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James Felix 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.
Jim Bridger had a strong constitution that allowed him to survive the extreme conditions he encountered walking 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 would come to know many of the major figures of the early west, including Kit Carson, George Armstrong Custer, John Fremont, Joseph Meek, and John Sutter.
Jim Bridger was born in Richmond, Virginia. He began his career in 1822 at the age of 18, 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 salinity, 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.
In 1846, Bridger and Lansford W. Hastings were at least partially responsible for the tragic journey of the Donner Party, due to their self-interested misdirection of wagon trains through the impractical Hastings Cutoff. Bridger had hired Hastings to find a route to California that took immigrants past his trading post. He hoped that the successful trip of the Donner Party, and other wagon trains, through the cutoff would help bring increased income by the sale of supplies. When word came back reporting that the Hastings Cutoff was impractical and a trap, Bridger actively worked to obscure this evidence from everyone. Hastings, too, knew his route was not as usable and as safe as the parallel section of the California Trail, but, due to monetary considerations of his own, he too kept this to himself. Bridger and Hastings told those who were considering taking the cutoff that there was plenty of grass and water and that the cutoff was a shorter, easier route than the California trail. The truth was that the cutoff was much more difficult, with eighty miles of dry desert to cross, and was actually 125 miles longer. It took the Donner train thirty extra days to traverse the cutoff. After they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains, they were trapped there by snow. They couldn't see the trail to go forward or backward. The terrible result of this premeditated deceit was the death of half of their party and the survivors were forced to eat the bodies of those who died.
In 1850, looking for 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, but his remains were re-interred in the more notable Mount Washington Cemetery 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.
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."
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.
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