Jim Bridger

March 17, 1804–July 17, 1881

James “Jim” Bridger (1804–1881) was a famous Mountain Man — trapper, frontiersman, and explorer — who is most well-known for his expeditions to the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone, and the establishment of Fort Bridger along the Oregon Trail.

Jim Bridger, Mountain Man, Scout, Portrait

Jim Bridger. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Jim Bridger Quick Facts

  • Full Name: His full name was James Felix Bridger.
  • Date of Birth: Bridger was born on March 17, 1804, in Richmond, Virginia.
  • Parents: His parents were Patrick and Chloe Bridger.
  • Date of Death: Bridger died at his home in Missouri on July 17, 1881.
  • Fun Fact: He is likely to have been the first American to see the Great Salt Lake — and he thought it was the Pacific Ocean.

Who was Jim Bridger?

James Bridger — more commonly known as Jim Bridger — was an American trapper, fur trader, and wilderness guide who played a significant role in the exploration and development of the American West in the 19th century. Bridger was renowned for his skill and success as a trapper and his ability to guide expeditions throughout America’s western frontier.

During his years on the frontier, Bridger was known for his ability to talk his way out of trouble and his friendly relations with Native Americans. He was described as tall and muscular by his contemporaries and was considered a shrewd, honest, and brave man. Although he had a reputation for being an exceptional mountain guide he was also known as an entertaining man who liked to laugh and tell “tall tales” about his adventures. Bridger’s stories painted a vivid picture of the West and inspired thousands of people to explore and migrate to the region.

Early Life

He was born in Richmond, Virginia on March 17, 1804, to James and Chloe Bridger. The family moved to Illinois while he was still young, and then to Missouri when he was 8. By the time he was 13, he was an orphan. He lost his mother, older brother, and father, leaving him and his sister as the only members of the family.

When he was 13, he became a blacksmith’s apprentice and quickly learned the skills necessary to survive on the frontier, including how to handle machinery, horses, and guns. At the age of 18, Bridger took a job operating a ferry and moved to St. Louis, where he found work as an apprentice at a blacksmith shop.

Ashley Expedition

In March 1822, when he was 18 years old, Bridger’s life changed forever when he saw an ad in a St. Louis newspaper. The ad had been placed by William H. Ashley, who was looking for men to join a trapping expedition, which would be led by his business partner, Major Andrew Henry

Bridger — who never learned to read or write — found out the details and applied to join. Ashley agreed to bring him on — along with other famous Mountain Men like James Clyman, Hugh Glass, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Jedediah Smith. Collectively, the men were known as “Ashley’s Hundred.”

Jedediah Smith, Mountain Man, Illustration
This illustration depicts Jedediah Smith. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The expedition — also known as the Upper Missouri Expedition — traveled up the Missouri River, trapping along its tributaries in the Rocky Mountains. Bridger was able to remember the geographical features of the territory and his quick study of Native American Indian languages made him a valuable asset on the Ashley Expedition and future expeditions.

During the expedition, Hugh Glass was attacked by a grizzly bear. Fearing he would never recover from his wounds, but not wanting to leave him alone in the wilderness, two men stayed with Glass while the rest of the expedition moved on. One of the men was John Fitzgerald, and Bridger may have been the other one. From there, the story is one of the great legends of the American Frontier. Believing Glass had died, the two men abandoned him. Glass miraculously recovered from his wounds and survived — alone and without food or guns — and crawled for 200 miles through the South Dakota wilderness to Fort Kiowa — fueled by the desire to have his revenge on the men who left him. However, after finding Bridger, Glass forgave him because he was so young. According to some accounts, Fitzgerald joined the army to escape retaliation. Others claim that Glass forgave Fitzgerald as well.

For the next 20 years, Bridger and other Mountain Men, including James Beckwourth, roamed throughout the western third of the United States, trapping for various fur companies and exploring the vast wilderness of the American West. His years of experience and the breadth of his knowledge proved invaluable. People sought him out for advice as they headed West, and he offered his expertise and advice on the various routes to California and Oregon.

Ashley's Hundred, Newspaper Ad, 1822
William H. Ashley’s newspaper ad. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Guide to the American West

Bridger’s career as a wilderness guide spanned from 1849 to 1868. He led various expeditions and survey parties, including:

  • Captain Howard Stansbury to the Great Salt Lake in 1849–1850.
  • Colonel Albert S. Johnston during the Utah War, also known as the “Mormon War.”
  • Captain William Raynolds to Yellowstone. 
  • He led Captain E.L. Berthoud and his survey party west from Denver through the mountains to Salt Lake City
  • He also guided various army units that were sent west to guard overland mail.

Between 1865 and 1868, he guided several expeditions and survey parties over the Bozeman Trail —  also known as the Powder River Trail.

Business Ventures

Bridger explored much of the territory in the West. He worked as an independent trapper for a time and, with a number of other trappers, was a partner in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Bridger usually participated in the annual Rendezvous and led the pack train to the 1840 Rendezvous. He eventually decided to settle down and in 1843, he set up a fort along the Blacks Fork of the Green River, in present-day Wyoming. The fort, known as Fort Bridger, became an important stopping point for travelers along many of the prominent trails to the West — the California Trail, the Mormon Trail, and the Oregon Trail.

