals. In 1845 Louis Vasquez, a Mexican, who had trapped for Ashley, bought a partnership in the business. Additions were made to the original building, and it became a well-equipped station, with blacksmith forge and other necessities. More trappers settled down in the neighborhood, and there were soon about fifty people in the valley.
A strange spot is the Fort Bridger of the early forties. Scattered about the rude stockade horses stamp impatiently in the dust while their owners drink or gamble within. It is a mixed company, Indians inscrutable as the granite rocks on the hillside, furtive half breeds lounging against the walls, Mexicans ever ready with jest and song but conscious always of the concealed weapon, patient squaws keeping a watchful eye on the dusky babies that roll and tumble about their feet, the little group of white trappers comprising many nationalities but bound together by a common purpose only half expressed or understood, and, towering above all, the personality of Jim Bridger, whether drunk or sober, dominating the picture. Sometimes the gates open for a “‘coach and four,” in which Vasquez and his wife Marianne fare forth in state for a pleasure ride across the rolling hills.4 Indians and white men come and go either on foot or horseback.
Such is the scene in summer, but when winter settles down for its long reign there is a closer drawing together of natural ties-stray Indians seek their own tribes, and a few more trappers come within the range of the fort’s protection. Already the beaver and the wolf are becoming scarce in the lowlands, and the traps are set farther up on the streams. The trappers make their rounds every few days to bring in their furs, and, save for the excitement of their coming and going, it is a time of waiting, waiting for melting snows and returning life.
Among the few existing stories of the Fort Bridger of these early days is one dating back to the year 1843, when a party of Arapahoe and Cheyenne Indians made an attack on Fort Bridger while the men were off on an antelope hunt, and killed a number of Shoshone squaws. The Shoshone braves avenged this outrage by following up the marauders and killing and wounding a number of them and recovering the horses. The second expedition of Captain Fremont, an account of which is given in the following chapter, was attacked by the same band, but “a shot from his howitzer brought them to their senses.”5
The early Oregon emigrants had but little effect on Wyoming save as trail makers, but the year 1847 saw a movement that was destined to leave a lasting impression on our county. On July 7 the first Mormon train camped at Fort Bridger. They had been just three months on the way from their winter camp on the Missouri. They traveled about twelve miles a day in order to let their livestock feed along the way. The preliminary survey of the route had been made in 1846 by Oliver P. Gleason, guided by the old scout, “Jim Beckwith”, This was by far the best organized company that had ever crossed the state. It included school teachers as well as experts in all trades, such as carpenters, masons and mechanics. There were in the first train seventy-two wagons, ninety-three horses, fifty-two mules, sixty-eight oxen, nineteen cows and numerous dogs and chickens. The men, numbering one hundred forty-three, walked most of the way, and there were three women and two children. Many of the names enrolled are familiar in our county, their descendants living among us.6
Brigham Young, president of this newly organized religious order, was a wonderful leader, possessed of rare insight into human nature, as well as a varied store of knowledge. He was the first to make a practical application of irrigation to the west. Bridger’s pessimistic forebodings as to the fate of a colony foolhardy enough to settle in the arid region around the Great Salt Lake had no terrors for him, and the history of Utah, as well as that of every colony founded by his followers shows how well grounded was his faith.
The foundation of the Mormon church is industry, not only applied to their religious work but to the building of their communities. Brigham Young spared no pains to attract settlers, and the church soon had missionaries in every land and clime. The building of a new Zion on earth still makes a strong appeal to the hearts of men, and the response came from all quarters. Practical problems were discussed in their religious services, and the majority, if not all of the converts, found their material condition improved under the supervision of trained leaders.
The first train of Mormon emigrants stopped two days at Fort Bridger for rest and blacksmith repairs, and then took its departure by what is now the Lincoln Highway, though they forded Bear River near Myers’ Crossing, instead of coming on to the site of Evanston. From here they traveled up Coyote Creek, and left the county July 12. Other trains followed the next few months bearing more women and children, and before winter two thousand ninety-five settlers were in the valley. The following year this number was increased to about five thousand, practically all of whom had taken the same route, now known as the Mormon Trail.7
1848 was the year of the Mexican Cession. By it the United States gained California, Nevada and Utah, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. This last named section in which we are especially interested, extended on the north to the forty-second parallel, and on the east to the hundred ninth meridian.
