James Felix Bridger (March 17, 1804 – July 17, 1881) was an American mountain man, trapper, Army scout and wilderness guide who explored and trapped the Western United States in the first half of the 19th century. Bridger is known for participating in numerous early expeditions into the western interior as well as mediating between Native American tribes and encroaching European-American settlers, and by the end of his life had earned a reputation as one of the foremost frontiersmen in the American Old West. He was of English ancestry, and his family had been in North America since the early colonial period.
Bridger was described as having a strong constitution that allowed him to survive the extreme conditions he encountered while exploring the Rocky Mountains from what would become southern Colorado to the Canadian border. He had conversational knowledge of French, Spanish and several native languages. He was a contemporary of many famous European-American explorers of the early west and would come to know many of them, including Kit Carson, George Armstrong Custer, Hugh Glass, John Frémont, Joseph Meek, John Sutter, Peter Skene Ogden, Jedediah Smith, and William Sublette. In 1830, Smith and his associates sold their fur company to Bridger and his associates, who named it the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Bridger was part of the second generation of American mountain men and pathfinders that followed the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804.
James Felix Bridger was born on March 17, 1804, in Richmond, Virginia. His parents were James Bridger, an innkeeper in Richmond, and his wife Chloe. About 1812, the family moved near to St. Louis at the eastern edge of America's vast new western frontier. At the age of 13, Bridger was orphaned when his parents died. Receiving no formal education, unable to read or write, he was apprenticed to a blacksmith. He was illiterate the whole of his life. On March 20, 1822, at the age of 18, he left his apprenticeship after responding to an advertisement in a St. Louis newspaper, the Missouri Republican, and joined General William Henry Ashley's fur trapping expedition to the upper Missouri River. The party included Jedediah Smith and many others who would later become famous mountain men. For the next 20 years, he repeatedly traversed the continental interior between the Canada–U.S. border and the southern boundary of present-day Colorado, and from the Missouri River westward to Idaho and Utah, either as an employee of or a partner in the fur trade.
Bridger continued his employment with Ashley's fur trapping venture for several seasons. On one expedition, the young Bridger played a significant role in the ordeal of fellow trapper Hugh Glass. On June 2, 1823, Ashley's men were attacked by Arikara warriors along the Missouri River. Fifteen men were killed and the rest of the fur trappers fled down the river and hid in shelters until U.S. military support defeated the Arikara. In August 1823, near the forks of the Grand River in present-day Perkins County, South Dakota while scouting for game for the expedition's larder, Glass surprised a grizzly bear with two cubs. The bear charged, picked him up and threw him to the ground. He fired into the air to scare the bear away to save his expedition partners but was left badly mauled and unconscious. Ashley asked for two volunteers to stay with Glass until he died and to then bury him. Bridger and John Fitzgerald stepped forward and as the rest of the party moved on, began digging Glass's grave. Later, claiming they were interrupted by an Arikara attack, the pair grabbed Glass's rifle, knife, and other equipment and took flight. Bridger and Fitzgerald later caught up with the party and incorrectly reported to Ashley that Glass had died.
Despite his injuries, Glass regained consciousness. After recovering, Glass set out again to find Fitzgerald and Bridger, motivated either by murderous revenge or the desire to get his weapons back. He eventually found Bridger at the mouth of the Bighorn River, but apparently forgave him because of his youth. Glass also found Fitzgerald and reportedly spared his life because of the penalty for killing a soldier of the United States Army.
Bridger 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 contemporary explorer Étienne Provost), which he reached traveling in a bull boat. Due to its saltiness, Bridger believed it to be an arm of the Pacific Ocean. Historians are unsure if he was alone when he found the Great Salt Lake.
In 1830, Jim Bridger and several other trappers bought out Jedediah Smith's fur company, who had bought out Ashley, and established the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, which competed with the Hudson's Bay Company and John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company in 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 in what is now Wyoming to serve pioneers on the Oregon Trail.
Bridger had explored, trapped, hunted and blazed new trails in the West since 1822, and later worked as a wilderness guide in these areas. He could reportedly 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 and were assured by Bridger and Vasquez that Lansford Hastings' proposed shortcut ahead was "a fine, level road, with plenty of water and grass, with the exception before stated (a forty-mile waterless stretch)." The preceding statement was false, however, as the 40-mile stretch was in fact 80 miles, and the "fine level road" was the roadway to hell which slowed the Donner Party enough to become trapped in the Sierra Nevada in the winter.
In 1859, Bridger was paid to be the chief guide on the Yellowstone-bound Raynolds Expedition, led by Captain William F. Raynolds. Bridger guided the expedition over Union Pass after finding that mountain passes to the north were blocked by snow. Though unsuccessful in reaching the Yellowstone Plateau, the expedition explored Jackson Hole and the Teton Range.
In 1850, while guiding the Stansbury Expedition on its return from Utah, Bridger discovered what would eventually become known as Bridger Pass, an alternate overland route which bypassed South Pass and shortened the Oregon Trail by 61 miles. Bridger Pass, in what is now south-central Wyoming, would later become the chosen route across the Continental Divide for both the Union Pacific Railroad and Interstate 80.
In 1864, Bridger blazed the Bridger Trail, an alternative route from Wyoming to the gold fields of Montana that avoided the dangerous Bozeman Trail. In 1865, he served as a guide and U.S. Army scout during the first Powder River Expedition against the Sioux and Cheyenne that were blocking the Bozeman Trail (Red Cloud's War). He was discharged from the Army at Fort Laramie later that year. Suffering from goiter, arthritis, rheumatism and other health problems, Bridger returned to Westport, Missouri, in 1868. He was unsuccessful in collecting back rent from the government for its use of Fort Bridger.
In 1835, Bridger married a woman from the Flathead Indian 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 died on his farm near Kansas City, Missouri, on July 17, 1881, at the age of 77. In the Independence Missouri School District, a junior high and then the middle school which replaced it are named after him.
Bridger is remembered as one of the most colorful and widely traveled mountain men of the era. In addition to his explorations and his service as a guide and adviser, he was known for his storytelling. His stories about the geysers at Yellowstone, for example, proved to be true. Others were grossly exaggerated or clearly intended to amuse: 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 telling tall tales that many stories invented by others were attributed to him.
Supposedly one of Bridger's favorite yarns to weave to greenhorns told of his pursuit 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 then reply, "They killed me." Bridger's tale was similar to the actual death of Jedediah Smith, who had died under the lances of Comanche Indians on the Santa Fe Trail in 1831.
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