Mountain man, trapper, explorer, guide, storyteller. As a teenager, Bridger ran away from a blacksmith’s apprenticeship in St. Louis to join William Ashley’s fur-trapping expedition. For the next twenty years, he roamed and explored the vast territory from northern New Mexico to the Canadian border. He became the first White man to see the Great Salt Lake after braving the rapids of the Bear River in a skin canoe, and he also was among the first to report on the natural wonders of Yellowstone country. Bridger and a few associates challenged the near monopoly of larger fur-trapping interests in the West. Men willing to work for substantially reduced wages clamored for the opportunity to join the famous Jim Bridger. When the fur market declined in the early 1840s, he established Fort Bridger on the Oregon Trail in southwestern Wyoming. The fort supplied many immigrants heading West, including the first Mormon (Latter Day Saints) pioneers, whom Bridger led into the GreatSaltLakeValley. Bridger fell out with the Saints when they suspected him of stirring up the Indians. In 1853 Mormon militiamen seized and plundered Fort Bridger. It is no surprise, then, that in 1857–1858 Bridger eagerly guided Colonel Albert Sidney Johnson’s expedition to crush an ostensible Mormon rebellion. In his later years, his health and eyesight failed him; he died near Kansas City, Missouri, in 1881. Bridger’s life reflected the mixing of cultures and turbulent times of the early frontier era. Though illiterate, he spoke Spanish, French, and several Indian languages. He was initiated into the Crow tribe, and his third marriage, to an Indian woman, made him a son-in-law to the Shoshone head chief Washakie. He was a believer in Indian religion and magic, and he adopted many Native American customs, including taking the scalps of the men he slew. Jim Bridger is both the source and the subject of some of the American West’s most famous folklore. He was a renowned storyteller, but many fantastic tales that he never told as truth—and often never actually told at all—were ascribed to him by later Westerners. Two examples are the tale of a petrified forest where petrified birds would sing songs that could not be heard (because they were petrified), and the tale of a stream that was cool at the bottom and boiling on top, where if one caught a fish and brought it up slowly, it would be cooked and ready to eat when pulled out of the water. His serious descriptions of natural features were always accurate, and his incredible geographic knowledge was invaluable to map makers. Bridger’s name became immortalized not only through his place in American folklore as “King of the Mountain Men” but also by the Bridger Mountains, Bridger Pass, and the Bridger National Forest in Wyoming. Eric Eliason References
Alter, J.Cecil. 1962. Jim Bridger. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Vestal, Stanley. 1946. Jim Bridger, Mountain Man: A Biography. New York: William Morrow.