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Is Jim Bridger Responsible for What Happened to the Donner Party?

Was Jim Bridger the young man who abandoned Hugh Glass? Did he get along with Brigham Young? Biographer Jerry Enzler has the answers.

Jim Bridger is one of the most influential figures in the history of the American West. A new biography by Jerry Enzler sheds light on key events from Bridger’s life, including the mountain man’s interactions with Brigham Young and his role (or lack thereof) in the Donner Party’s demise. Enzler even tries to tell truth from fiction by examining the legend of Hugh Glass and the bear recounted in The Revenant.


Read Jerry Enzler’s biography of Jim Bridger published by the University of Oklahoma Press.


Table of contents


Who is Jim Bridger’s biographer, Jerry Enzler?

When I was a young man volunteering as a full-time teacher, I saw the film, Jeremiah Johnson. I was so impressed I went to the library to learn more. I couldn’t find Jeremiah Johnson there, but I found boundless praise for a man named Jim Bridger.

How could this unique figure of the West have escaped my attention? The more I read, the more I was compelled to research and write his story.

Bridger’s partner, Louis Vasquez, had a tendency to promote routes that went by way of Fort Bridger. Vasquez failed to give a letter of warning from previous travelers to the Donner party. But the Donner Party’s slow-moving wagon train was its own worst enemy.

But books aren’t completed overnight, and I persuaded the board of the Dubuque County (Iowa) Historical Society to hire me as its first full-time employee. Eventually I became the founding director of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, a 14-acre Smithsonian-affiliated museum.

It was a writer’s heaven. At work, I developed and wrote exhibit scripts and museum films and raised money. On weekends, I researched and wrote about Jim Bridger.

The museum continued to grow and demanded most of my attention. But I kept working on Bridger. Over the years, I benefited from the advice and encouragement of Steven Ambrose, John Barry, Doug Brinkley, William H. Goetzmann, Bob Utley, and others.

I completed the manuscript in 2020.

The book cover for a new biography of Jim Bridger
Historian Jay H. Buckley calls Jerry Enzler’s biography of Jim Bridger “the most reliable, and most comprehensive biography of this western trailblazer.”


How is ‘Trailblazer of the American West’ different now than it would’ve been if written at the beginning of your career?

If I had completed the manuscript in the 1980s it would have been sorely lacking in new content. Over the recent decades, archives have digitized their finding aids, enabling me to locate information about Jim Bridger in over eighty collections in repositories across the country.

I was also able to consult hundreds of books and articles published in the past fifty years. These were not available when the previous Jim Bridger biography was written a half-century ago.


Did Jim Bridger leave any personal accounts of his life? How did a lack of biographical source material affect your approach to the book?

Jim Bridger did not keep a diary or journal, and there are less than ten letters written by him (through a scribe). This was a significant challenge, but I was able to overcome it by finding a large number of accounts and letters by others that describe Bridger and his adventures.

By the time Jim Bridger was twenty-six, he was a leader of the trappers and traders, and many trappers and travelers described him in their journals or memoirs.

Travelers on the Oregon and California trails regularly described him at Fort Bridger from 1841 to 1853. Bridger was chief guide for a dozen important mapping, science, and army expeditions from 1849 to 1868. Members of these expeditions kept journals which record Bridger’s actions and his descriptions of his past.


What are some new details never before published in a Jim Bridger biography?

New details in this Jim Bridger biography include Bridger apprenticing to an Illinois gunsmith instead of a St. Louis blacksmith, living and working adjacent to the Potawatomis near Peoria when he was twelve and thirteen, and traveling up the Missouri in 1822 as part of the boat party (not the land party).

It documents that Eagle Ribs was the one who hit Jim Bridger with a rifle—and Eagle Rib’s men who shot Bridger with two arrows. It also introduces a new account of the dramatic removal of the second arrowhead from Bridger’s back.

