the greatest of the explorers, mountain men and trappers of the 1820s, 30s and
40s. He walked, rode and canoed over thousands of miles of unknown and often very
dangerous country in the West especially through the Rockies. He knew Brigham
Young, Kit Carson, John Fremont, George Custer and many other great names of
Western history. He was among the first European Americans to see the Yellowstone geysers
and the Great Salt Lake.
in 1804. Orphaned, he was apprenticed as a blacksmith at 13, then became a ferryman. In 1822 he joined General William Ashley’s Upper Missouri
Expedition. Several other members of ‘Ashley’s Hundred’, as they were called,
became equally famous: Hugh Glass, Jim Beckwourth, Thomas Fitzpatrick, William
Sublette and Jedediah Smith.
famous ordeal of Hugh Glass. In August 1823, while scouting alone for game,
Glass was surprised by a grizzly bear, which charged him. Glass fought back
with his knife and managed to kill the bear. But he was severely mauled and
unconscious, and his partners Bridger and Fitzpatrick, who volunteered to stay
with him, were convinced that he could not survive. They began digging a grave
for Glass but were interrupted by an attack by Arikaree Indians. The pair
grabbed Glass’s rifle and took flight. Later, they reported Glass dead.
consciousness. He found himself abandoned, 200 miles from the nearest American
settlement, with no weapons, a broken leg and cuts on his back so deep that
they exposed the ribs.
To ward off gangrene, he laid his wounded back
on a rotting log and let the maggots eat the dead flesh. To avoid Indians, he
crawled south towards the Cheyenne River. He survived on berries and roots.
Arrived at the river, he made a rough raft and floated downstream and
eventually reached Fort Kiowa. It was one of the most remarkable feats of
survival ever recorded.
Fitzpatrick, who had abandoned him. He found that Fitzpatrick had joined the
United States Army and was unreachable, and he spared Bridger because of his
They made a movie about him recently, starring Leonardo Di Caprio, in which a quite sympathetic Jim Bridger appears, The Revenant.
The Great Salt Lake
In the winter of 1823, Bridger was in Cache Valley on the Bear River. To settle a bet on the river’s course, Bridger followed the Bear until it ended in a large body of salt water. He mistakenly assumed he had found an inlet of the Pacific Ocean but Jim had actually come across the Great Salt Lake.
The Rocky Mountain Fur Company
establishing the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, to compete with the Hudson’s Bay
Company and American Fur Company. This was the height of the craze for beaver-skin
hats in the East and beaver pelts fetched high prices.
But the fashion peaked and declined, and the streams were increasingly trapped out. Jim sold out and in 1843, he and his
friend and partner Louis Vasquez built a trading post, later named Fort
Bridger, on the banks of the Green River. It served the pioneers on the Oregon
Bridger’s knowledge of the country was encyclopedic and vast. He seemed to have an infallible memory for topography and terrain. 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
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
The Overland Stage Company and the Pike’s Peak Express Company hired Bridger to map out the best stage routes.
three children. On her death in 1846, he married the daughter of a Shoshone
chief but she died in childbirth, and in 1850 Bridger married for the third time, to
the daughter of another Shoshone chief, and had two more children.
anecdotes he related, though hard to believe then, were based in truth, such as
the accounts of the geysers of Yellowstone. Others were more fantastic. The Petrified
Forest in north-east Arizona is a fascinating place (like me, you probably have
a shard of petrified wood at home bought at the giftshop there; well, you
gotta) but it doesn’t actually have petrified birds sitting in the petrified
trees singing petrified songs, as Jim recounted…
Captain Howard Stansbury, whom Bridger guided in Utah, was once astonished to observe Jim keep a group of Sioux and Cheyenne rapt for over an hour telling his tall tales in sign language. Bridger evidently had an aura about him, a kind of energy that emanated. He was a great communicator. Though illiterate (like Kit Carson and indeed many of the mountain men) he was able to speak many of the languages he came into contact with: Spanish and French, and many Indian tongues.
It is said that Bible-reading Jedediah Smith, seeing Bridger’s self-assurance and ability to communicate, thought of Jim as some kind of Angel Gabriel and gave him the nickname ‘Old Gabe’ in consequence, a moniker that stuck.
