Jim Bridger and the Fur Trade, Part 3

Jim Bridger

Next came a dispute between Bridger and Brigham Young. The dispute seems to have arisen because Young thought Bridger was inciting the Indians to raid Mormon towns. He also thought Bridger was spying on them and reporting to Washington. He also harbored ill-feeling from their earlier meeting. Young didn’t like that Bridger was there first and that he was a “gentile” and was not going to leave. He did not like that Bridger already had a trading relationship with the Indians, a people the Mormons felt were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. He didn’t like that Bridger was friends with the Snakes and gave them modern rifles. He didn’t like that Bridger traded with emigrants and was generous with his supplies, while most of his people were fairly poor. He also didn’t like that Bridger had helped Mormons in the past. He didn’t like that Bridger was right about the soil not being good for crops.

Young tried to seize Bridger’s ferry on the Green River. But Bridger’s men held them off with guns. The Mormons were upset about this and planned to seize Bridger’s fort. The sheriff rode out with 150 men to seize the fort. Bridger had been warned and left before they arrived. They drank his whiskey, drove away the livestock, and stole everything not nailed down. On their way south, they killed the ferry man at Green River.

Later that year, Bridger went to Fort Laramie. While there, he met a man named Sir George Gore, a sportsman from Sligo, Ireland. He was out to hunt bear and buffalo. Bridger liked him because he was a good horseman, a good shot, and very fair and honest. Gore liked Bridger because he wanted to learn about the Indians, about wild animals, and about how to live in the wild. Bridger was good at what he did in part because he knew so many languages, including the universal sign language. He also knew how to track and knew how many animals or people had passed by and how long ago it was. He also had a good memory for landmarks.

In the spring, Bridger took Gore and his men up the Platte, to the Powder, and eventually to the Tongue River. The Indians didn’t like Gore because he mostly hunted for trophies. Bridger didn’t particularly like it either. Bridger returned to Kansas City to visit his family after this. Then he went to Washington, D.C., to discuss the Mormon problem with Congress. Not long after that, the army sent troops to Utah.

On July 16, 1857, Bridger was hired as a guide for $5 a day. He would also get a toll on every government wagon that crossed his ferry. The army had orders to shoot only in self-defense. But the Mormon men had no such restraint–they burned government wagons and torched Fort Bridger, even before the army got there. After that Bridger sold his land to the government for $10,000.

Before the army could go to Salt Lake City, Young surrendered. President Buchanan pardoned him for stealing the army’s livestock and burning the wagon trains. At the same time, Young ordered his people to leave the area and go south. When the troops got to Salt Lake City, it was virtually deserted.

Bridger returned home and found that he had a new son, William. Unfortunately, his wife had died in childbirth. He was very depressed. But fortunately, he got a job as a guide shortly afterward with the Army Corps of Engineers. He spent the next few years guiding several military expeditions.

In May 1866, he was hired on as scout for Colonel Carrington, whose mission was to open a wagon road around the Bighorn Mountains to Montana. Bridger didn’t think the Sioux and Cheyenne would ever let it happen. He gave Carrington advice on how to avoid Indian troubles, and for the most part he heeded it. By the time Carrington reached Fort Laramie, the council with the Indians had still not reached a conclusion. Carrington decided he was not going to wait, but would start building his road.

They got as far as Fort Reno without being harassed by the Indians. But then a band of Indians chased off some of their horses and mules. Bridger and Carrington met with some Cheyenne who agreed to leave the white men alone. After that Carrington built a fort, which would be called Fort Phil Kearney. On September 13, the Indians stampeded their horses again. The young officers were eager to fight, but Bridger was not optimistic. The men could hardly ride; the horses were not suitable for the country; the weapons could not be fired from horseback; they didn’t know anything about the country or the enemy.

On December 20, 1866, a wagon had gone out to get wood and was suddenly surrounded by Indians. Fetterman and Grummond led troops out into the woods. Carrington, Bridger, and others stayed back to guard the fort. They could hear firing but couldn’t see anything. Eventually Ten Eyks’s detail came back carrying 49 naked, frozen, mutilated bodies.

All of a sudden the hotheads started paying attention to Bridger again, thinking maybe he did know something about Indians. The next day, some men went out and found another 32 men that had been killed in brutal hand-to-hand combat with Indians. It took several days to dig a pit in the frozen ground large enough for the dead.

In the first of January Carrington was told to go to Fort Casper. Bridger stayed behind to guard the fort. He stayed there throughout the summer of 1867. In the fall, he returned to Fort Laramie. In 1868, the government signed a treaty with the Sioux. Afterward they sent a force to dismantle Fort C. F. Smith, Fort Reno, and Fort Phil Kearney. Bridger was their guide.

By that time Bridger’s health started to fail. A goiter had really started to bother him. He suffered from rheumatism. He was also losing his eyesight. By 1875, he was completely blind. He lived the rest of his life on a small farm in Missouri, with his daughter Virginia. He liked to tell his tales to his children and their friends. What was sad was that during that time no one bothered to come to talk to him about his adventures or even take his picture. Only his old friend General Dodge ever bothered to write down his biography.

He died on July 17, 1881. He was buried in the Mount Washington Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri.