9 Reasons Why Fort Bridger was the Worst Fort on the Oregon Trail
By Karen Harris
Between the early 1840s and the end of the 1860s, more than 400,000 settlers traversed the 2,170-mile Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri, across Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and into Oregon, where they hoped to find a better life in the fertile valleys of the Pacific Northwest.
As we all know from playing the prehistoric educational computer game, the Oregon Trail was no easy road trip. There were no hotels, kitschy roadside attractions, McDonald’s, or Walmarts along the way.
If the pioneers needed supplies, had to repair their wagons, or wanted to see a doctor, they had to make it to one of the seven forts positioned strategically along the Oregon Trail.
One of these forts was Fort Bridger in southern Wyoming.
After the five-star accommodations (tongue in cheek) of Fort Kearney and Fort Laramie, which were located along the first part of the Oregon Trail, the settlers were sorely disappointed to arrive at Fort Bridger.
Sure, Fort Bridger was an unattractive place, but it was more than just aesthetics. As you’ll see, there were nine major reasons why Fort Bridger was arguably the worst fort along the Oregon Trail.
1. The infamous Jim Bridger established Fort Bridger.
Fort Bridger was established in 1843 by trapper and mountain man Jim Bridger, and his partner Louis Vasquez, to serve as a trading post for westward travelers.
Does Jim Bridger’s name sound familiar? How about his not-so-creative nickname, “Bridge?” I hope you saw the 2015 movie The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. If not, add it to your must-watch movies — it’s available on most of the major streaming services.
The plot follows the real-life survival saga of Hugh Glass, a seriously hard-to-kill frontiersman who, on a hunting expedition into the western wilderness with some buddies in 1823, was attacked by a pissed-off mama grizzly bear. As you can imagine, that left a mark.
Glass survived the attack, but his buddies were certain he would die any minute. When Glass was still kicking the next morning, the guys had some decisions to make. They were in the boondocks of the Old West with no MedPoint in sight and none of the guys were particularly motivated to carry Glass back to civilization on a stretcher.
Some cash changed hands, and two of the other guys stayed behind to sit with Glass, waiting for him to die so they could give him a proper burial while the rest of the men could leave. The so-called friends waited with him for five days, but the stubborn Glass just kept hanging on.
Eventually, they dug a hole, plopped Glass in it, and left him to die alone. Only Glass didn’t die. Lo and behold, Glass recovered enough to drag himself a hundred-plus miles — literally army crawling — to get revenge on the men who left him, which is the main thrust of The Revenant.
I digress. But there is a reason for that.
Any guesses as to who was one of the men who stayed back with Glass and abandoned him when he took too long to die?
Yep, Jim Bridger.
Twenty years after the events of The Revenant, Jim Bridger founded the fort that bore his name. That maybe wasn’t the wisest marketing move. The story of Hugh Glass’s abandonment and incredible survival story was nationwide news, so settlers stopping at Fort Bridger knew that the fort was named for a jerk of a guy and a terrible friend who did not subscribe to the no man left behind mantra.
Related read: 16 Iconic Landmarks on the Oregon Trail
2. The fort was located at a busy crossroad.
Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez selected a location near Blacks Fork of the Green River, in the southwest corner of Wyoming. Before the military took over the fort — we’ll get to that momentarily — Bridger and Vasquez planned for it to be a trading outpost.
They had befriended the local Native Americans during their days as fur trappers, plus they knew that folks would be traveling along the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, and the Mormon Trail, so they were confident that they would have a steady stream of customers.
Once travelers reached Fort Bridger, they had a few choices to make. One road out of the fort led to Oregon. Another went to California. Still another, called the Mormon Trail, was used by Latter Day Saints pioneers to reach Utah.
Take a wrong turn at busy Fort Bridger and a pioneer family could find themselves starting avocado farms in California instead of cattle ranches in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Related read: Daily Life on the Oregon Trail: What it Was Really Like
3. Fort Bridger would’ve gotten terrible Yelp reviews.
Pioneers traveling along the Oregon Trail would have stopped first at Fort Kearney and then at Fort Laramie. These two forts would have seemed like bougie, 5-star resorts compared to Fort Bridger.
For starters, they were actual forts. Just like you are picturing in your mind, with a tall wall around it, made from logs and with menacing-looking pointy ends. They were large structures with adjacent towns. Settlers still camped in their wagons, but they could relax for a few days knowing they were safe from surprise attacks by Native Americans.
