"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Jim Bridger in fact and fiction

Old Gabe

1          The fact

James Felix Bridger was one of the greatest of the explorers, mountain men and trappers of the 1820s, 30s and 40s. He walked, rode and canoed over thousands of miles of unknown and often very dangerous country in the West especially through the Rockies. He knew Brigham Young, Kit Carson, John Fremont, George Custer and many other great names of Western history. He was among the first European Americans to see the Yellowstone geysers and the Great Salt Lake.
Jim Bridger
Early life

He was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1804. Orphaned, he was apprenticed as a blacksmith at 13, then became a ferryman. In 1822 he joined General William Ashley’s Upper Missouri Expedition. Several other members of ‘Ashley’s Hundred’, as they were called, became equally famous: Hugh Glass, Jim Beckwourth, Thomas Fitzpatrick, William Sublette and Jedediah Smith.

Hugh Glass

Bridger featured largely in the famous ordeal of Hugh Glass. In August 1823, while scouting alone for game, Glass was surprised by a grizzly bear, which charged him. Glass fought back with his knife and managed to kill the bear. But he was severely mauled and unconscious, and his partners Bridger and Fitzpatrick, who volunteered to stay with him, were convinced that he could not survive. They began digging a grave for Glass but were interrupted by an attack by Arikaree Indians. The pair grabbed Glass’s rifle and took flight. Later, they reported Glass dead.

In fact, though, Glass recovered consciousness. He found himself abandoned, 200 miles from the nearest American settlement, with no weapons, a broken leg and cuts on his back so deep that they exposed the ribs.
Hugh Glass. Quite a fellow.
He set his own leg and began crawling. To ward off gangrene, he laid his wounded back on a rotting log and let the maggots eat the dead flesh. To avoid Indians, he crawled south towards the Cheyenne River. He survived on berries and roots. Arrived at the river, he made a rough raft and floated downstream and eventually reached Fort Kiowa. It was one of the most remarkable feats of survival ever recorded.

When finally fit enough, Glass set out after Bridger and Fitzpatrick, who had abandoned him. He found that Fitzpatrick had joined the United States Army and was unreachable, and he spared Bridger because of his youth.

But he got his rifle back.

Quite a fellow, Hugh.

They made a movie about him recently, starring Leonardo Di Caprio, in which a quite sympathetic Jim Bridger appears, The Revenant.

The Great Salt Lake

In the winter of 1823, Bridger was in Cache Valley on the Bear River. To settle a bet on the river’s course, Bridger followed the Bear until it ended in a large body of salt water. He mistakenly assumed he had found an inlet of the Pacific Ocean but Jim had actually come across the Great Salt Lake.
The Rocky Mountain Fur Company

In 1830, Jim went into business with fellow trappers by establishing the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, to compete with the Hudson’s Bay Company and American Fur Company. This was the height of the craze for beaver-skin hats in the East and beaver pelts fetched high prices.

But the fashion peaked and declined, and the streams were increasingly trapped out. Jim sold out and in 1843, he and his friend and partner Louis Vasquez built a trading post, later named Fort Bridger, on the banks of the Green River. It served the pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

Fort Bridger

Stage routes

Bridger's knowledge of the country was encyclopedic and vast. He seemed to have an infallible memory for topography and terrain. According to Captain John W. Gunnison in an 1834 report, "With a buffalo skin and a piece of charcoal he will map out any portion of this vast region with wonderful accuracy."

In 1851, he was assigned by the United States Government to draw the official maps that established the tribal boundaries according to the Fort Laramie Peace Treaty.

The Overland Stage Company and the Pike's Peak Express Company hired Bridger to map out the best stage routes.

