Jim Bridger and the Fur Trade, Part 2

Jim Bridger

Bridger spent that winter at the forks of the Snake River. It was not a good spot, as there was very little grass for the horses. They moved to the mouth of the Pocatello, but it wasn’t much better, since there was very little wood for fire and no game. It was also very cold. At one point the Blackfeet stole several horses. They had to trade with some Nez Perce for some new horses.

The following spring, Bridger trapped in northwest Colorado. In the fall, the rendezvous was held at the Salmon River. Bridger’s group had only 55 packs of beaver, but it was more than the rest. On June 20, 1834, the five partners dissolved the company. Shortly afterward, FitzPatrick, Milt Sublette, and Bridger formed a new company. In the spring of 1835, Bridger and his partners bought Fort Laramie from William Sublette and Robert Campbell. That year the rendezvous was on the Green River, but the season had not been good.

One good thing came out of the rendezvous. Bridger met Dr. Samuel Parker and Dr. Marcus Whitman, the missionaries. Bridger heard Whitman was a surgeon so he asked him to cut the arrowhead out of his back. It was quite an event for the camp. Everyone gathered around, including the Indians, to watch the surgery. It took some time as cartilage had formed around the point, but Whitman got it out.

At that rendezvous Bridger married a Flathead girl, the daughter of a chief. After the rendezvous, she and her family went with Bridger to the Grand Tetons. Bridger’s good friend Joe Meek was chased down by Indians and captured. The Indians quizzed him about how many men were in his party and where they were to meet. They hiked to the place Meek said the white men were camped.

The Indians approached the Yellowstone River from a ridge. Below were Bridger and the other men. When a man got close the Indians made Meek yell to get his attention. The man rode back to tell Bridger what was happening. Bridger came and asked Meek what tribe it was. When Meek replied they were Crow, Bridger knew just what to do. He told Meek to have one of the lesser chiefs come out and smoke with him.

They sent a man named Little Gun. Both men stripped to breech cloths and moccasins. When Bridger reached to hug him and kiss him in their tradition, some of Bridger’s men, who were hiding, captured the Indian. Bridger arranged for Meek to be exchanged for Little Gun. Later that night they smoked a peace pipe to make a truce for the next three months.

The winter of 1835 was filled with Indian problems. One day some Delaware Indians who were wintering with them went out and tricked some Blackfeet who were stealing horses. Bridger knew this would make the Blackfeet mad. They quickly built a fort just in time for the Indians to attack them. The fight lasted two days before they chased the Indians away. They were forced to leave the Yellowstone. They went up to Crow country.

While there, Meek’s Indian wife was sitting outside embroidering when a young Crow Indian was strutting around in front of her. When she ignored him, he struck her with his quirt. Meek saw this and shot him dead. A scuffle broke out, but Bridger was able to avoid an all-out attack. But it forced him to move again.

They went on through South Pass to Green River where some Nez Perce asked for his help in recovering some horses the Bannocks stole from them. Bridger agreed to help. But one of the Bannocks flicked the reins of his horse out of his hands. Bridger was going to let it go, but his black cook couldn’t abide the insult. He shot the chief dead. Another battle broke out and Meek’s wife was killed.

At the rendezvous that summer, Bridger and his friends joined the American Fur Company, once their rivals. Expenses were getting higher and profit was getting lower. They decided to combine their assets. The rendezvous of 1837 was held in the Wind River Valley of Wyoming. Trapping was very slim that year. They spent the winter on the Powder River. The spring of 1838 was spent trapping the headwaters of the Missouri. They spent the winter on the Green River.

In 1839, Bridger went to St. Louis for the first time in many years. He didn’t like it there and didn’t like regular clothes. Not long after, he headed back with a hundred men for the mountains. This was really the last rendezvous, that year at Green River. He could tell it was the end because the price of the furs was down, but trade good prices were as high as ever.

After that Bridger wandered around for the next three or four years, not knowing what to do with himself. One day while resting at Fort Laramie, he decided to build a fort on the immigrant trail. He built it on Black’s Fork of the Green River in southwest Wyoming. It had a good water supply and abundant grass, and it was a good distance from settlements so his blacksmith skills would be in demand too. His partner was Louis Vasquez. He kept pretty busy there, trading and handing out advice. In 1847, Brigham Young and the Mormons heading toward Salt Lake stopped at Fort Bridger to rest. He warned them about the Ute Indians. He also told them that he didn’t think they could grow grain there and that Young should wait until he saw if the land could grow crops before he took people there.

The following spring, he spent in Missouri. But a year later, he and his Ute Indian wife returned to Fort Bridger. In November of 1849, his daughter Virginia was born. Unfortunately, a few days later, his wife died. Shortly after that, he got his first job as a guide. Captain Howard Stansbury of the Army Corps of Engineer needed a guide to Salt Lake City. In the fall, Stansbury hired him again to help blaze a route from the South Platte to Fort Bridger. After that job was over, he married a Snake Indian woman in 1851.

The government decided to ask for a treaty among several of the Plains tribes. A council was held at Fort Laramie. Bridger was there as interpreter. Quibbling among the Indians was a problem at first since each tried to claim they were superior and demanded the most consideration. The Commissioner finally had to settle some of these disputes arbitrarily, which made no one happy. Finally, most tribes signed the treaty.