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Jim Bridger
Jim Bridger (right) is honored along with Pony Express founder Alexander Majors (left) and Kansas City founder John Calvin McCoy at Pioneer Square in Westport in Kansas City.

James "Jim" Bridger (March 1804 – July 17, 1881) was among the foremost mountain men, trappers, scouts and guides who explored and trapped the Western United States during the decades of 1820-1840.

Jim Bridger had a strong constitution that allowed him to survive the extreme conditions he encountered walking the Rocky Mountains from what would become southern Colorado to the Canadian border. He had conversational knowledge of French, Spanish and several native languages. He would come to know many of the major figures of the early west, including Brigham Young, Kit Carson, John Fremont, Joseph Meek, and John Sutter.



Jim Bridger began his colorful career in 1822 at the age of 17, as a member of General William Ashley's Upper Missouri Expedition. He was among the first white men to see the geysers and other natural wonders of the Yellowstone region. In the winter of 1824-1825, Bridger gained fame as the first European American to see the Great Salt Lake (though some now dispute that status in favor of Étienne Provost), which he reached traveling in a bull boat. Due to its salinity, he believed it to be an arm of the Pacific Ocean.

In 1830, Jim Bridger and several other trappers bought out Ashley and established the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, competing with the Hudson's Bay Company and John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company for the lucrative beaver pelt trade. In 1843, Bridger and Louis Vasquez built a trading post, later named Fort Bridger, on the west bank of Blacks Fork of the Green River to serve pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

In 1835 he married a woman from the Flathead Indians tribe with whom he had three children. After her death in 1846, he married the daughter of a Shoshone chief, who died in childbirth three years later. In 1850 he married Shoshone Chief Washakie's daughter, with whom he had two more children. Some of his children were sent back east to be educated.

In 1850, looking for an alternate overland route to the South Pass, he found what would eventually be known as Bridger's Pass, which shortened the Oregon Trail by 61 miles. Bridger Pass would later be the chosen route for both the Union Pacific Railroad and later Interstate 80.

In 1864, he blazed the Bridger Trail, an alternate route from Wyoming to the gold fields of Montana that avoided the dangerous Bozeman Trail. Later, he served as guide and army scout during the first Powder River Expedition against the Sioux and Cheyenne that were blocking the Bozeman Trail (Red Cloud's War). In 1865 he was discharged at Fort Laramie. Suffering from goiter, arthritis, rheumatism and other health problems, he returned to Westport, Missouri, in 1868. He was unsuccessful in collecting back rent from the government for its use of Fort Bridger. He died on his farm near Kansas City, Missouri, on July 17, 1881.


Sculpture of Bridger by David Alan Clark in Fort Bridger, Wyoming

Jim Bridger was well known during his life and afterwards as a teller of tall tales. Some of Bridger's stories—about the geysers at Yellowstone, for example—proved to be true. Others were clearly intended to amuse. Thus, one of Bridger's stories involved a "peetrified forest" in which there were "peetrified birds" singing "peetrified songs" (though he may have seen the petrified trees in the Tower Junction area of what is now Yellowstone National Park). Over the years, Bridger became so associated with the tall-tale form that many stories invented by others were attributed to him.

Supposedly one of Bridger's favorite yarns to tell to greenhorns was about being pursued by one hundred Cheyenne warriors. After being chased for several miles, Bridger found himself at the end of a box canyon, with the Indians bearing down on him. At this point, Bridger would go silent, prompting his listener to ask, "What happened then, Mr. Bridger?" Bridger would reply, "They kilt me."

Bridger was portrayed on television by the western actor Gregg Palmer in the 1977 episode "Kit Carson and the Mountain Man" of NBC's Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. Christopher Connelly portrayed Kit Carson, and Robert Reed played John C. Fremont. Earlier, Karl Swenson played Bridger in "The Jim Bridger Story" episode of NBC's Wagon Train, broadcast on May 10, 1961.

Some time between 1956 and 1960 Johnny Horton performed a song called Jim Bridger that was based on the life of Jim Bridger.

Jim Bridger is also briefly mentioned in Sydney Pollack's film Jeremiah Johnson, in which Will Geer's character introduces himself as, "Bear Claw Chris Lapp, blood kin to the grizz (grizzly bear) that bit Jim Bridger's ass."

Jim Bridger is also referred to in "Inglourious Basterds (2009)" by Brad Pitt's character, Lt. Aldo Raine. "Now, I'm 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. We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are."

Places named for Jim Bridger


Brad Pitt's character Lt. Aldo Raine in the movie Inglourious Basterds claims to be descended from Jim Bridger.

In the 1984 WWIII film Red Dawn, Patrick Swayze's character of Jed Smith says he used to read of the exploits of both Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith, who he says he was named for.

Harry Flashman is interviewed by Bridger just before heading west with his prostitute-laden wagon train in "Flashman and the Redskins".

Further reading

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