General Grenville Dodge (who wrote in 1905 and knew Bridger in later life) described Jim 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.”
thought for Jim Bridger who, in 1850, seeking an alternate route to the South
Pass, found what would become known as Bridger’s Pass, which shortened the
Oregon Trail by 61 miles. The pass would later be chosen as the route for the
Union Pacific Railroad.
Bridger did not see eye to eye with the Mormons of greater Utah. Through the 1850s he found trade declining as Mormon settlements grew, losing a lot of Indian trade in particular. Mormons tried to arrest him and they burned his trading post.
In the 1858 Utah War, or Mormon War, Jim served as guide to US forces under General Johnston as they confronted Brigham Young and the ‘Saints’.
The Bridger Trail
the goldfields of Montana (gold was discovered there in 1863) which avoided the
dangerous Bozeman Trail through the Powder River country. The Arapaho, Cheyenne
and Sioux had been stepping up their raids in response to the increasing invasion
of white settlers. This trail, which skirted the Western edge of the Bighorn
Mountains, was very successful.
General Patrick Connor led the Powder River Expedition, with Bridger as guide,
and Jim found himself working with the military in Red Cloud’s War.
Laramie and he returned to Westport, MO in 1868, in poor health. He devoted
time to trying to collect back rent from the government for its use of Fort
Bridger (which had been taken over in 1858) but without success. His famed eyesight failed and he eventually became blind. He died on his farm near Kansas City in 1881, aged
77. He was buried near his home but 23 years later his remains were re-interred
in the Mount Washington Cemetery, in Independence, Missouri.
of Fort Bridger, WY nearby and there’s Bridger, MT (population 708).
Wyoming (40 miles long, a sub-range of the Rockies, highest point 8300 feet) and
Montana (between Bozeman and Maudlow, highest point 9665 feet).
Wilderness is located in Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming. It
was established in 1931.
known as Bridgerland.
us (sorry about the grammar but it’s theirs, not mine):
an emigrant supply stop along the Oregon Trail. It was obtained by the Mormons
in the early 1850s, and then became a military outpost in 1858. In 1933, the
property was dedicated as a Wyoming Historical Landmark and Museum. There are
several restored historical buildings from the military time period, a
reconstructed of the trading post operated by Jim Bridger, and an interpretive
archaeological site containing the base of the cobble rock wall built by the
Mormons during their occupation of the fort. All of these locations are signed
in Braille. In addition, a museum containing artifacts from the various
different historical time periods is housed in the 1888 stone barracks
building. There are gift shops in both museums and the reconstructed trading
post. Here at Fort Bridger Historic Site the past comes alive through costumed
interpreters, museum displays, and a reconstruction of Jim Bridger’s trading
David Alan Clark.
explorers and trappers are concerned. It has Jim’s rifle.
In 1853, Louis Vasquez, a good friend and business partner of mountain man Jim
Bridger had a .40 caliber half-stock rifle engraved “J. Bridger 1853″
and presented it to Jim for reasons unknown. Perhaps it had something to do
with their long business association or possibly it was due to the fact that
1853 was indeed a turning point in Jim Bridger’s life. After Bridger’s death,
the rifle was held as part of a private Buffalo Bill collection. The gun was
sold several times at auctions until it found its permanent home in the Museum
of the Mountain Man in 1988.”
Jim Bridger. The standard work for a long time appears to have been by J Cecil
Alter, who wrote on Bridger for years, from the 1920s onwards. You could try Jim Bridger by J Cecil Alter, University of Oklahoma Press, 1979:
An earlier account is by Grenville M. Dodge, Biographical Sketch of James Bridger, Mountaineer, Trapper and Guide (1905), which is still available, based on stories Bridger told to the author.
Then there was Stanley Vestal’s Jim Bridger, Mountain Man, William Morrow & Company ,
1946, also still available.
a brief surf of amazon.com
will show. I’ve no idea if they are good, bad or indifferent. We need a history
professor to guide us to the best reads. Any history professors out there,
please leave a comment recommending the best books. Thanks, Prof.
