Jim Bridger – Mountain Man, Guide, and Explorer

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Jim Bridger

Jim Bridger is credited with establishing the Oregon Trail, being one of the first Caucasians to explore Yellowstone, and for charting the trail to Montana’s gold fields.

The Wyoming State Preservation Office explains, “In 1863 gold and silver were discovered at Alder Gulch in what is now southwestern Montana. In 1864 prospectors, miners, and adventurers flocked to the Montana Territory. A fast and safe route was needed to get to the new gold fields. So, mountain man Jim Bridger blazed a trail west of the Bighorn Mountains that was safer than the Bozeman Trail through Sioux country in the Powder River Basin. Bridger’s trail was much shorter than the Oregon Trail and Lander Cutoff, or longer routes by way of Fort Bridger or Salt Lake City.”

Bridger Noted for his Contributions to Westward Expansion

In his book “Jim Bridger – Mountain Man,” Stanley Vestal wrote of Bridger, “Later he was to open the Overland Route, which was the path of the Overland Stage, the Pony Express, and the Union Pacific. One of the foremost trappers in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, he was a legend in his own time as well as ours. He remains one of the most important scouts and guides in the history of the West.” Bridger is also credited with blazing the Oregon Trail.

Bridger was a Man of Many Careers

Early in Bridger’s life, according to Vestal, he was apprenticed to a blacksmith in St. Louis after the deaths of his parents and siblings soon after the family moved to St. Louis. He used the skills learned during the apprenticeship to repair wagons at Fort Bridger.

In addition to his skills as a guide and fur trapper, Bridger was tapped by the United States government to draw maps after the Fort Laramie Treaty with the Sioux Nation. In a biography of Bridger, Grenville Dodge stated, “He was a born topographer; the whole West was mapped out in his mind, and such was his instinctive sense of locality and direction that it used to be said of him that he could smell his way where he could not see it.” Routes he laid out later became freight wagon trails, railroad lines, Pony Express routes, and today’s Interstate I-80.

Bridger Retires to Kansas City

According to the Wyoming State Historical Society, Bridger “retired to his farm in Westport, near Kansas City, Missouri, and died on July 17, 1881 at the age of 77. In 1904, on the 100th anniversary of Bridger’s birth, General Grenville Dodge had Bridger reinterred at a select spot in the Mount Washington Cemetery in Independence, Missouri, with a 7-foot monument depicting Bridger’s principal achievements.

“Celebrated as a hunter, trapper, fur trader and guide. Discovered Great Salt Lake 1824, the South Pass 1827 [1823]. Visited Yellowstone Lake and Geysers 1830. Founded Fort Bridger 1843. Opened Overland Route by Bridger’s Pass to Great Salt Lake. Was a guide for U. S. exploring expeditions, Albert Sidney Johnston’s army in 1857, and G. M. Dodge in U. P. surveys and Indian campaigns 1865-66.”