Jim Bridger’s Three Wives

During his life, he was married three times — all to Native American women. They were from the Flathead, Shoshone, and Ute tribes. With his wives, Bridger had five children. He was a close friend of the Shoshone chief, Washakie, whose daughter he married.

Death of Jim Bridger

In 1868, he retired to his farm in Missouri, where he died on July 17, 1881.

What did Jim Bridger do?

Following the Ashley Expedition, Bridger and other mountain men roamed throughout the western third of the United States for 20 years, trapping for various fur companies and exploring the vast wilderness of the American West.

Jim Bridger Discovered the Great Salt Lake

One of Bridger’s most significant accomplishments was his discovery of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. He is often said to be one of the first Americans — if not the first American – known to have seen the Great Salt Lake. Although historians are unsure if Bridger was alone when he found it, many credit him with being the first person to report its existence. His discovery of the Great Salt Lake helped to open up the American West to further exploration and development.

The Great Salt Lake of Utah, Moran
This illustration depicts the Great Salt Lake. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

He was a Partner in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company

Bridger is also known for his contributions to the American fur trade. He worked for some time as an independent trapper, and trapped with Robert Campbell in 1829. In 1830, Bridger became one of five partners in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, but by the early 1840s, the company was struggling due to the reduction of the population of beaver, otter, bear, and muskrat, along with competition from the Hudson’s Bay Company and the American Fur Company, which was owned by John Jacob Astor. When the fur trade declined, Bridger and many of the Mountain Men served as guides for westward expeditions of explorers and immigrants.

Bridger’s Pass

During the Stansbury Expedition, Bridger found a shortcut that shortened the Oregon Trail by about 60 miles. The new route, known as “Bridger’s Pass” was used by the Overland Stage Coach, the Pony Express, and the Union Pacific Railroad — all of which played a key role in the westward expansion of the United States and the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny.

Bridger’s Trail

He also found a safer route from Wyoming to the goldfields in Montana, which came to be known as “Bridger’s Trail.”

He Established Fort Bridger

One of his greatest achievements was the establishment of Fort Bridger in 1842, with a partner, Louis Vasquez. It was a crucial resupply point and rest stop on the Oregon and California trails, a military fort, and a Pony Express station. In 1853, however, the Mormons drove Bridger and his partner away and confiscated their property, claiming that they had provided guns and anti-Mormon information to the Native Americans.

Fort Bridger, Black's Fork of Green River, Illustration
Illustration of Fort Bridger. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Jim Bridger and the Donner Party

Despite his excellent knowledge of the West and the trails that crossed it, Bridger’s legacy is not without controversy. In 1846, a group of settlers led by George Donner, Jacob Donner, and James Reed, arrived at Fort Bridger. 

They were migrating by Wagon Train from the Midwest to California and wanted to take a  shortcut known as the “Hastings Cutoff” that had not been explored. They asked Bridger and one of his partners, Louis Vasquez, if they should attempt it, and they said they believed they could make it through. However, others at the fort disagreed and told the Donner Party to follow the established routes.

The Donner Party proceeded through the shortcut — which added 30 days to their trip. It cost them valuable supplies, including food and water. They were unable to make it out of the mountains before the snow fell and covered the path they needed to follow. Forced to endure the brutal winter, they were exposed to the cold weather. They suffered from frostbite, starvation, and malnutrition. Only 45 of the 81 members survived — and 32 of them were children.

Bridger’s Tall Tales About Yellowstone

One of Bridger’s famous tall tales was that of his discovery of Yellowstone. He was one of the first Americans to witness the natural wonders of the region, but the stories he told about it often stretched the truth. 

He described a petrified forest in Yellowstone with “petrified birds that sang petrified songs.” 

He also spoke about hunting an elk, who he believed was within the range of his rifle. He fired several shots, but the elk did not move. As he moved closer, he ran into a “mountain of clear glass.” The mountain was acting as a lens, which made the elk appear much closer than it really was. Bridger’s glass mountain is likely present-day Obsidian Cliff.

Despite his exaggerations, Bridger’s stories of Yellowstone captured the imaginations of many and helped to draw attention to the region. 

While known for his tall tales, Bridger’s descriptions of Yellowstone helped to create a vivid picture of the region and sparked the interest of many, leading to its eventual exploration and development.

Head of Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park, Moran
This 1876 illustration by Thomas Moran depicts the Head of Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Significance of Jim Bridger

Jim Bridger is important because of his contributions to the exploration and settlement of the American West and the nation’s fulfillment of Manifest Destiny. His legacy and achievements as a frontiersman, guide, and Mountain Man are undeniable. His knowledge of the region was vital to people traveling the California, Mormon, and Oregon Trails, as was the establishment of Fort Bridger. He was one of the first Americans to see the Great Salt Lake and Yellowstone, and he was friends with famous Mountain Men and explorers such as Jedediah Smith, John C. Frémont, and Kit Carson. Bridger’s legacy lives on through various landmarks and places that bear his name, including Fort Bridger, Bridger-Teton National Forest, and Bridger Wilderness.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Jim Bridger
  • Date March 17, 1804–July 17, 1881
  • Author
  • Keywords Jim Bridger, Mountain Man, Ashley’s Hundred, Hugh Glass, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jedediah Smith, Rocky Mountain Fur Company, Bridger's Pass, Bridger's Trail, Fort Bridger
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 12, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 25, 2024