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Jim Bridger

Jim Bridger
Jim Bridger (right) honored along with Pony Express founder Alexander Majors (left) and Kansas City founder John Calvin McCoy at Pioneer Square in Westport in Kansas City.

James Bridger, known as Jim Bridger (March 17, 1804 – July 17, 1881), was among the foremost mountain men, trappers, scouts and guides who explored and trapped the Western United States during the decades of 1820–1850, as well as mediating between native tribes and encroaching whites. He was of English ancestry, and his family had been in North America since the early colonial period.[1]

Jim Bridger had a strong constitution that allowed him to survive the extreme conditions he encountered walking the Hugh Glass, John Fremont, Joseph Meek, and John Sutter.


  • Career 1
  • Storytelling legacy 2
  • Places named for Jim Bridger 3
  • In modern culture 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6


Jim Bridger was born in Richmond, Virginia. He began his career in 1822 at the age of 17, as a member of General William Ashley's Upper Missouri Expedition and had a significant role in the ordeal of Hugh Glass. He was among the first white men to see the geysers and other natural wonders of the Yellowstone region. In the winter of 1824-1825, Bridger gained fame as the first European American to see the Great Salt Lake (though some now dispute that status in favor of Étienne Provost), which he reached traveling in a bull boat. Due to its saltiness, he believed it to be an arm of the Pacific Ocean. In 1830, Jim Bridger and several other trappers bought out Ashley and established the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, competing with the Hudson's Bay Company and John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company for the lucrative beaver pelt trade. In 1843, Bridger and Louis Vasquez built a trading post, later named Fort Bridger, on the west bank of Blacks Fork of the Green River to serve Pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

In 1835 he married a woman from the Flathead Indians tribe with whom he had three children. After her death in 1846, he married the daughter of a Shoshone chief, who died in childbirth three years later. In 1850 he married Shoshone Chief Washakie's daughter, with whom he had two more children. Some of his children were sent back east to be educated.

Bridger had explored, trapped, hunted and made new trails since 1822. He could assess any wagon train or group, their interests in travel, and give them expert advice on any and all aspects of heading West, over any and all trails, and to any destination the party had in mind, if the leaders sought his advice. In 1846, the Donner Party came to Fort Bridger, but apparently, did not speak with Jim Bridger. Rather, somewhere between Springfield, Illinois and Fort Laramie (in present-day Wyoming), the Donner party had spoken with a man named Hastings, who promised them he would lead them on a faster route to California: the Hastings' Cut-Off. Therefore, they looked for Hastings at Fort Bridger, but found a note by him there, instead. The note explained that Hastings was about to leave Fort Bridger, to lead a wagon train north, so that he could not lead the Donner party, after all. He left instructions in the note on how to follow the Hastings Cut-Off, through the Great Basin and through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, to California.

Back on July 3 through 5th, the Donner party had stopped at Fort Laramie, the first major stop after having left Springfield, Illinois. Mr. Reed, co-leader with Mr. Donner, of the Donner party, had a conversation with the experienced mountain man, James Clyman, at Fort Laramie. Clyman "urged Reed to take the old route," but Reed did not heed this wise, expert advice.[2]

Jim Bridger had never spoken with anyone from the Donner party, since they had gotten their advice from Hastings, earlier; had rejected Clyman's advice; and therefore would have rejected Bridger's also, if they had sought him for his advice. If they had asked Bridger, he would have told them the same advice as Clyman: take the old route. The Donner party, never suspecting the route was false, followed it faithfully, according to Hasting's instructions, into the very steep Sierra Nevada Mountains. They found no pass through the mountains, though, since the Hastings Cut-Off did not have one, being fiction. The "Hastings' Cut-Off" route now proved itself a lie, and Hastings a liar. Thick snow already had begun to fall upon the party, so that they could not turn around to go back. The Donner party was trapped up in the mountains for five months, until they were rescued (Ibid). The terrible result of Hastings' deceit was the death of half of their party and the survivors were forced to eat the bodies of those who died.[3][4][5]

In 1850, Jim Bridger was exploring in order to find an alternate overland route to the South Pass, he found what would eventually be known as Bridger's Pass, which shortened the Oregon Trail by 61 miles. Bridger Pass would later be the chosen route for both the Union Pacific Railroad and later Interstate 80.