Indian wives

Jim had married a Flathead Indian woman in 1835 and had three children. On her death in 1846, he married the daughter of a Shoshone chief but she died in childbirth, and in 1850 Bridger married for the third time, to the daughter of another Shoshone chief, and had two more children.
Tall tales

Jim Bridger was famous for his tall tales. Some of the anecdotes he related, though hard to believe then, were based in truth, such as the accounts of the geysers of Yellowstone. Others were more fantastic. The Petrified Forest in north-east Arizona is a fascinating place (like me, you probably have a shard of petrified wood at home bought at the giftshop there; well, you gotta) but it doesn’t actually have petrified birds sitting in the petrified trees singing petrified songs, as Jim recounted…

Captain Howard Stansbury, whom Bridger guided in Utah, was once astonished to observe Jim keep a group of Sioux and Cheyenne rapt for over an hour telling his tall tales in sign language. Bridger evidently had an aura about him, a kind of energy that emanated. He was a great communicator. Though illiterate (like Kit Carson and indeed many of the mountain men) he was able to speak many of the languages he came into contact with: Spanish and French, and many Indian tongues.

Old Gabe

It is said that Bible-reading Jedediah Smith, seeing Bridger's self-assurance and ability to communicate, thought of Jim as some kind of Angel Gabriel and gave him the nickname 'Old Gabe' in consequence, a moniker that stuck.

General Grenville Dodge (who wrote in 1905 and knew Bridger in later life) described Jim as:
"a very companionable man. In person he was over six feet tall, spare, straight as an arrow, agile, rawboned and of powerful frame, eyes gray, hair brown and abundant even in old age, expression mild and manners agreeable. He was hospitable and generous, and was always trusted and respected."

Bridger's Pass

Next time you are flashing down Interstate 80, spare a thought for Jim Bridger who, in 1850, seeking an alternate route to the South Pass, found what would become known as Bridger's Pass, which shortened the Oregon Trail by 61 miles. The pass would later be chosen as the route for the Union Pacific Railroad.
Jim Bridger
The Mormons

Bridger did not see eye to eye with the Mormons of greater Utah. Through the 1850s he found trade declining as Mormon settlements grew, losing a lot of Indian trade in particular. Mormons tried to arrest him and they burned his trading post.

In the 1858 Utah War, or Mormon War, Jim served as guide to US forces under General Johnston as they confronted Brigham Young and the 'Saints'.

The Bridger Trail

In 1864, Jim was commissioned by Colonel William O. Collins, commandant of Fort Laramie, to pioneer a new trail, an alternative route from Wyoming to the goldfields of Montana (gold was discovered there in 1863) which avoided the dangerous Bozeman Trail through the Powder River country. The Arapaho, Cheyenne and Sioux had been stepping up their raids in response to the increasing invasion of white settlers. This trail, which skirted the Western edge of the Bighorn Mountains, was very successful.

The year after, hostilities along the Bozeman Trail had escalated to the point where General Patrick Connor led the Powder River Expedition, with Bridger as guide, and Jim found himself working with the military in Red Cloud’s War.

His later years

In 1865 he was discharged at Fort Laramie and he returned to Westport, MO in 1868, in poor health. He devoted time to trying to collect back rent from the government for its use of Fort Bridger (which had been taken over in 1858) but without success. His famed eyesight failed and he eventually became blind. He died on his farm near Kansas City in 1881, aged 77. He was buried near his home but 23 years later his remains were re-interred in the Mount Washington Cemetery, in Independence, Missouri.
Jim Bridger's tomb
Bridger places

There’s Fort Bridger and the town of Fort Bridger, WY nearby and there’s Bridger, MT (population 708).

You have the Bridger Mountains in Wyoming (40 miles long, a sub-range of the Rockies, highest point 8300 feet) and Montana (between Bozeman and Maudlow, highest point 9665 feet).

The 428,000-acre Bridger Wilderness is located in Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming. It was established in 1931.
The Bridger Wilderness
Cache Valley in Utah and Idaho is known as Bridgerland.


The Fort Bridger State Museum and Historic Site, WY

The website tells us (sorry about the grammar but it’s theirs, not mine):

"Established by Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez in 1843 as an emigrant supply stop along the Oregon Trail. It was obtained by the Mormons in the early 1850s, and then became a military outpost in 1858. In 1933, the property was dedicated as a Wyoming Historical Landmark and Museum. There are several restored historical buildings from the military time period, a reconstructed of the trading post operated by Jim Bridger, and an interpretive archaeological site containing the base of the cobble rock wall built by the Mormons during their occupation of the fort. All of these locations are signed in Braille. In addition, a museum containing artifacts from the various different historical time periods is housed in the 1888 stone barracks building. There are gift shops in both museums and the reconstructed trading post. Here at Fort Bridger Historic Site the past comes alive through costumed interpreters, museum displays, and a reconstruction of Jim Bridger's trading post."

