Mountain Man Monday: Jim Bridger

I recently found out about mountain men while watching Inglourious Basterds. Lt. Aldo Raine is a “direct descendant of the mountain man Jim Bridger.” I did a little research, and now I’m starting  a series called “Mountain Man Monday.”

So, what did Jim Bridger do, and what can we aspiring outdoorsmen learn from his work?

Jim Bridger, Mountain Man

Bridger began his career as a man of the mount when he responded to, what is in my opinion, a pretty awesome offer:

To Enterprising young men: The Subscriber wishes to engage One Hundred men to ascend the River Missouri to its source…

This turned out to be the first fur trapping expedition to the Rocky Mountains (the range stretching from New Mexico and Colorado to Canada). Fur trapping was the trade du jour for the mountain man of the time. Men would move into the mountains in the spring, trap for pelts (mostly beaver), and sell their wares in the fall. Most worked in groups for companies, but a few self-made men would trade as free agents, negotiating their own prices.

Of course, trapping was not as easy as walking out, stepping on a beaver pelt, and taking it to the store. There was the matter of the natives. However, Bridger had quite the way with them; he was able to trade with some and avoid the others.

Not everyone was appreciative of Bridger; Hugh Glass, who crawled back to civilization after being mauled by a bear, was left to die by Bridger, who thought his wounds too severe (and his equipment too tempting). The Mormons did not care too much for Bridger either. Later in his life, after being muscled out of the trading post business by Mormons, Bridger returned to Utah leading U.S. forces during the Mormon war of 1858.

Despite not having many Mormon buddies, Bridger’s life did have its high points. He was one of the first white men to see the geysers at Yellowstone and the Great Salt Lake. His discovery of the lake was the result of a bet he made. During the winter. Let that sink in. Bridger also did some trailblazing, hacking 61 miles off of the Oregon Trail via “Bridger’s Pass.” After quitting the beaver pelt trade, he made a living guiding U.S. army topographers through western North America.

File:Steam Phase eruption of Castle geyser with double rainbow.jpg

I bet no one believed Bridger when he described this beauty . (Note the double rainbow)

Most importantly, in my opinion, Bridger was an artisan when it came to tall tales. He would tell stories about glass mountains, petrified forests, petrified birds singing petrified songs, and even the geysers he encountered in Yellowstone. One of his favorites was a tale of his flight from the Cheyenne natives (100 of them, to be exact). Although he gave chase for miles, Bridger would describe how he was cornered in a box canyon, with the Cheyenne warriors closing in on him. Here he would go silent, waiting for a listener to ask “What happened next?!”

“They killed me.” was his reply.

What wisdom can we salvage from the life of Jim Bridger?

  1. Never leave your friend to die after a bear mauling. He may just crawl back to town demanding vengeance.
  2. Know how to tell a story. More importantly, know where to stop talking, so as to create suspense.
  3. Have an entrepreneurial spirit. Invest in many ventures. Be ready to shift from one to the next.
  4. Know how to embellish when telling stories. Tall tales are fun!
  5. Be adventurous. Go explore. Get lost. You just may find yourself among some natural wonder, waiting for you to behold it.
  6. …I’m not sure about the Mormon stuff. There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere about Mormons and such, but I’m not seeing it.



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