In 1849 the Mormons organized the region embraced today in Nevada, Utah and southwest Wyoming into the State of Deseret.8 Brigham Young was elected governor. In 1855 the Territory of Utah was organized by act of Congress. The boundaries of the territory were those of the present state of Utah, plus the portion needed to make the rectangle, which now belongs to Wyoming.
The gold rush of 1849, following so closely on the first Mormon immigration, had its effect on Fort Bridger’s history. It became a famous supply station and was visited by people from all lands.
A description of the Fort Bridger of 1849, taken from the diary of Captain Howard Stansbury, is found in a government report published in 1852. He was in command of a government party consisting of eighteen men, with five wagons and forty-six horses and mules. At Fort Leavenworth they had been joined by a train of six persons bound for California, under a leader named Sackett. This party was traveling with a wagon, a “traveling carriage,” and fifteen animals. The account reads as follows
“August 11. Ther. at six o’clock 40. A drive of thirty miles during which we crossed Ham’s Fork three times and Black’s Fork once, brought us to Fort Bridger, an Indian trading post, situated on the latter stream, which here divides into three principal channels, forming several extensive islands, upon one of which the fort is placed. It is built in the usual form of pickets, with lodging apartments and offices opening into a hollow square, protected from without by. a strong gate of timber. On the north and continuous with the walls is a strong, high picket fence enclosing a large yard, into which the animals belonging to the establishment are driven for protection from wild beasts and Indians. We were received with great kindness and lavish hospitality by the proprietor, Major James Bridger, one of the oldest mountain men in the entire region.” He tells of stopping five days at the post for repairs on the wagons, during which he explored the valley and gathered fossils.
The flimsy character of these so-called “forts” may be judged from the fact that the entire string of trading posts put up by the Astorians on the Pacific slope was valued at only $7,500.9
Among the west-bound travelers in the autumn of 1851 was a young man by the name of John Watson Montieth. He was twenty-one years of age, and brought with him his sixteenyear-old bride, whose maiden name was Lucinda Miller. The winter storms had already set in when they reached Fort Bridger, and the current stories of the unfriendliness of the Utah settlers toward California-bound travelers, combined with the advice of Jim. Bridger, caused them to spend the winter at the fort. Bridger was longing for other cooking than that of his Indian wife, and Mrs. Montieth boarded him when he was at the post. Mr. and Mrs. Montieth were the grandparents of Mrs. Higgins, wife of L. H. Higgins, a civil engineer on the Union Pacific, who for several years was stationed at Evanston. Mrs. Higgins tells of the thrilling experiences to which she, as a child, listened from the lips of the little bride-grandmother, to whom each day was a fresh adventure of interest and foreboding. When spring came the young couple decided that they had seen enough of the West and returned to their home in Illinois.
In the summer of 1853 William K. Sloan, father of A. C. Sloan of Evanston, arrived at Fort Bridger. He was driving one of twenty ox teams comprising a train that had been equipped at St. Louis. His account of the long and perilous journey, beset by Indians who extorted from them provisions necessary to their own welfare, the inadequate supplies to be had at Fort Laramie, and the arrival at Fort Bridger early in October, are graphically described in his memoirs. Five miles east of the fort they were met by a wagon sent to them from Salt Lake with food which did not go far toward supplying their needs, as it consisted only of one side of a beef, some flour and a few sacks, of potatoes. They had been living for two weeks on “rusty pork”, dried apples, sugar and coffee, and a grand rush was made for the potatoes, half of which were devoured raw on the spot.
Mr. Sloan describes Fort Bridger as “a string of log houses built in the shape of a quadrangle, with a gate on one side opening into the square. The doors and windows, or rather openings, were on the inside.” He says : “The place at the time was occupied by a number of mountaineers, the majority of whom had lately come from their trading stations along the mountain road to spend the winter.” He mentioned seeing James Bridger, “Jack Robinson,” Vasquez and Marianne, and two men who were afterward notorious in Utah history, Bill Hickman and Peter Rockwell. He continues : “From Fort Bridger to Salt Lake the roads were terrible, rain and snow nearly every day, grass very scarce, and cattle perishing daily from cold and hunger.” Mr. Sloan settled for a time in Salt Lake, and returned later to Uinta County.