During this time, they could have their wagons repaired, supplies restocked, laundry washed, and visit a farrier to get some spiffy new shoes for their horses, if needed. It was also an opportunity for people to mail a letter to their family back east.
But when the settlers got to Fort Bridger, it was a bit of a womp womp moment. Fort Bridger didn’t look like a fort at all. It was really just a couple of longish, one-story cabins and a fence to hold horses.
One settler, Edwin Bryant, wrote a description of Fort Bridger in his journal that sounds like an accurate Yelp review: “The buildings are two or three miserable cabins, rudely constructed and bearing only a faint resemblance to habitable houses.”
Two thumbs down.
Related read: 7 of Wyoming’s Best Ghost Towns to Explore Today
4. Fort Bridger was okay with price-gouging.
Not only was Fort Bridger an unattractive place, but it had supply chain issues and there was rampant price gouging. Pioneers often complained that Fort Bridger didn’t have the supplies they needed for the next leg of their journey.
Not only that, but the meager supplies it did have were overpriced. Since Fort Bridger was the only place around to restock, Jim Bridger assumed he could charge whatever he wanted. If people were desperate enough, they would pay it.
Ol’ Jim Bridger wasn’t keen on building a quality reputation.
Related read: Oregon Trail Stories: True & Inspiring Tales of Prairie Pioneers
5. The fort was breaking the law — and the Mormons tattled.
Perhaps the reason why Jim Bridger didn’t stock his shelves at Fort Bridger with things like flour, beans, and coffee was because he spent all his money on alcohol, guns, and bullets.
It was common knowledge among the pioneers along the Oregon Trail that Jim Bridger was selling these items to nearby Native Americans, a blatant violation of federal law. Folks just turned a blind eye to Bridger’s side gig.
Until July 7, 1847, that is.
On that date, the Mormon Pioneer Company made a stop at Fort Bridger. They were disgusted at the condition of the fort and even more disgusted with the exorbitant prices.
Despite the fort’s meagerness, a small group of the Mormons decided they liked the area enough to set up a settlement nearby. Or maybe they were just tired of traveling in covered wagons across an unforsaken land. That’d be my guess.
The Mormon settlers didn’t like Jim Bridger and his questionable business practices and Jim Bridger didn’t much like his new nosey neighbors. When tensions came to a head, the Mormons ratted out Bridger.
The president of the Mormon Church, Brigham Young, and the federal Indian agent for the region met to discuss the issue of Bridger’s illegal side hustle. The Mormons had their own army — who knew! — called the Mormon Militia, and Brigham Young offered to end Bridger’s arrangement with the Native Americans.
On Young’s order, the Mormon Militia marched on Fort Bridger in 1853. When they arrived, however, Jim Bridger was nowhere to be found. He was tipped off that they were coming, so he fled the region. But he still maintained his business interests at Fort Bridger, as we will see next.
Related read: Register Cliff: Where Pioneer Graffiti Becomes an Historic Time Capsule
6. There were dueling forts!
The Mormons and their militia didn’t attack Fort Bridger — at least not yet (teaser!). Instead, they opted to hit Jim Bridger where it would really hurt him the most: in his pocketbook.
They established their own fort and trading post, Fort Supply, just a dozen or so miles away from Fort Bridger and along the southern road out of the fort, the Mormon Trail. They claimed that Fort Supply was established solely to provide a stopping point and supplies for Mormon emigrants, but they didn’t turn others away.
Fort Supply was nicer and newer, better stocked, and offered fair prices. Who wouldn’t want to shop there? Apparently, word traveled faster than people along the Oregon Trail. Once word got out about Fort Supply, pioneers made it their favorite new hangout.
Business at Fort Bridger began to dry up.
Related read: 10 Wild West Facts of Everyday Life on the Frontier
7. Fort Bridger was seized by armed and angry Mormons.
The exiled Jim Bridger lodged a formal complaint with the U.S. government. In his statement to the government, Bridger stated that the Mormons robbed him of more than $100,000 worth of supplies and threatened his life.
U.S. Senator General B.F. Butler gave Brigham Young a stern talking to and, I can only guess, Young rolled his eyes the entire time. Young may have thought, if Bridger wants to be a crybaby, I’ll give him something to cry about.
With that, Brigham Young and his well-armed, well-trained Mormon Militia seized control of Fort Bridger in the spring of 1854. They also took control of the ferries that carried settlers across the Green River. They made a number of improvements, including the construction of a large stone wall to encircle Fort Bridger and new buildings.