There’s a sculpture there of Bridger by David Alan Clark.
Fort Bridger sculpture
The Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale, WY is interesting as far as early explorers and trappers are concerned. It has Jim’s rifle.
Jim's rifle
The website says:

"Jim Bridger's Rifle - In 1853, Louis Vasquez, a good friend and business partner of mountain man Jim Bridger had a .40 caliber half-stock rifle engraved "J. Bridger 1853" and presented it to Jim for reasons unknown. Perhaps it had something to do with their long business association or possibly it was due to the fact that 1853 was indeed a turning point in Jim Bridger's life. After Bridger's death, the rifle was held as part of a private Buffalo Bill collection. The gun was sold several times at auctions until it found its permanent home in the Museum of the Mountain Man in 1988."


There are very many books about Jim Bridger. The standard work for a long time appears to have been by J Cecil Alter, who wrote on Bridger for years, from the 1920s onwards. You could try Jim Bridger by J Cecil Alter, University of Oklahoma Press, 1979:
An earlier account is by Grenville M. Dodge, Biographical Sketch of James Bridger, Mountaineer, Trapper and Guide (1905), which is still available, based on stories Bridger told to the author.

Then there was Stanley Vestal’s Jim Bridger, Mountain Man, William Morrow & Company , 1946, also still available.
But there are loads of others, as a brief surf of amazon.com will show. I’ve no idea if they are good, bad or indifferent. We need a history professor to guide us to the best reads. Any history professors out there, please leave a comment recommending the best books. Thanks, Prof.

In the 1982 novel Flashman and the Redskins by George MacDonald Fraser, Harry Flashman is interviewed by Jim Bridger just before heading west with his prostitute-laden wagon train - which brings us nicely to Jim Bridger in fiction...

2          Jim Bridger in fiction


Jim has appeared many times in Western movies.

There was a silent short in 1910 entitled Jim Bridger’s Indian Bride but I haven’t seen it and don’t even know who played Jim. Jim appeared as a character in the classic silent wagon-train movie The Covered Wagon in 1923, played by a great Tully Marshall, who played Jim again in Fighting Caravans in 1931 and was also 'Jim Bridge' in Fighting With Kit Carson in 1933. In the 1928 silent Kit Carson, starring Fred Thomson as Kit in his last Western, Nelson McDowell (109 Westerns, 1920 - 45) was Jim. 

Once talkies came along, Bridger (Edward LeSaint) appeared briefly in Unknown Valley (1933) and Arthur Aylesworth portrayed him, again briefly, in the Henry Hathaway-directed Brigham Young in 1940.

Raymond Hatton played Jim in a short but fun cameo in the 1940 United Artists picture Kit Carson. Kit certainly knew Jim. They had met several times at mountain men rendezvous and had trapped together, so this film encounter is not preposterous.
Kit Carson, 1940
Raymond Hatton had been in Westerns since the 1914 Cecil B DeMille TheSquaw Man (and its talkie remake in 1931). He’d been Deadwood in the 1932 Law and Order and acted in a total of no fewer than 157 cowboy films, including nine as Rusty Joslin in the Three Mesquiteers series. As soon as TV Westerns came along he became a mainstay of them. If you see Kit Carson, watch out for Hatton’s Bridger. It’s entertaining.

Will Wright was Jim in a Republic B-Western Along the Oregon Trail in 1947, some story about Clayton Moore wanting to carve out an empire for himself in the West by selling guns to the Indians and being foiled by Monte Hale aided by Jim. Or something.

These were all apperances of the character Jim Bridger in other stories, often wagon-train ones (understandably). But finally in 1951 Bridger starred in his own movie. Van Heflin played Jim in his fourth Western, Tomahawk (Universal, 1951). Heflin was rather good in this and despite featuring Yvonne De Carlo it’s an exciting, early-50s color Western which is well worth a watch.
Van Heflin's turn to be Jim
However, any resemblance between Heflin’s Bridger and the actual one is purely accidental. It’s a story of how Jim tries to restore peace with the Sioux in the teeth of the stupid Army, who want to build a fort right in the Sioux hunting grounds in defiance of a treaty.