With the advent of non-Mormons in Utah clashes of opinions were bound to occur, and these had their influence on Fort Bridger. In 1853 Bridger turned over his interests in the valley to Louis Robinson, who, the Mormons claimed, represented them in the transaction. The purchase price was said to be $8,000, $4,000 of which was paid in money. Bridger claimed to have a Mexican grant for a tract of land thirty miles square, and for some years Brigham Young tried to substantiate his title at Washington on this ground, but was unsuccessful. Some historians are of the opinion that the Mexican grant was a myth, and that the wily old scout had, in the modern vernacular, “put one over” on the Mormons, and sold them something to which he had no legal right. Many, on the other hand, believe that Bridger honestly thought he had such a title. Land had been transferred in something of the same manner in New Mexico and Colorado by the Mexican government.10 Those who knew Bridger best considered him honest in business transactions. However this may be, the Mormons took possession of the fort, but the government never recognized the claim.
Bridger was married three times, his first wife being the daughter of a Flathead chief, who died in 1846, leaving him with two children, Josephine and Felix. At an early age they were sent to St. Louis for schooling. The boy served in a Missouri regiment in the Civil War, and for a short time lived in Cheyenne in the very early history of the state’s capitol. From there he went to Missouri and died in 1876. Josephine did not live to grow up.
In 1848 Bridger married a Ute squaw, who died the following year, after having borne him a little daughter, whom he named Virginia. She was sent to St. Louis to be with her sister in a convent. In 185o Bridger married for the third time, this wife coming from the Shoshone tribe. A girl, whom they named Mary, was born to this union in 1853, and four years later a son called William.
The pictures of James Bridger show a spare mountaineer, somewhat above the average height, with the freedom from selfconsciousness of the man who is accustomed to doing big things. The lids of his keen eyes are narrowed to shut out the glaring mountain sunlight, and it is with pity that we read of eyes so wonderfully trained that they were the envy of his scout companions, failing him utterly in his old age. There is a pathetic picture presented in a letter written by his daughter Virginia, who cared for him at the last, of his longing to regain his sight that he might once more see the mountains, the homeland of his heart. She tells of getting a gentle old horse that he could ride and a faithful dog to keep track of his wanderings in the woods near their home. He died at the age of seventy-seven, and was buried about a mile north of Dallis, Missouri. On December 11, 1904, a monument was unveiled to his memory by James Bridger’s great-granddaughter, Marie Louise Lightle, in the Mount Washington Cemetery, Kansas City, where the remains had been moved in 19o2. It bears the following inscription:
Celebrated as a Hunter, Trapper, Fur Trader and Guide. Discovered Salt Lake, 1824; the South Pass, 1827; visited Yellowstone Lake and Geysers, 1830 Founded Fort Bridger, 1843. Opened Overland Route by Bridger’s Pass to Salt Lake. Was Guide for Exploring Expeditions, Albert Sidney Johnson’s Army in 1857, and G. M. Dodge in U. P. Surveys and Indian Campaigns in 1865-66.
This monument is erected as a tribute to his pioneer work by Major General G. M. Dodge.
James Bridger spent the two years from 1852 to 1854 as guide to Sir George Gore, an Irish nobleman, who is said to have spent two million dollars a year in the pursuit of pleasure. Though his hunting grounds were east and north of South Pass and did not extend into Uinta County, yet it is interesting to note that this party was guilty of the slaughter of twenty-five hundred buffalo, forty grizzly bears, and other game too numerous to mention. It is said that the educated noblemen took much pleasure in the companionship of his guide, and there are stories of camp-fire scenes where he read aloud to the old trapper from some such books as Shakespeare and Baron Munchausen and listened with respect to his quaintly expressed opinions.
In 1856 Bridger was guide to the Government Expedition under the command of the United States Engineer Corps. Warren was soon succeeded by Colonel William T. Reonalds. In his report, published in 1867, Reonalds tells of Bridger’s accounts of boiling springs resembling the geysers of Iceland, and he adds : “As he is uneducated and has probably never heard of such marvels elsewhere I have little doubt that he spoke of that which he has actually seen.”
