Photography: Severino Baraldi/Look and Learn
Photography: Severino Baraldi/Look and Learn

The legendary mountain man, trader, and scout was instrumental in opening the American West.

In Mount Washington Forever Cemetery on a high vantage point in Independence, Missouri, stands a granite monument set among nondescript shrubs. A bas-relief carving of a man in a flat-brim hat and buckskin coat looks out from the stone. James Bridger, 1804 – 1881. People, if they know his name at all, know him better as Jim. Mountain man, explorer, entrepreneur, trapper, guide, Army scout, and legendary raconteur.

All but forgotten now, there was a time when the name Jim Bridger was synonymous with the opening of the American West. His life spanned most of the 19th century, and his story weaves together the most persistent themes of the frontier: the pioneer spirit, the self-made man, the quest for adventure, the struggle for survival, the clashing and blending of European and Native American cultures, and the rugged individualism of one who lives by his own rules. A man to match our mountains, he was surely not meant to be lost to history.

Born James Felix Bridger in Richmond, Virginia, he left home as a teenager in 1822, attaching himself to the exploring party of Gen. William Ashley’s venture of the Upper Missouri Expedition. The first lieutenant governor of Missouri, Ashley had founded the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and recruited more than 100 men in his party, which included the young Bridger, Jim Beckwourth, Jedediah Smith, and the remarkable Hugh Glass, all of whom would leave their marks on history.

In August of 1823, while scouting ahead for the expedition, Glass encountered a grizzly bear, the mother of two cubs. The encounter ended with the mother bear dead and Glass seriously wounded and not expected to survive. Bridger and another trader, John Fitzgerald, volunteered to stay with Glass until he expired. Later claiming to have been jumped by a band of hostile Arikaree warriors, Bridger and Fitzgerald grabbed Glass’ rifle and fled, explaining that Glass had died of his injuries. He hadn’t. After regaining consciousness, Glass dragged himself through daunting terrain and encounters with savage wildlife more than 200 miles to Fort Kiowa on the Missouri River. After a slow recovery, he sought out the pair and his rifle, purportedly sparing young Bridger because of his youth and inexperience and Fitzgerald because he had joined the U.S. Army.

His education on the treatment of wounded comrades wasn’t Bridger’s only remarkable experience with Ashley’s company. He was able to locate Yellowstone on maps for future explorers. Bridger also developed good relations with many of the local tribes. His first wife was a Flathead Indian woman. After her death in childbirth, he married a Ute woman. When she, too, died in childbirth, he married the daughter of Shoshone Chief Washakie.

After his apprenticeship was completed, Bridger went on to form a fur company with three partners. When it merged with an established operation, he set up his own fur-trading post, Fort Bridger, on a fork of the Green River in southwestern Wyoming in 1843. His plan with his then-partner, fellow mountain man Louis Vasquez, was to trade with Indians as well as supply westward-bound emigrants.

The initial “fort” was not much more than two double-log houses about 40 feet long, joined by a horse pen. “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,” Bridger wrote, “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, &c, 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.”

The trading post became a critical stopping point for emigrants on the Oregon Trail, and Bridger developed a reputation throughout the country as much for his gregarious nature as for his exploits and knowledge. Maj. Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, who knew Bridger well from his days on the frontier, described him 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.”

Bridger would often regale guests at the fort with tales of his adventures. A pet anecdote was a ridiculous account of a visit to a petrified forest with “peetrified birds singing peetrified songs.” One favorite tale had him being chased by a relentless band of Cheyenne warriors. Describing how they pursued him into a box canyon, he would pause, his listeners breathless. Asked what happened next, he would casually remark, “Well, they killed me.” Another story described a lake he knew where the surface was boiling but the water underneath was cool. Bridger claimed he could catch fish in the cool water below the surface and they’d be cooked and ready to eat by the time he’d reeled them in.

Why did he tell such preposterous tales? Bridger disliked it when people wouldn’t believe his true stories, so he reveled in making up fantastic ones. He said it didn’t hurt to fool people who didn’t give so much as a thank you after begging for information — he simply “didn’t think it proper to spoilt a good story just for the sake of the truth.”

Not all of Bridger’s activities were so amusing or laudatory. He is believed to have been one of the principal causes of the Donner Party disaster. When Lansford Hastings proposed an alternate route to Oregon that would take emigrants through the Great Salt Lake Desert — and, coincidentally, bring more business to Bridger’s enterprise — Bridger enthusiastically endorsed the idea. Despite his encouraging words, the Hastings Cutoff was longer and more hazardous than the established route, with horrendous consequences for the Donner Party.