Preston Foster is very good as the Army colonel and De Carlo manages the whole film without a song ‘n’ dance routine, which is good. Alex Nicol is a Nazi lieutenant who was with Colonel Chivington at Sand Creek and believes the only good Injun is a dead one. It just so happens that Jim’s Indian wife had been slaughtered in the Sand Creek Massacre and he has been looking for the perpetrators ever since…

Tomahawk is a fairly standard post-Broken Arrow pro-Indian movie but Heflin is good and at least the great Jim Bridger gets to star in a Western, even if it is all twaddle historically.

Jim Bridger appears briefly twice, though it's little more than a cameo, in the preposterous Pony Express in 1953 (in which Jim's pals Wild Bill and Buffalo Bill invent the express service). Porter Hall, a nice man who often played pompous villains, portrays Bridger.

Jim Bridger again led the cast (played by Dennis Morgan in his last Western) in The Gun that Won the West in 1955. In case you're wondering which gun won the West (the Colt? The Winchester?) it was the Springfield rifle.

That brings us into much more modern times. Leonard Mann was Jim Bridger in the ghastly rubbish spaghetti La vendetta è un piatto che si serve freddo in 1971. A fairly literal translation might be 'Vengeance is a dish better served cold' but it was more usually rendered in English as Death's Dealer. Whatever you call it, it was junk.

And, as I said, earlier, in 2015 The Revenant, the story of High Glass, had Will Poulter as a young Bridger.

Film mentions

Bridger gets a brief mention in Jeremiah Johnson (Warner Bros, 1973). Will Geer’s character introduces himself as "Bear Claw Chris Lapp, blood kin to the grizz that bit Jim Bridger's ass."

In the 1984 motion picture Red Dawn, Jed Smith (Patrick Swayze) says he used to read of the exploits of both Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith, for whom he says he was named.

In the 2009 movie Inglourious Basterds, lead character Lt. Aldo Raine, nicknamed Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt) says, "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."

That’s about it for Hollywood Jim Bridger.

Jim Bridger on TV

Jim appeared a lot on TV too.

Wagon Train

Bridger was portrayed by Karl Swenson (TV actor mostly but he also had small parts in some good Westerns such as The Hanging Tree, Lonely Are the Brave, Major Dundee, Hour of the Gun, others) in a 1961 episode of Wagon Train. This was after Ward Bond had died, and in this episode his replacement, John McIntire, bows out after 5 minutes on a very phony pretext, leaving command of the train and the rest of the episode to the scout, Flint McCullogh (Robert Horton). It just so happened that Flint’s parents had been killed by Indians when he was eight and Jim Bridger had found him and adopted him. And guess who turns up in this very episode when he’s in charge? Why, Bridger himself.

Jim arrives with a stressed and unshaven General Jameson (John Doucette – 104 Western appearances, usually as a heavy, and you’ll recognize him immediately). Jameson, backed by Bridger, proposes that the whole wagon train turn about, go back into the dangerous Ute country it has just safely passed through, and go to the relief of a party of 120 soldiers who are besieged by the warring Utes on a hilltop. Why his soldiers should be helped by 200 wagons of women and children is not at all clear. I would have thought they would be a great hindrance. Still, that’s the plot.

Flint turns against Jim because he thinks the Army is being heavy-handed and unjust, endangering the lives of the settlers it was supposed to protect, but thanks to Jim he comes to see it as his American duty to help, and so do the wagon trainers, and they charge the Utes with their wagons. There’s a brief, perfunctory battle and all is well.

I’m afraid it’s an extremely unlikely, not to say silly story, but Swenson’s Bridger is good. He gets a chance to tell some tall tales to a couple of boys, about how he and Davy Crockett had a contest to see who could cross the Arkansas River with a mountain lion under each arm.

Death Valley Days

There were two Death Valley Days episodes featuring Jim Bridger, as might be expected.  Harry Shannon played him in Old Gabe in 1958 and Carl Reindel in Hugh Glass Meets the Bear in 1966.