James Bridger bought a farm near Little Santa Fe, Missouri, but he could not bring himself to settle down. His services were much in demand as guide to emigrants, and to Government expeditions, and one cannot but be impressed with the amount of traveling done by these mountaineers. William Drannon, “The Boy Scout,” who worked with Bridger for many years, tells of being with Kit Carson and Bridger on the tributaries of the upper Missouri River in 1856, and coming south by a passage in the mountains that they named Bridger’s Pass. They separated and the next summer met again in Taos, Mexico, at the home of Carson, and a few weeks later Bridger and Drannon were in Denver. It was the time of the rush to Pike’s Peak, and they joined the gold seekers, but a few days satisfied them both that they were not adapted to mining, and they made their way to Fort Kearney to await their chance of conducting emigrant trains. It was not long before they were engaged by a party bound for the Sierra Nevada slope, and a bargain was made by which they were to be paid six dollars a day apiece and have complete authority. Drannon describes the organizing and drilling of the men that occupied three days, after which they selected eight assistant scouts and set out. They were joined by another train, making eighty-four wagons in all. A brush with savages resulted in the killing of several Indians without casualties to the train. At Fort Bridger they met one of General Connor’s officers, who warned them against going by way of Salt Lake, as the Utes were giving trouble in that region, and they accordingly traveled west by way of the Sublette Cutoff. After a few days spent in Sacramento they parted. They next met at Fort Kearney, when Bridger was about to start with a party under the leadership of the pioneer, James Bozeman, for the Big Horn region. Bridger was to receive $500 for his services as guide, and he offered half of it to Drannon if he would go along. Drannon laughingly declined, as he could see no, reason why the old scout should divide his fee. The trip was successfully made and the road traced was the beginning of the Bozeman Trail. Drannon tells of a conversation with Bridger at this meeting at Fort Kearney, when the old man told him that he had in mind a home for his old age, a place “‘about fifteen miles east of Fort Bridger on Black’s Fork, near the lone tree.” He said : “There’s where I mean to settle down after making this trip. I can sit in my door, and with a good glass I can see Fort Bridger that was named for me, and which I feel proud of today.” It is doubtful whether Bridger ever saw the old fort after this conversation.
There is proof that Bridger advised strongly against the attempt to build the road known as the Bozeman Trail into the country of the hostile Sioux, a road famous for the historic battle known as the “Wagon Box Fight,” that took place August 2, 1868. From the beleaguered Fort Phil Kearney, following the Fetterman massacre of December 22, i868, comes one of the many touching tributes to his character. It is found in the diary of Frances C. Carrington, wife of the gallant Colonel Henry B. Carrington, who was in command, and reads as follows : “There was one faithful and simple-minded man at the post, the colonel’s confidential guide at all times, who seemed instinctively to know the visible as well as the invisible operations of the Indians, good Jim Bridger,” and she goes on to tell of his kind thoughtfulness toward every one around him.11 It is another proof of the fact that Bridger had friends in all walks of life, from the simple trapper and half-breed to the most cultured people. There were a few Indians, too, whom he counted among his friends, but not many whom he trusted. For years he carried in his back the arrow received in the Dripps-Vanderbourgh affair. This was cut out by Dr. Marcus Whitman at the historic rendezvous of 1836, and the operation gave the scout an added respect for the missionaries.12
The place of James Bridger in history is secure. No man knew the Rockies better than he, and as for the region embraced in the state of Wyoming, he was undoubted authority. Landmarks engraved themselves on his memory, and a judgment amounting to instinct led him unerringly to the shortest route. Before he was thirty years old he was known as “The Old Man of the Mountains.” In essentials his word could be relied upon, but he was fond of “drawing the long bow” when telling of his adventures in order to make an interesting story.
As for his character, it would be unfair to judge him by the standards of today. His weaknesses were those of his times and environment, but his virtues were his own.
- Bancroft. History of Utah.
- Chittenden. “Yellowstone National Park.”
- Chittendon. “American Fur Trade.”
- Col. A. S. Brackett. State Historical Collection. Volume One.
- Whitney. History of Utah.
- See Appendix Two.
- Chittenden. “American Fur Trade.”
- Coutant. History of Wyoming.
- Hebard-Brinnenstoll “The Bozeman Trail.”
- Chittenden. “The American Fur Trade.”