In 1864, he blazed the Bridger Trail, an alternate route from Wyoming to the gold fields of Montana that avoided the dangerous Bozeman Trail. Later, he served as guide and army scout during the first Powder River Expedition against the Sioux and Cheyenne that were blocking the Bozeman Trail (Red Cloud's War). In 1865 he was discharged at Fort Laramie. Suffering from goiter, arthritis, rheumatism and other health problems, he returned to Westport, Missouri, in 1868. He was unsuccessful in collecting back rent from the government for its use of Fort Bridger.

He died on his farm near Kansas City, Missouri, on July 17, 1881, at the age of 77. For some 23 years, Bridger's grave was located in a nondescript cemetery just a few hundred yards from his farm house,[6] but his remains were re-interred in the more notable Mount Washington Cemetery[7] in Independence, Missouri in 1904. In the Independence Missouri School District, a junior high and then the middle school which replaced it, are named after the mountain man.

Storytelling legacy

Sculpture of Bridger by David Alan Clark in Fort Bridger, Wyoming

Jim Bridger was well known during his life and afterwards as a teller of tall tales. Some of Bridger's stories—about the geysers at Yellowstone, for example—proved to be true. Others were clearly intended to amuse. Thus, one of Bridger's stories involved a "petrified forest" in which there were "petrified birds" singing "petrified songs" (though he may have seen the petrified trees in the Tower Junction area of what is now Yellowstone National Park). Over the years, Bridger became so associated with the tall-tale form that many stories invented by others were attributed to him.

Supposedly one of Bridger's favorite yarns to tell to greenhorns was about being pursued by one hundred Cheyenne warriors. After being chased for several miles, Bridger found himself at the end of a box canyon, with the Indians bearing down on him. At this point, Bridger would go silent, prompting his listener to ask, "What happened then, Mr. Bridger?" Bridger would reply, "They killed me."

Places named for Jim Bridger

In addition, Cache Valley in Utah and Idaho is known as Bridgerland, a name that is used in many Logan, Utah-based businesses and institutions, such as Bridgerland Television and the Bridgerland Applied Technology College. Bridger Avenue in Las Vegas, Nevada is named for him as well. Also the Jim Bridger cabins, a motel in Gardiner, MT, outside the entrance to Yellowstone National Park and the Roosevelt Arch.

In modern culture

  • The Gun That Won the West.[9]
  • In the late 1950s Johnny Horton recorded a song called Jim Bridger about the life of Jim Bridger. Lyrics include the injunction "..Let's drink to old Jim Bridger yes, lift your glasses high - As long as there's a USA don't let his memory die -That he was making history never once occurred to him - But I doubt if we'd have been here if it weren't for men like Jim..."[10]
  • Karl Swenson played Bridger in the episode "The Jim Bridger Story" of NBC's Wagon Train, broadcast on May 10, 1961.
  • Jim Bridger is also briefly mentioned in Sydney Pollack's 1972 film Jeremiah Johnson, in which Will Geer's character introduces himself as, "Bear Claw Chris Lapp, blood kin to the grizz (grizzly bear) that bit Jim Bridger's ass."
  • In the 1984 motion picture Red Dawn, Patrick Swayze's character of Jed Eckert says he used to read of the exploits of both Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith, for whom he says he was named.
  • In Bushcraft, the 2005 televised series hosted by Ray Mears, Ray traveled along the same trails Jim Bridger pioneered.
  • In the 2009 movie Inglourious Basterds, lead character Lt. Aldo Raine (portrayed by actor Brad Pitt) states: "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." Consequently, his nickname in the movie is "Aldo the Apache." Ironically, none of Bridger's three Indian wives were Apache.


  1. ^ David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 633–639
  2. ^, American Experience. "Map of the Donner Party Route".
  3. ^ Andrews, Thomas F. (April 1973). "Lansford W. Hastings and the Promotion of the Great Salt Lake Cutoff: A Reappraisal", The Western Historical Quarterly 4 (2) pp. 133–150.
  4. ^ Stewart, George R. (1936). Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party: supplemented edition (1988), Houghton Mifflin. pp. 25–27.
  5. ^ Rarick, Ethan (2008). Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West, Oxford University Press. p. 58.
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ .TomahawkIMDb:
  9. ^ WorldHeritage: The Gun That Won the West.
  10. ^
  11. ^ .RevenantIMDb:
       11.Utah History Book 1985

Further reading

  • "Affidavit discussing Jim Bridger's property and Fort Bridger" [1]
  • [2] Jim Bridger in Idaho]
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