There was a 1976 ABC TV show Jim Bridger directed by David Lowell Rich in which James Wainwright played Jim. Jim is given 40 days to blaze a trail through the Rocky Mountains to the California coast and told that if he can't do it, the territory will be lost, to England. Right. James Wainwright was only in one Western movie; he was Mingo in Joe Kidd. But he did a lot of TV work.

Disney Bridger

Bridger was portrayed on TV in 1977 by Gregg Palmer in Kit Carson and the Mountain Men, part of the series Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Palmer had started as Grat Dalton in The Cimarron Kid in 1952 and became a standard fixture in B-Westerns and TV shows through the 50s and 60s. The Disney program featured mostly Kit Carson (Christopher Connelly) and John C Frémont (Robert Reed) but Jim Bridger gets to feature too.

Ben as Jim

I heard that Ben Johnson, no less, played Jim Bridger in a CBS TV mini-series in 1986, Dream West. Wow. I was so looking forward to it. But to my great disappointment it was one of those blink-and-you'll-miss-him affairs. And I blinked. What a tragic waste. The TV movie wasn't bad, I suppose, in its way. It was a biopic of John C Frémont (Richard Chamberlain) and quite well done on the whole. Kit Carson (Rip Torn) got a fairly prominent part and he resembled Kit too. I watched it in 21 separate videoclips on YouTube. Boy, it was hard work and half the time the damn thing wouldn't play properly. So Jim Bridger fans, you can skip Dream West and you won't lose much.

Anyway that's a lot of Jim Bridgers in film and on TV, isn't it, and the list may not even be exhaustive. Jim sure got around.

Jim Bridger in song

There’s a late-1950s song by Johnny Horton which you can listen to here, called Jim Bridger.

In it, Bridger advises General Custer, as follows:

He spoke with General Custer and said, “Listen, Yellow Hair,
The Sioux are the great nation so treat
'em fair and square.
Sit in on their war councils, don't laugh
away their pride.”
But Custer didn't listen, at Little Big Horn Custer died.

See? If only Custer had listened to Jim.

The lyrics also draw a comparison between Bridger and Carson:

There's poems and there's legends that tell of Carson's fame
Yet compared to Jim Bridger, Kit was civilized and tame.
These words are straight from Carson's lips if you place that story by him.
If there's a man who knows this God-forsaken land, it's Jim.

The chorus enjoins us to:

Drink to old Jim Bridger, yes lift your glasses high.
As long as there's the USA, don't let his memory die.
That he was making history never once occurred to him
But I doubt if we'd been here if it weren't for men like Jim.

Well, no, I’m sure we wouldn’t.

Thanks, Johnny. Next.

Actually, though, Mr. Horton's comparison between Kit Carson and Jim Bridger is an interesting one. Both were famous Indian fighters and explorers. Both were born in the first decade of the nineteenth century, east of the Missouri, both lost their fathers while still boys and were apprenticed. They both set off as young men for adventurous travels West and became noted trappers and explorers, working in companies of mountan men and attending the famous rendezvous. More than once they trapped (and fought Indians) together. They both acted as guides and scouts for the Army.

Harvey Lewis Carter, in his excellent biography of Kit Carson, suggests that Carson was influenced by Bridger, who was five years older, and learned from him to moderate his recklessness - and stay alive longer.

In later lives their careers diverged as Carson fought in the Civil War, achieved the rank of brigadier-general and lived his last years in Colorado and New Mexico, where he died in 1868, aged only 54. Bridger, on the other hand, as we know, returned to Missouri to farm, not dying till the age of 77 in 1881.

So there you go, Jim Bridger in fact and fiction.

So long, pards.

1 comment:

  1. Jeff...The photo you have of Raymond Hatton as Jim Bridger in the 1940 movie Kit Carson is not Raymond Hatton. This character actor was edited out of the final screenplay......to this day I can't figure out who it is. In the opening and closing credits of the movie any indication of the actor has been removed. Raymond Hatton appears as Jim Bridger in the beginning of the movie at Fort Bridger.....who by the way is excellent as Jim Bridger.