Jim Bridger and the Fur Trade, Part 1

Jim Bridger

Jim Bridger was born in the spring of 1804. When Jim was eight the family moved from Virginia to a Missouri farm not far from St. Louis. When he was 14, his mother, father, and brother died. That left just Jim and his little sister. A maiden aunt came to live with them. He started raising corn and shooting game to feed them.

He got a job running flatboats on the Mississippi, ferrying travelers and their wagons between Six Mile Prairie and St. Louis. He spent the next five years working as a blacksmith’s apprentice in St. Louis. It was hard work. But he was exposed to many types of people, such as Spanish traders, French-Canadian trappers, and Indians. They all came to the blacksmith shop to have their horses shod. He learned how people took good horses with them because they were valuable to trade with the Indians. Bridger learned the tricks of trading.

On March 20, 1822, he saw an interesting article in the paper. Major Andrew Henry, of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, needed 100 good men to go up the Missouri River with him on a trapping expedition. Bridger signed on as a trapper and Indian fighter. Also on the trip were other soon-to-be-famous men, such as Tom FitzPatrick, Hugh Glass, Mike Fink, William Sublette, and Etienne Provost.

It was a treacherous trip. The weather could be hot and humid or cold and hailing. There were all kinds of obstacles in the water. At one point they lost one of their boats and $10,000 worth of supplies, about half of all they had. At some point, the trappers lost almost all their horses when some tricky Assiniboines stole them. They spent the winter at the mouth of the Yellowstone River. They traded with the Indians for needed goods. Bridger took advantage of this and had the Indian women make him some good moccasins and buckskins. Soon he learned how to do it himself. After that he never wore “white man’s” clothes again.

They went trapping in March but kept running into Indians. At one point, a messenger told them that the rest of their party that had gone back east had run into a large war party, and 13 men had been killed. Major Henry’s party joined with the military in a battle with the Rees Indians. Finally, a peaceful end was reached.

The men headed back into the mountains to get ready for winter. Hugh Glass and another man led the expedition. Unexpectedly the two men were attacked by a huge bear. By the time the other men could get to him, Glass was quite mauled. The other man got away. The expedition couldn’t wait for Glass to mend as they would likely be caught out in the winter without provisions. They decided to leave Glass behind with Bridger and Fitzgerald to guard him. They would wait until he either died or improved enough to continue on under his own power. In just three days Fitzgerald got nervous because he kept seeing signs of Indians. He persuaded Bridger to leave because Glass would die soon anyway. Fitzgerald took his weapons a proof that the man had died.

Bridger spent the winter at Major Henry’s new fort, trapping and looking after the horses. But he felt guilty about leaving Glass in the woods. He even avoided Fitzgerald. One day, Glass struggled into the fort all scraggly and starving. Somehow, he had walked and crawled to Fort Kiowa, where he rested and stocked up on supplies. Then he continued to Fort Henry to avenge himself. He forgave Bridger because he was just a kid. Fitzgerald was another story. But when he caught up to him, Fitzgerald had enlisted in the army; it would be a hanging offense to kill a soldier, so he let it go. Meanwhile, Bridger avowed that he would never rely on another man, but only on himself.

Soon after this Bridger went off to be a free trapper. He went along with a brigade of other men such as FitzPatrick and Kit Carson. In the spring of 1824 some Crow told them about some streams near South Pass that had a lot of beaver in them. Bridger and FitzPatrick found they were right. Unfortunately on their way to the rendezvous at Sweetwater, their boat capsized and they recovered only enough to pay their expenses.

In the fall of 1824, the trappers holed up in the Cache Valley near Bear River. There was some argument over where the Bear River went. Bridger got into a boat and rode the river to see where it went. The river dumped into the Great Salt Lake. He was probably the first white man to see it.

By 1826, Bridger was leading his own trapping expedition. By 1830, Major Henry, Colonel W. H. Ashley, and William Sublette had decided they had had enough of the fur trapping business. They sold out their interests to Bridger, FitzPatrick, Milton Sublette, Henry Fraeb, and Baptiste Gervais.

In the summer of 1832, the annual rendezvous was held at Pierre’s Hole. On July 17, the rendezvous began to break up. Milt Sublette led a party eight miles south. Early the next morning, they saw some Indians coming over a nearby hill. Antoine Godin, an Iroquois, walked out to greet them and smoke peace. But Godin’s father had been killed by the Blackfeet. He was after revenge. He approached the chief and offered to shake hands. But at the same time, he commanded his Flathead friend to fire. Which he did, killing the chief. A battle broke out.

The trappers sent back word to the main camp for help. Bridger and others quickly rode to help. William Sublette led a charge to the fort the Indians had made out of twigs and shrubbery. Bridger suggested setting fire to the fort. The squaws began gathering up grass and brush to place by the fort. But their Indian allies rejected the idea because they wanted to take the booty. When the Blackfeet saw what the women were doing they warned the whites that another big force was about to attack the main camp. Everyone heard the warning and immediately dropped what they were doing and headed back to the main camp.

When they got there, there were no Indians. They rushed back to the battlefield and found that the Blackfeet were gone. Someone took the furs on into St. Louis.

Bridger and FitzPatrick headed north toward Henry’s Fork of the Snake. At one point they talked with some Indians, who seemed to want peace. But during a misunderstanding, Bridger got shot in the back by some Indians. Bridger was knocked over the head with a gun. Three others were killed. FitzPatrick was able to get one of the arrowheads out of Bridger’s back. The other one wouldn’t come out, though, so he had to just cut off the stick and leave the arrowhead in his back.