Jim Bridger: Trailblazing Raconteur & Mountain Man of the West
Sitting around evening campfires, Jim Bridger, one of the Old West’s funniest trail guides, frontiersmen, trappers, and explorers, regaled greenhorns and pioneers with stories of his exploits and the oddities of nature he witnessed on his travels — mixed in with a hefty helping of his outlandish tall tales.
Bridger told of seeing a place where boiling hot water and steam exploded from the ground, shooting high in the air. He spoke of a creek that split into two smaller creeks, where the water in one creek flowed into the Pacific Ocean and the water in the other drained into the Atlantic Ocean.
He talked of a vast lake — far from any ocean — that held water that was so salty, no fish could swim there; he spoke of a mountain made of glass. One of his favorite yarns had to do with his exploration of a petrified forest where he deadpanned accounts of seeing petrified birds singing petrified songs.
Surely, his listeners thought, none of this can be true. Jim Bridger had a reputation for being a jokester and a teller of tall tales, so the folks entertained by his stories laughed and slapped their knees. That Jim Bridger was a clever one, they thought. Who would ever think of such preposterous tales?
What they didn’t know was that not all of his stories were as crazy as they seemed.
Sure, Bridger embellished many of the details to play to his audiences, as any good storyteller would do. But there were kernels of truth embedded in his tales that he based on things he witnessed himself.
Throughout his decades as one of the Old West’s most well-traveled mountain men, Jim Bridger saw a lot of interesting things. He was regarded as one of the most knowledgeable and trustworthy wilderness guides, though he wasn’t infallible. Let’s examine the extraordinary exploits of mountain man Jim Bridger, including his two most infamous mistakes.
Jim Bridger, Teen Orphan
The son of an innkeeper, James Felix Bridger was born on March 17, 1804 in Richmond, Virginia. When he was around eight years old, his family — parents Patrick and Chloe, and his younger brother — moved from Virginia to a farm outside St. Louis, at that time the edge of the western wilderness.
“For Bridger, a brown-haired lad whose eyes were ‘liquid hazel … bright, almost to blackness’, the move would change his life forever,” wrote Jerry Enzler in his book, Jim Bridger: Trailblazer of the American West.
Then tragedy struck: in the span of just two years, Jim Bridger’s mother, brother, and father all died. By 1817, the 13-year-old was orphaned and alone, with his extended family all back east.
Jim Bridger, who had never attended school and could not read or write, was soon apprenticed to a local blacksmith. He hated the work, but he hated his lack of freedom even more.
In The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, author Michael Punke recounted a story of a young Jim Bridger and a traveling preacher. “He asked Bridger if he knew God’s mission for him in life,” Punke wrote. “Without pause Bridger answered, ‘Go to the Rockies’.”
As soon as he turned 18, he left his apprenticeship. A buddy told him about an advertisement he saw in the Missouri Republican, a St. Louis-based newspaper, looking for young, strapping men to join General William Henry Ashley’s expedition to explore and trap along the upper Missouri River. This was the opportunity Bridger was looking for. He became one of Ashley’s Hundred, a notable band of early mountain men and trappers.
For the record, Jim Bridger never did learn to read or write. He remained illiterate his whole life. However, he had a knack for languages. He picked up enough Spanish and French to be able to hold conversations with other trappers, and learned to speak several Native American languages, which proved to be an invaluable asset during many of his expeditions.
Related read: 16 Iconic Landmarks on the Oregon Trail
Jim Bridger and Hugh Glass, Survivor Extraordinaire
Jim Bridger was barely 19 years old when he played a controversial role in one of the most amazing survival stories of the Old West.
As a member of the General Ashley’s Upper Missouri Expedition, Bridger — accounts of the day use the name “Bridges,” though there was no one with that last name in Ashley’s party, so the assumption is that Bridges and Bridger were the same person — and several other men had split off from the main group toward the Grand River. There, one of the men, Hugh Glass, was viciously mauled by a grizzly bear. The other men came to his aid and killed the bear, but Glass’s injuries were horrific.
The men in the party were certain that Glass would soon die from his wounds. Nonetheless, they made a makeshift stretcher and attempted to carry their dying companion back to Fort Kiowa, the closest outpost of civilization. That lasted about two days. Glass was heavy and needed constant care. He was slowing them down.
Andrew Henry, the leader of the group, made the decision to leave Glass behind. He was sure that it was only a matter of a few days before Glass would be dead. “And so the Major decided that two men must remain behind and care for Glass until he died — or was able to travel,” wrote Stanley Vestal in Jim Bridger, Mountain Man. “That meant, to everyone present, until he died. Nobody really expected him to recover.”
The two men left behind were John S. Fitzgerald, and a man later identified as “Bridges.” There is much debate about whether Jim Bridger was the mysterious “Bridges,” and it seems likely that he was. We know that Jim Bridger was part of this group at this time, and that there wasn’t another member with a similar name. We also know that when Glass finally made it back to civilization, he forgave “Bridges” because of his youth. Jim Bridger was just 19 years old during this incident.
Bridges and Fitzgerald passed the time waiting for Glass to die by digging his grave. They later claimed that a band of Arikara Indians attacked them. Fearing for their safety, the two men fled, taking Hugh Glass’s knife, rifle, and other equipment with them. Glass was left to die all alone and defenseless.
Only he didn’t die. Gravely wounded with infected injuries, a badly broken leg, and no weapons, Glass crawled 200 or so miles back to Fort Kiowa, arriving there six weeks later. If this story sounds vaguely familiar, it is because it was the basis for the 2015 film The Revenant, which earned actor Leonardo DiCaprio his first Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Hugh Glass.