MacDonald Fraser, Harry Flashman is interviewed by Jim Bridger just before
heading west with his prostitute-laden wagon train – which brings us nicely to Jim Bridger in fiction…
Bridger in fiction
There was a silent short in 1910
entitled Jim Bridger’s Indian Bride
but I haven’t seen it and don’t even know who played Jim. Jim appeared as a character in the classic silent wagon-train movie The Covered Wagon in 1923, played by a great Tully Marshall, who played Jim again in Fighting Caravans in 1931 and was also ‘Jim Bridge’ in Fighting With Kit Carson in 1933. In the 1928 silent Kit Carson, starring Fred Thomson as Kit in his last Western, Nelson McDowell (109 Westerns, 1920 – 45) was Jim.
Once talkies came along, Bridger (Edward LeSaint) appeared briefly in Unknown Valley (1933) and Arthur Aylesworth portrayed him, again briefly, in the Henry Hathaway-directed Brigham Young in 1940.
Hatton played Jim in a short but fun cameo in the 1940 United Artists picture Kit Carson. Kit certainly knew Jim. They
had met several times at mountain men rendezvous and had trapped together, so this film encounter is not
Westerns since the 1914 Cecil B DeMille TheSquaw Man (and its talkie remake in 1931). He’d been Deadwood in the 1932 Law and Order and acted in a total of no
fewer than 157 cowboy films, including nine as Rusty Joslin in the Three Mesquiteers series. As soon as TV Westerns came along he became a
mainstay of them. If you see Kit Carson, watch out for Hatton’s Bridger. It’s entertaining.
Will Wright was Jim in a Republic B-Western Along the Oregon Trail in 1947, some story about Clayton Moore wanting to carve out an empire for himself in the West by selling guns to the Indians and being foiled by Monte Hale aided by Jim. Or something.
despite featuring Yvonne De Carlo it’s an exciting, early-50s color Western
which is well worth a watch.
Heflin’s Bridger and the actual one is purely accidental. It’s a story of how
Jim tries to restore peace with the Sioux in the teeth of the stupid Army, who
want to build a fort right in the Sioux hunting grounds in defiance of a
the Army colonel and De Carlo manages the whole film without a song ‘n’ dance
routine, which is good. Alex Nicol is a Nazi lieutenant who was with Colonel
Chivington at Sand Creek and believes the only good Injun is a dead one. It
just so happens that Jim’s Indian wife had been slaughtered in the Sand Creek Massacre
and he has been looking for the perpetrators ever since…
is good and at least the great Jim Bridger gets to star in a
Western, even if it is all twaddle historically.
Jim Bridger again led the cast (played by Dennis Morgan in his last Western) in The Gun that Won the West in 1955. In case you’re wondering which gun won the West (the Colt? The Winchester?) it was the Springfield rifle.
That brings us into much more modern times. Leonard Mann was Jim Bridger in the ghastly rubbish spaghetti La vendetta è un piatto che si serve freddo in 1971. A fairly literal translation might be ‘Vengeance is a dish better served cold’ but it was more usually rendered in English as Death’s Dealer. Whatever you call it, it was junk.
And, as I said, earlier, in 2015 The Revenant, the story of High Glass, had Will Poulter as a young Bridger.
in Jeremiah Johnson (Warner Bros,
1973). Will Geer’s character introduces himself as “Bear Claw Chris Lapp,
blood kin to the grizz that bit Jim Bridger’s ass.”
he used to read of the exploits of both Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith, for
whom he says he was named.
Aldo Raine, nicknamed Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt) says, “Now, I am the
direct descendant of the mountain man Jim Bridger. That means I got a little
Injun in me. And our battle plan will be that of an Apache resistance.”
Jim appeared a lot on TV too.
Karl Swenson (TV actor mostly but he also had small parts in some good Westerns
such as The Hanging Tree, Lonely Are the Brave, Major Dundee, Hour of the Gun,
others) in a 1961 episode of Wagon Train.