Even though the Mormons were actively engaged in DIY projects at the fort, technically, Fort Bridger was still owned by Jim Bridger. Brigham Young reached out to Bridger via snail mail — the way all the cool kids communicated in the 1850s — and negotiated for the Mormons to purchase Fort Bridger.
Bridger seemed open to the idea so, in July 1855, he returned to Fort Bridger to hash out the deets. When he saw all the improvements that the Mormons had made, however, he changed his mind. He must have thought he was in one of those HGTV shows where the homeowners come back from vacay and their entire house has been remodeled.
It took several months of “persuasion,” but Bridger finally sold Fort Bridger to the Mormons. But it turns out, Jim Bridger wasn’t entirely to blame for the clashes with the Mormons. Brigham Young and the Mormons were equally abrasive and self-serving.
Related read: 7 Facts You May Not Know About the Conestoga Wagon
8. Fort Bridger was on the receiving end of spite.
Let’s pause for a moment to consider why there were forts placed at strategic points along the Oregon Trail in the first place. There were two types of forts in the Old West — ones built and maintained by the United States military, and ones established by non-government companies or individuals.
Fort Bridger, as you know, was the second kind. Although the forts were meant to protect American settlers traveling west and offer them a place to restock their supplies, Fort Bridger focused less on protection and more on profits. And it remained like that under Mormon control.
Brigham Young and the Mormons had their own way of thinking, including some ideas and practices that didn’t sit well with the federal government. The Mormons didn’t consider themselves part of the United States and therefore, didn’t abide by the federal courts, land and water rights regulations, and federal authority.
And the whole sister-wives polygamy thing ruffled some feathers. Since the U.S. can’t have rogue sects making their own rules, President James Buchanan sent the U.S. Army to the Utah Territory to set up federal offices and enforce federal laws — a move that didn’t sit well with Mormons. Then the government overreach went one step too far for the LDS folks.
Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston of the U.S. Army decided that Fort Bridger should be more of a military fort and less of a shopping center. He wanted to permanently house a unit of soldiers at the fort to, as he claimed, make sure settlers were safe, but the Mormons saw through this excuse.
They knew it was a ploy to keep on eye on them. As Col. Johnston and his troops marched toward Fort Bridger, the spiteful Mormons burned it to the ground. And Fort Supply, too. If we can’t have them, the Mormons thought, no one can. Col. Johnston and his men arrived to find a pile of ashes, no shelter, and no supplies.
The men were not happy campers that winter, shivering in the perpetual cold, with little food and few resources.
Related read: 7 Tantalizing Stories of Lost Treasure in Oregon
9. Thanks to good ol’ eminent domain, the government seized and rebuilt the fort.
The U.S. Army rebuilt Fort Bridger in the spring of 1858. In a totally bully move, the federal government refused to acknowledge the Mormons as the rightful owners of Fort Bridger.
To prove they were equal-opportunity bullies, they also refused to acknowledge Jim Bridger’s claim to the fort. Pretty much, they just took it. The government can do that if they want. It’s in the Constitution or something.
For the next several decades, the troops stationed there offered protection to pioneers and settlers, as well as to gold miners and prospectors, and to workers on the transcontinental railroad.
Fort Bridger, once again, served as a trading post for travelers passing through, but the U.S. Army didn’t handle the shopkeeping duties. Instead, they handed off this job to a man named William Alexander Carter.
Carter and his family had followed Col. Johnston’s soldiers to Fort Bridger as a sutler, which is a new word I just added to my vocabulary today. A sutler is a person who follows military units around and sells them stuff. I’m not sure how I will ever be able to work this word into an everyday conversation. You know, to impress my friends with my vast vocabulary.
Being a sutler, at least in the Old West, must have been a lucrative profession. William Alexander Carter ended up becoming the first millionaire of Wyoming. I should have majored in sutlery in college.
During the Civil War, units were stationed at Fort Bridger, which seems like a dumb idea since no Civil War battles were fought in Wyoming. When hostilities with Native Americans simmered down in the 1890s, Fort Bridger closed.
But, hey! It is now a much nicer place — an educational museum and historical site. You can visit it for yourself to see why Fort Bridger was the worst fort on the Oregon Trail.
Related read: Why Did People Move West in the 1800s?
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by Karen Harris
Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University. A wannabe world traveler, Karen spends her days writing and her nights researching cheap flights to far-off places.