As for Jim Bridger, if in fact he was Bridges, he learned a valuable lesson about never leaving a man behind.
Discovering the Wonders of the West
For the next few decades, Jim Bridger participated in numerous expeditions throughout the western frontier. In the area that is now Yellowstone National Park, he saw geysers shooting boiling water from the ground, Obsidian Cliff, which looks like a mountain made of glass, and petrified trees near Tower Falls — sans singing petrified birds.
And in Yellowstone’s Two Ocean Pass, there is a stream that splits in two over the Continental Divide so that half the water flows to the Atlantic Ocean and the other half to the Pacific Ocean, just as Jim Bridger said.
Jim Bridger is often considered the first known white man to lay eyes on the Great Salt Lake when he explored the region in the fall of 1824. Much later, in 1850, he discovered a route that shaved 61 miles off the Oregon Trail.
It was named Bridger Pass and soon became the favored path over the Continental Divide, used by the Pony Express, the Overland Stage, and the Union Pacific Railroad. Another route, which became known as the Bridger Trail, was established in 1864 to bypass the Bozeman Trail. The routes Bridger outlined helped to open up the West to settlement and paved the way for pioneers and settlers to the area.
During his time as a member of Ashley’s Hundred, Jim Bridger became friends with fellow trapper and mountain man Jedediah Smith. Smith went on to establish a fur trading company and Bridger, working as an independent trapper, often traded with his long-time friend.
In 1830, Bridger and a group of fellow trappers purchased the business and tried their hand as merchants. They named their organization the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Bridger’s timing was terrible: by the late 1830s, fashion had changed and the demand for fur plummeted. Besides, Bridger was not cut out to be a businessman. He much preferred spending his time in the wilderness.
Jim Bridger and the Donner Party
Jim Bridger gained such a reputation as a skilled explorer and mountain man that he was often consulted to give his expert advice to wagon trains heading west. He was always willing to look over the condition of the wagons and horses and discuss the best possible routes for the trail leaders.
In 1846, one of the groups that sought out Jim Bridger’s help was the Donner Party. The 87 members of the caravan stopped at Fort Bridger, an outpost established by Jim Bridger in 1843 along the Oregon Trail.
There, the leaders discussed the possibility of taking the shortcut that one of the leaders, Lansford Hastings, wanted to take. Both Jim Bridger and fellow mountain man Louis Vasquez assured the group that the proposed shortcut was about 40 miles long, waterless, and level.
In reality, the shortcut was none of these things. It was more than 80 miles long and riddled with obstacles. The “fine road” that Bridger described was so rough and rugged that the Donner Party moved at a snail’s pace.
They were so far behind schedule that the group became trapped in the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains without proper provisions. Of the 87 original members of the group, only about 45 people, mostly children, survived. The Donner Party was forced to make the impossible decision to cannibalize the dead in order to survive.
Related read: Daily Life on the Oregon Trail: What it Was Really Like
Jim Bridger’s Familial Legacy
Although he spent much of his life journeying through the untamed wilds of the American West, Jim Bridger married three times and fathered five children. All three of his wives were Native American women.
He married his first wife, a member of the Flathead people, in 1835. He called her “Emma” instead of her indigenous name. They had three children together before Emma died of a fever in 1846.
Bridger married again shortly after, though his second wife died in childbirth. Bridger’s third wife was Mary Washakie, the daughter of the Shoshone Chief Washakie. Their two children, along with his children from his first wife, were sent east, where they could be educated.
On November 29, 1847, Jim Bridger’s oldest daughter, Mary Ann, was kidnapped by the Cayuse people during the Whitman Massacre. She died not long after she was released. His two sons and another daughter, Josephine, all died when they were young adults. Only one child, a daughter named Virginia, lived a long life.
Jim Bridger also lived a long life for a man who dodged death in the wilderness throughout his adult life. By the time he reached his early sixties, Bridger’s eyesight was failing. He was completely blind by age 70 and totally dependent on his daughter, Virginia, to care for him.
On July 17, 1881, Jim Bridger died. He was 77 years old.
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Sources & Further Reading
OldWest.org strives to use accurate sources and references in its research, and to include materials from multiple viewpoints when possible.
- Alter, J. Cecil. Jim Bridger. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.
- Barbour, Barton H. Jedediah Smith: No Ordinary Mountain Man. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.
- Enzler, Jerry A. Jim Bridger: Trailblazer of the American West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2023.
- “Famous Guide.” The Montana Magazine of History 4, no. 3 (1954): 63–63. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4515951.
- Laycock, George. The Mountain Men: The Dramatic History And Lore Of The First Frontiersmen. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2016.
- Mayo, Matthew P. Cowboys, Mountain Men, and Grizzly Bears: Fifty Of The Grittiest Moments In The History Of The Wild West. Guilford, CT: TwoDot, 2009.
- McCullough, David G. The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2020.
- Myers, John Myers. The Saga of Hugh Glass: Pirate, Pawnee, and Mountain Man. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1976.
- Norman B. Wiltsey. “Jim Bridger, He-Coon of the Mountain Men.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 6, no. 1 (1956): 9–19. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4516050.
- Underwood, Lamar. The Greatest Mountain Men Stories Ever Told. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2018.
- Vestal, Stanley. Jim Bridger: Mountain Man: A Biography. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.
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.