A picture of Jim Bridger's rifle from the Museum of the Mountain Man
A 40-caliber half-stock rifle presented to Jim Bridger by Louis Vasquez in 1853. Credit: Museum of the Mountain Man

The book describes Jim Bridger’s rivalry with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in the 1840s and HBC’s attempt to hire Bridger. It reveals new trading ventures not previously described including Bridger’s trip to the Coyoterra county near the Sea of Cortez. It also reveals Jim Bridger’s frustration when Captain Howard Stansbury would not listen to him when he guided them across the Wasatch mountains in 1849.

Recently accessed territorial records reveal more detail describing how Brigham Young, the federal judge, and the territorial posse planned to arrest Bridger on the charge of treason against the United States.

Jim Bridger goes to Washington to protest in 1854 and almost dies of pneumonia on board a Missouri river steamboat the next year. In 1855, Bridger and Vasquez have no choice but to sell their fort to the Latter-day Saints.

Bridger guides scientists G. K. Warren and Ferdinand Haden on the Lower Yellowstone in 1856. New research on the Utah War of 1857-1858 enlightens the story. There are also more details about Bridger guiding several other expeditions, the blazing of the Bridger Trail and Bridger’s license to operate Bridger’s Ferry across the Platte near Casper and the Bighorn River and another ferry at Fort C. F. Smith.

General Grenville Dodge insists that Jim Bridger guide the army along the Bozeman Trail. Bridger is valued so highly by the Crows that they will not join the warring Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos.

The book closes with new information about Bridger’s final years and documents that Bridger was one of the original figures proposed for Mount Rushmore.


What was Jim Bridger’s sense of humor like?

This book reveals some new humor of Jim Bridger. For example, Bridger was guiding several topographers and scientists between 1857 and 1860, and he often told them how the Yellowstone region resembled “hell bubbling over.”

During that time, Jim Bridger “hunted and tented’ with a young James Stevenson who later became a Smithsonian Ethnologist. On arising one morning, Bridger said to Stevenson,

“Jimmy, what in the devil is the matter with you, boy? Your face has got a young geyser on it.”

Stevenson was amused and replied, “O Mr Bridger, it’s only a boil.” Bridger then joked, “No, that’s not it. You’re rotten, you beast you.”

Another time a storm was imminent. Lightning flashed—and the thunder was especially loud. Jim Bridger cast his eyes around the horizon a moment and commented to Stevenson, “Jimmy listen! Old Billy God and Jesus is talkin; Hell will come along after while.”

One of Jim Bridger’s favorite jokes

A classic tale by Jim Bridger:

I was riding alone and six Sioux came bearing down on me. I spurred my horse and escaped all but one of them. We wus nearin’ the edge of a steep and wide gorge. No horse could leap over that awful chasm and a fall to the bottom meant certain death.

I turned my horse and the Injun was upon me. We both fired at once, and both horses wus killed.

We now engaged in a hand-to-hand conflict with butcher knives. He wus a powerful Injun—tallest I ever see. It wus a long and fierce struggle. One moment I have the best of it, and the next the odds was agin me.”

Bridger pauses as if to catch his breath and one of the eager listeners asks, “How did it end?”

Bridger replies with slow deliberation, “The Injun killed me.”


Was Jim Bridger the young man who deserted Hugh Glass after the infamous bear attack?

The identity of the brave youth who volunteered to stay with Hugh Glass is still unknown. James Clyman, Black Harris, and George Yount, all trappers of the era, did not mention Jim Bridger when they spoke or wrote of the incident, nor did Philip St. George Cooke’s informant.

But in 1839, an aspiring writer looking for stories, Edmund Flagg, wrote an error-filled account which claimed that the volunteering 17-year-old was named “Bridges.”

The volunteer could have been one of the several young “Bridges” in Missouri at that time.