This was after Ward Bond had died, and in this episode his replacement, John
McIntire, bows out after 5 minutes on a very phony pretext, leaving command of
the train and the rest of the episode to the scout, Flint McCullogh (Robert
Horton). It just so happened that Flint’s parents had been killed by Indians when
he was eight and Jim Bridger had found him and adopted him. And guess who turns
up in this very episode when he’s in charge? Why, Bridger himself.
unshaven General Jameson (John Doucette – 104 Western appearances, usually as a
heavy, and you’ll recognize him immediately). Jameson, backed by Bridger,
proposes that the whole wagon train turn about, go back into the dangerous Ute
country it has just safely passed through, and go to the relief of a party of
120 soldiers who are besieged by the warring Utes on a hilltop. Why his soldiers should be helped by 200 wagons of women and children is not at all clear. I would have
thought they would be a great hindrance. Still, that’s the plot.
he thinks the Army is being heavy-handed and unjust, endangering the lives of
the settlers it was supposed to protect, but thanks to Jim he comes to see it
as his American duty to help, and so do the wagon trainers, and they charge the
Utes with their wagons. There’s a brief, perfunctory battle and all is well.
unlikely, not to say silly story, but Swenson’s Bridger is good. He gets a
chance to tell some tall tales to a couple of boys, about how he and Davy Crockett
had a contest to see who could cross the Arkansas River with a mountain lion
under each arm.
Death Valley Days
There were two Death Valley Days episodes featuring Jim Bridger, as might be expected. Harry Shannon played him in Old Gabe in 1958 and Carl Reindel in Hugh Glass Meets the Bear in 1966.
There was a 1976 ABC TV show Jim Bridger directed by David Lowell Rich in which James Wainwright played Jim. Jim is given 40 days to blaze a
trail through the Rocky Mountains to the California coast and told that if he
can’t do it, the territory will be lost, to England. Right. James Wainwright was only in one Western movie; he was Mingo in Joe Kidd. But he did a lot of TV work.
1977 by Gregg Palmer in Kit Carson and
the Mountain Men, part of the series Walt
Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Palmer had started as Grat Dalton in The Cimarron Kid in 1952 and became a
standard fixture in B-Westerns and TV shows through the 50s and 60s. The Disney
program featured mostly Kit Carson (Christopher Connelly) and John C Frémont
(Robert Reed) but Jim Bridger gets to feature too.
Ben as Jim
I heard that Ben Johnson, no less, played Jim Bridger in a CBS TV mini-series in 1986, Dream West. Wow. I was so looking forward to it. But to my great disappointment it was one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-him affairs. And I blinked. What a tragic waste. The TV movie wasn’t bad, I suppose, in its way. It was a biopic of John C Frémont (Richard Chamberlain) and quite well done on the whole. Kit Carson (Rip Torn) got a fairly prominent part and he resembled Kit too. I watched it in 21 separate videoclips on YouTube. Boy, it was hard work and half the time the damn thing wouldn’t play properly. So Jim Bridger fans, you can skip Dream West and you won’t lose much.
Anyway that’s a lot of Jim Bridgers in film and on TV, isn’t it, and the list may not even be exhaustive. Jim sure got around.
Johnny Horton which you can listen to here, called Jim Bridger.
and said, “Listen, Yellow Hair,
The Sioux are the great nation so treat
Sit in on their war councils, don’t laugh
But Custer didn’t listen, at Little Big Horn Custer died.
listened to Jim.
between Bridger and Carson:
there’s legends that tell of Carson’s fame
Yet compared to Jim Bridger, Kit was civilized and tame.
These words are straight from Carson’s lips if you place that story by him.
If there’s a man who knows this God-forsaken land, it’s Jim.
lift your glasses high.
As long as there’s the USA, don’t let his memory die.
That he was making history never once occurred to him
But I doubt if we’d been here if it weren’t for men like Jim.
Actually, though, Mr. Horton’s comparison between Kit Carson and Jim Bridger is an interesting one. Both were famous Indian fighters and explorers. Both were born in the first decade of the nineteenth century, east of the Missouri, both lost their fathers while still boys and were apprenticed. They both set off as young men for adventurous travels West and became noted trappers and explorers, working in companies of mountan men and attending the famous rendezvous. More than once they trapped (and fought Indians) together. They both acted as guides and scouts for the Army.
Harvey Lewis Carter, in his excellent biography of Kit Carson, suggests that Carson was influenced by Bridger, who was five years older, and learned from him to moderate his recklessness – and stay alive longer.
In later lives their careers diverged as Carson fought in the Civil War, achieved the rank of brigadier-general and lived his last years in Colorado and New Mexico, where he died in 1868, aged only 54. Bridger, on the other hand, as we know, returned to Missouri to farm, not dying till the age of 77 in 1881.
So there you go, Jim Bridger in fact and fiction.
So long, pards.