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Jerry Enzler

The story of westward expansion is embodied in the biography of Jim Bridger, who ventured up the Missouri River in 1822 with William Ashley and Andrew Henry’s fur-trapping brigade of 100 young men and later forged pathways followed by mountain men, emigrants, surveyors, scientists and the military. Just as Bridger left no area unexplored, biographer Jerry Enzler—who retired in 2016 from a 37-year career as founding director of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, in Dubuque, Iowa—has left no page unturned in researching and writing Bridger’s life story. Following the iconic frontiersman’s archival trail from his 1804 birth in Virginia to his 1881 death in Missouri, Enzler delivers a comprehensive account inJim Bridger: Trailblazer of the American West (see review in the April 2021 Wild West).

Why is Bridger a significant Western figure?
Orphaned when he was 13, Bridger went up the Missouri River at 18 to trap beaver in Blackfeet country with Andrew Henry, Mike Fink and a hundred “enterprising young men.” He became one of the most accomplished explorers and brigade leaders in the Rocky Mountain fur trade. When he was 20 he discovered the Great Salt Lake. At 21 he was the first person known to paddle the treacherous Bad Pass rapids on the Bighorn River, and he rose to leadership when he led a band of trappers to retrieve stolen horses from a Bannock camp while Tom Fitzpatrick and other trappers provided cover fire.

When Bridger was 22 he explored the wonders of Yellowstone, and by the time he was 26 he was one of five partners in the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. He became the epitome of the mountaineers whom Washington Irving described as “a totally different class…[of] traders and trappers that scale the vast mountain chains.…There is, perhaps, no class of men on the face of the earth…who lead a life of more continued exertion, peril and excitement.”

Bridger was the foremost Rocky Mountain fur brigade leader in the 1830s and ‘40s. Trapper David Brown recorded Bridger had an “absolute understanding of the Indian character in all its different phases.…His bravery was unquestionable, his horsemanship equally so, and as to his skill with a rifle, it will scarcely be doubted.”

Where does Bridger rank among frontiersmen?
He ranks in the top tier of Western frontiersmen, along with Jedediah Smith, Kit Carson and Tom Fitzpatrick. He was significant in three eras of the West, first as explorer and fur trapper, then as guide to mapmakers and scientists, and finally as chief guide to the Army during the Utah War, on the Overland Trail and during the conflict with Red Cloud and his confederacy of Lakotas, Cheyennes and Arapahos in the 1860s.

Bridger probably guided more trapping brigades, wagon trains, scientific explorations, topographical surveys and Army expeditions than anyone in Western history. He was one of eight iconic figures initially envisioned by historian Doane Robinson to be carved into the rocks of the Black Hills in South Dakota. The others were Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, Jedediah Smith, John Frémont, Red Cloud and Buffalo Bill Cody. The plan was later altered to what today is known as Mount Rushmore.

Did Bridger desert the badly wounded Hugh Glass?
The identity of the young trapper who volunteered to care for Hugh Glass and then was persuaded to abandon him has not yet been determined. Glass was mauled by a grizzly bear in 1823, and Daniel Potts, Black Harris and James Clyman all reported the incident but did not name the caretakers. Several versions of the Glass incident were subsequently published, including an account conjured up by an aspiring author named Edmund Flagg.

Flagg arrived in St. Louis in 1837 in search of stories of the West, and in 1839 he published an article about Hugh Glass in the Louisville Literary Newsletter. Flagg’s article was riddled with errors, including the ludicrous statement that Andrew Henry and the rest of the trappers traveled about 300 miles in one day to reach their fort on the same day they left Glass with the caretakers. Flagg wrote that the young volunteer was named “Bridges.” Records show there were at least seven men named Bridges in and about Missouri at that time. My book documents Bridger’s only known statement of the subject, which he made to ethnologist James Stevenson sometime between 1856 and 1860. Stevenson reported Bridger told him the story of Hugh Glass, and “there was no desertion” by Bridger.

‘Alfred Jacob Miller featured Bridger in his dramatic Western paintings, and Washington Irving depicted him in The Adventures of Captain Bonneville. Schoolbooks described Bridger and his fort, and newspapers chronicled his exploits as a frontiersman, scout and guide’

In 1847 the Mormon vanguard met with Bridger at the Little Sandy, west of South Pass, where he provided information contrary to what they’d read in Frémont’s writings. How did this affect relations between the Mormons and Bridger?
The Latter-day Saints had been studying Frémont’s maps long before they commenced their journey. They even read portions of his report aloud to each other and ultimately decided they would build their kingdom at Great Salt Lake. They were startled when they met Bridger on June 28, 1847, on the Little Sandy, and he told them that Frémont had erroneously mapped Salt Lake and Utah Lake as one continuous body. Bridger also told them he “was ashamed of the maps of Frémont,” and that Frémont “knows nothing about the country, only the plain traveled road.” Bridger also contradicted what the saints had heard from Black Harris, and one of the Mormon scribes wrote that Bridger “spoke without knowing the place.”

Bridger’s extensive knowledge of the Great Basin and his high standing with the Shoshones and Utes likely agitated Brigham Young. Within two years Bridger’s partner Louis Vasquez sent a letter to Young, warning of potential danger from the Indians. After hearing the letter read aloud, Young curiously proclaimed “Old Bridger is death on us, and if he knew 400,000 Indians were coming against us, and any man were to let us know, he would cut his throat.”

