Residents of and travelers in the American West know that there is no shortage of places named after the mountain man Jim Bridger. There is in Montana the town of Bridger, and the Bridger Mountains near Bozeman. In Wyoming there’s the town of Fort Bridger, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, Bridger Lake, Bridger Butte, the Bridger Trail, and a couple of Bridger Creeks. He also has numerous public buildings, schools, restaurants, bars and motels named after him. Near Rock Springs, Wyoming, is the massive Jim Bridger power plant. The state Chamber of Commerce puts out a brochure that calls southwest Wyoming “Bridgerland.” The mountain man certainly got around.
But in the midst of the current Lewis and Clark mania there’s no mention of Bridger’s own related bicentennial, which falls on March 17, 2004. Though he was of the following generation, his life and accomplishments are inextricably linked to the storied captains. It was Lewis and Clark who opened the West to the fur men of whom Bridger was such a dominant figure. Bridger was many things, but he was first and foremost a mountain man, and he was a mountain man like Tiger Woods is a golfer. In his Across the Wide Missouri, the western historian Bernard DeVoto more than once calls him “the great Bridger.”
Born in Richmond, Virginia, of a large, poor family, Bridger was orphaned at 13 when both his parents died not long apart after the clan had emigrated to Missouri. This left him as sole support for a number of younger siblings for a few years, and he apprenticed himself to a blacksmith for a living, the future “pilot” of large, roving fur brigades learned his leadership skills young. Unfortunately, this left young Jim no time for school, and he remained illiterate for his entire 77 years (though an illiterate able to hold his own in the cutthroat world of the fur trade, and one with a good enough ear to be fluent in Spanish and a half dozen Indian languages).
In 1822 a friend read the 18-year-old Bridger a classified advertisement in a St. Louis newspaper seeking the services of “Forty Enterprising Young Men” for a three-year fur-trapping expedition to the Rocky Mountains. The trip was sponsored by William Ashley, a St. Louis entrepreneur and aspiring politician. Bridger was hired, and thus began the 45-year career of the man who had — as a military officer who much later employed him as a scout once described him — “one third of the continent imprinted upon his brain.” The Ashley alumni also included such mountain stalwarts as Thomas Fitzpatrick, William Sublette, James Clyman, James Beckwourth, and the Bible-reading Jedediah Smith, who gave young Bridger his nickname, “Old Gabe,” after the lively and enthusiastic Angel Gabriel.
THESE MEN ARE CREDITED with much of the exploration of the Intermountain West. For Bridger in 1824 it was the “discovery” of the Great Salt Lake (though scholars dispute this, as Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson Bay Company and free trapper Etienne Provost were both in the vicinity at the same time), when he floated down the Bear River and into it in a bullboat (a wood-frame craft covered with buffalo hides), at first thinking the huge salty lake was an arm of the Pacific Ocean. By the 1830s Bridger was a main partner in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company (along with Fitzpatrick and others), as the Rendezvous system reached its peak as the primary method of commerce among the trappers in the Rockies.
The 16 annual summer Rendezvous held at different locations between 1825-1840 were intense affairs that mixed serious business with hedonistic debauchery, a marriage of Wal-Mart and Mardi Gras. Gambling, horseracing, shooting contests, and the drinking of raw alcohol went on for two weeks as the trappers traded beaver “plew” for everything from rifles to horses to traps to clothing and blankets. Sex was a big deal, of course, as Indian fathers and husbands prostituted their daughters and wives to the white trappers. Bridger’s own role at the Rendezvous was as a well-respected master of his craft, and a businessman. Nonetheless, some interesting stories dot the historical record.
In a skirmish with some Blackfeet in 1832, Bridger received two arrows in his back. One was quickly removed by fellow trappers, but the second arrowhead had gone too deep, though without affecting vital organs. So, despite discomfort, Bridger stoically resolved to live with it. There was not a doctor within a thousand miles.
Present at the 1835 Green River Rendezvous three years later was the missionary-physician Dr. Marcus Whitman, on his way to missionary work in the Oregon country. Bridger asked him to remove the arrowhead from his back, and what followed was an outdoor surgery attended by hundreds of spellbound trappers and Indians.
With Bridger using raw alcohol as anesthesia, Whitman performed the operation, removing a three-inch long iron point that had muscle tissue and cartilage growing around it. He marveled at Bridger’s overall health and vitality in being able to carry the arrowhead without infection for three years. His bandaging completed, the trapper rolled off the table, put on his buckskin shirt, and with a grateful smile, said: “Meat don’t spoil in the mountains, Doctor”.
AT THE 1837 RENDEZVOUS on Horse Creek of the Green River, the Scottish nobleman and adventurer Sir William Drummond Stewart (over the years a habitué of a half-dozen Rendezvous) presented Old Gabe with a suit of armor as a novelty gift. Thus attired, Bridger mounted his horse and spent a delightfully drunken afternoon charging around like a medieval knight to the uproarious laughter of mountain men and Indians. Alfred Jacob Miller, an artist hired by Stewart to sketch scenes from the Rendezvous, eventually immortalized the bizarre spectacle on canvas.
With the eclipse of the fur trade by 1843, Bridger became partners with fellow trapper Louis Vasquez in the construction of Fort Bridger on Black’s Fork of the Green River in present southwest Wyoming. When it was finished Bridger dictated a letter to some would-be suppliers: “I have established a small fort, with a blacksmith shop and a supply of iron in the road of the emigrants on Black’s Fork of Green River, which promises fairly.” The crude trading post prospered for a time as a waystation and supply site for the wagon trains then moving westward on the Oregon Trail. Bridger later sold it to the U.S. government and it became a military post.
Old Gabe’s later career was as a guide and army scout. In 1860 he guided the Raynolds Scientific Expedition in its government survey of the Yellowstone region. Six years later (December, 1866) found him on the frigid parade ground of Fort Phil Kearny as Captain William Fetterman led 80 men to their deaths after thinking they were going out in pursuit of a small party of Sioux harassing the fort. In reality a large Indian force lay in wait and the troopers were massacred. Bridger had warned the post’s commander, Colonel Henry B. Carrington, that the response was unwise, and was proved right. Bridger — now in his early sixties — retired to his daughter’s Missouri farm not long afterward.
He spent his last years sitting on the porch and playing with his grandchildren (some of the mixed blood progeny the end result of his marriages to three different Indian women over the years). Failing eyesight due to severe cataracts kept him from favorite pastimes such as hunting and riding horses, skills he had performed so masterfully in his mountain years. On that porch he told his grandchildren: “I wish I was back in the Rocky Mountains. Out there you can see forever.” On July 17, 1881 the old trapper died in his bed. Few of his peers were lucky enough to do so.
Old Gabe is 200 years old. Meat still don’t spoil in the Rocky Mountains, and you can see forever and ever.
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