Bridger’s relations with the hierarchy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were also tenuous at best. In 1847, the first party of Mormons arrived in the area. Vehement arguments between Bridger and Brigham Young set the tone for the new immigrants’ reception. Although the Mormons were allowed to camp nearby for a period, Bridger was glad to see them finally move on. Things, however, did not improve. As the Mormon presence in the area grew stronger, the relationship with Bridger worsened. By 1853 the situation had deteriorated to the point that a Mormon militia went to Fort Bridger to arrest him, but Bridger slipped away before their arrival. Unable to apprehend him, they instead destroyed the supply of alcohol they suspected he was selling to the Indians.

The outraged mountain man went east and unsuccessfully appealed for help from President James Buchanan Jr. and the U.S. government. Later, when the Mormon government of Utah refused to be absorbed into the government of the United States, Bridger appears to have taken advantage of the situation and offered his services as a guide to a punitive expedition being formed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. As with much in Bridger’s life, he was again involved with individuals who would later become well-known. The expedition’s leader, Col. Albert Sidney Johnston, would go on to become a famous Confederate general and die of wounds received in action at Shiloh. A young apprentice on the expedition, William Frederick Cody, would go on to fame as Buffalo Bill.

When the Army expedition led by Johnston and guided by Bridger as chief of scouts finally arrived at Fort Bridger in 1857, they found it had been burned to the ground by the retreating Mormons. The expedition was forced to winter nearby, suffering more from disease than combat. Although the Mormon leadership ultimately acceded to U.S. domination, Bridger’s business venture was effectively over with his trading post in ashes. Despite his strenuous efforts to petition the government for redress, he was never reimbursed.

With Fort Bridger a bitter memory and the fur trade all but dead, Bridger soon found himself employed again by the Army as chief of scouts for a new venture to establish a series of forts along the Bozeman Trail. It was to be his last adventure. The trail ran directly through the prime hunting grounds of the Lakota Nation. Determined to speed and secure the transit of emigrants bound for the gold fields in Montana Territory, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman dispatched a force under the command of Col. Henry Beebe Carrington to build three forts along the Bozeman to guard the trail through the Wyoming Territory. It was a dangerous undertaking, and their arrival in the Wyoming Territory couldn’t have been more badly timed.

The column of some 700 soldiers arrived at Fort Laramie just in time for a large conference between the U.S. government and the surrounding tribes. Red Cloud, a chief of the Lakota Sioux, was outraged by the unannounced arrival of troops. He leaped to his feet and shouted at the other conferees: “Great Father sends us presents and wants new road. But White Chief goes with soldiers to steal road before Indian says yes or no!” Red Cloud’s companion, Young-Man-Afraid-Of-His-Horses, threatened: “In two moons you will not have a hoof left!”

The conference came to a stormy end with Carrington shaken and Bridger worried that there was trouble ahead. Talks with Bridger’s old companion Jim Beckwourth, who was also serving there as a scout and had excellent ties to the local tribes, convinced the old mountain man that an Indian war was inevitable. Despite the objections of the Lakota leadership, Carrington’s forces went on to establish three posts along the Bozeman — Fort Reno, Fort C.F. Smith, and headquarters at Fort Phil Kearney — and Red Cloud’s threatened war began.

For months, all three posts lived under a virtual state of siege until a Lakota attack on a woodcutting party brought an armed response from Fort Phil Kearney. Ignoring Carrington’s and Bridger’s warnings to use caution, rescue force commander Capt. William J. Fetterman rushed into action. An aggressive and decorated veteran of the Civil War who was contemptuous of his foes, Fetterman had loudly proclaimed, “With 80 men I could ride through the whole Sioux Nation!” Bridger shook his head and advised Fetterman that he might do so but would never ride out again. Fetterman ignored the old scout.

Fetterman’s force comprised exactly 80 men. Within an hour of leaving Fort Phil Kearney, he and his entire command lay dead in the snow, ambushed and annihilated by the Lakota and their allies. Sixteen months later, the federal government determined that the forts were untenable and ordered them abandoned, ceding victory to Red Cloud. Bridger was out of a job and convinced he was no longer needed on the frontier.

Older now and suffering from rheumatism, goiter, arthritis, and failing eyesight, Bridger left the West behind and retired to a farm outside of Westport, Missouri (part of present-day Kansas City), where he died in 1881 surrounded by apple trees and memories of the West that was. It wasn’t until 1903 that Gen. Grenville M. Dodge had his remains moved to Mount Washington Forever Cemetery in Independence, and the following year he had a stone monument erected to the memory of his old friend: “James Bridger, 1804 – 1881. Celebrated as a Hunter, Trapper, Fur Trader and Guide. ... ”

The tall granite monument, a local paper noted, faces west, “befitting the trailblazer and explorer it memorializes.”

The annual Fort Bridger Rendezvous takes place at the Fort Bridger State Historic Site and Museum in Fort Bridger, Wyoming.

From the August/September 2015 issue.