What led to the Mormon takeover of Fort Bridger?
Young had a growing desire to control Fort Bridger and the lucrative Green River ferries, one of which was operated by Bridger and Vasquez. Many of the saints were not happy with Bridger’s financial gain or the significant influence he had over the Shoshones and the Utes. Some say Bridger sold arms and ammunition to the Shoshones or Utes against Young’s edict. Others say the “warrant for his arrest [was] in order, to force him to sell.”

When the Mormons could not capture Bridger, they strategized how to take his fort. U.S. Attorney for Utah Territory Seth Blair, a Mormon, proposed to Young a scheme where Blair would draw up several lawsuits to be signed against Bridger, which were to be left at the fort. If Bridger did not pay the accumulated damages, they might then legally confiscate his fort. Young consulted with the federal judge, who advised against this strategy but did suggest Fort Bridger might be seized under the Indian laws, if it could be proven he sold spiritous liquors or rum to Indians.

Why has the well-traveled Bridger not received the same pathfinding fame as Frémont?
Both Frémont and Carson rose to national fame through Frémont’s widely read publications about his expeditions, which were written in part by Fremont’s wife, Jessie Benton Frémont. Frémont ran for president as the 1856 Republican nominee, which garnered more fame. Carson became the hero of many dime novels. Similarly Daniel Boone’s explorations were told in print and legend. Davy Crockett was elected to the U. S. Congress, and his life was portrayed in popular fiction and even on stage.

Bridger could not write, and he did not collaborate with anyone to tell his story, nor did he show any interest in doing so. But he still became part of the American identity. Alfred Jacob Miller featured him in his dramatic Western paintings, and Washington Irving depicted him in The Adventures of Captain Bonneville. Schoolbooks described Bridger and his fort, and newspapers chronicled his exploits as a frontiersman, scout and guide.

How did Bridger adapt as the beaver trade died out?
Bridger continued trapping and trading for beaver fur well into the 1840s, even though the bison hide trade was more lucrative. Hudson’s Bay Co. tried to hire Bridger to lead American mountaineers who would trap for Hudson’s Bay, but he declined. Bridger embarked on a trapping expedition to Pueblo de Los Angeles in 1840–41 and to the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) in 1844–45). It wasn’t until 1849 that Bridger began guiding mapmakers, Smithsonian scientists, wagon trains and several commanders in the U.S. Army.

What led Bridger to send his daughter Mary Ann to the Whitman Mission?
In 1841 Bridger’s partner Henry Fraeb and several trappers and their Indian wives were attacked by the Sioux. That same year Bridger moved his fort west from Green River to Blacks Fork. Bridger wanted schooling as well as safety for his daughter, and he sent her to the mission in Waiilatpu, Oregon Territory, run by Dr. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. Bridger had met the Whitmans at rendezvous in 1835, when Dr. Whitman had extracted a Blackfeet metal arrowhead that had been in Bridger’s back for three years. Unfortunately, Mary Ann was captured following the 1847 Cayuse attack on the Whitman Mission, and she died a year later. With the help of Robert Campbell and Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, Bridger educated his other children in St. Charles, Mo., near St. Louis.

‘Bridger lived a life wild and free. One of his greatest contributions was his ability to accept, live with and support Indian groups. He lived with the Potawatomis at ages 12 and 13. As an adult he married a Flathead wife, then a Ute wife and then a Shoshone wife, and he had seven children’

What were Bridger’s greatest contributions to the West?
Bridger lived a life wild and free. One of his greatest contributions was his ability to accept, live with and support Indian groups. He lived with the Potawatomis at ages 12 and 13. As an adult he married a Flathead wife, then a Ute wife and then a Shoshone wife, and he had seven children.

Bridger was far ahead of in his time in acceptance of indigenous cultures and their rights to the land. In 1838 the Blackfeet were suffering from smallpox, and Bridger had a major disagreement with Carson, Joe Meek, Osborne Russell and several other free trappers who wanted to attack the ailing Blackfeet. Bridger was captain of the brigade, and he resisted the attack. The others, as free trappers, were free to make the attack.

Bridger blazed the Bridger Trail in 1864 to avert war with the Red Cloud’s confederacy of Lakotas, Arapahos and Cheyennes. The Sioux stopped miners on the Bozeman Trail, telling them to leave that route, but informing them that if they went “by the Blanket Road” (Bridger’s Crow name) the Sioux would let them pass.

What were his greatest challenges?
One of Bridger’s challenges was to persuade those he was guiding that he knew the land they were traversing. Howard Stansbury, William Raynolds, Patrick E. O’Connor, and several other Army officers overruled him at times and led soldiers the wrong way. People also didn’t believe Bridger when he warned of the dangers in Indian Territory, or when he told people of the wonders he had seen in the Yellowstone thermal regions.

Bridger’s greatest challenge was when he lost his home to the Latter-day Saints, which he regretted the rest of his life. He longed for the West and took every opportunity he could to be there, even sleeping in a bunk in the supply room of the store at Fort Laramie. Shortly before his death he sat on his veranda, nearly blind, and said, “I wish I was back there among the mountains again. You can see so much farther in that country.”

How difficult was it to write your book?
One of my greatest challenges was to uncover and collect information about Bridger’s life. But that became my greatest success as well, as I was able to find valuable material in repositories across the country, including the National Archives, the Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives, the Huntington Library, the Newberry Library, the Fort Laramie Archives and the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints Archives. It was a challenge and an honor to chronicle this important life. WW