Flagg’s errors include:

  • The time and manner of the keelboats ascending the Missouri;
  • The location of Glass’s bear encounter;
  • The men donating $300 as a reward purse (instead of Henry paying $40 or $80);
  • The location of the fort where Glass rejoined the trappers;
  • The auctioning of Glass’s rifle to the highest bidder.
  • The statement that the entire party carried Glass for two days, then left Glass and the two caretakers when they were only one day’s journey from Fort Henry

Jim Bridger’s only statement about Hugh Glass and the bear attack

This book reveals Bridger’s only statement on the matter.

Sometime between 1856 and 1860, Jim Bridger talked about Hugh Glass with James Stevenson, who wrote from his office at the Smithsonian in 1886 to an inquirer:

“Bridger told me the story of your Glass; but there was no desertion [by Bridger].”

James Stevenson

Did Jim Bridger have a positive relationship with indigenous peoples?

When eighteen-year-old Jim Bridger and the other trappers in the Henry & Ashley company went up the Missouri in 1822, they were trespassing on lands claimed by the Blackfeet. The Blackfeet resented Americans coming into their land and trapping beaver that they wanted to trade to Hudson’s Bay Company.

In contrast, Bridger and his fellow trappers and traders were generally welcomed in the lands claimed by the Shoshones, Crows, Flatheads, and Nez Perces because of the goods they brought to trade. The mountain men often wintered with these indigenous peoples for trade and mutual defense.

Jim Bridger lived adjacent to the Potawatomis when he was young and later married a Flathead woman. When she died, Bridger married a Ute woman, and upon her death he married a Shoshone woman. He had seven children, all mixed-race, and he supported them and their schooling

Bridger was more friendly to indigenous peoples than many of the mountain men. As an example, in 1838 Bridger and his trappers came across a trail of a Blackfeet village suffering from smallpox. Free trappers Kit Carson, Joe Meek, Osborne Russell, and others who were not under Bridger’s command wanted to attack the Blackfeet in retaliation for past skirmishes. Bridger refused to participate and ordered all of his men to refuse as well. Carson and the others did not think like Bridger; they attacked the Blackfeet and killed fifteen of them.


Did Jim Bridger encourage the Donner Party to delay their already-late departure from Fort Bridger?

Jim Bridger did not encourage the Donner Party to delay its journey. James Reed talked with Bridger about the Hasting route, but only used fifteen words from Bridger in his often-quoted letter of July 31. Bridger said more than those fifteen words; he would have given Reed an extensive description of what challenges they would encounter.

Bridger’s partner, Louis Vasquez, had a tendency to promote routes that went by way of Fort Bridger. Vasquez failed to give a letter of warning from previous travelers to the Donner party. But the Donner Party’s slow-moving wagon train was its own worst enemy.

By the time they left Fort Bridger, the Donner party was eleven days behind. They continued to fall behind as they crossed the Wasatch range. Then the party unwisely rested for five days at Truckee Meadows before attempting the crossing of the Sierra Nevada. They were only one day away from crossing safely, and their many days of rest was their fatal flaw.


What happened to Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, and what was the connection to Jim Bridger?

In 1841 Jim and Cora Bridger (a Flathead woman) sent their six-year-old child, Mary Ann, to stay with Marcus and Narcissa Whitman at their mission near present day Walla Walla, Washington, for her safety and for schooling. Trapper Joe Meek also sent his daughter, Helen Mar.

Six years later, in November, 1847, several Cayuses attacked the Whitman mission, killing fourteen people at the mission. Helen Mar Meek, who was suffering from measles, died shortly thereafter.

Mary Ann Bridger died several months later from illness contracted while escaping another attack.


Why was Jim Bridger determined to establish the Bridger Trail as a safe route to Montana gold mines—and why was he unsuccessful?

In 1864, John Bozeman promoted a trail to the gold mines in Virginia City and Bannack in Montana Territory. It went through Powder River country east of the Bighorn Mountains through lands claimed by the Lakotas, Cheyennes and Arapahos.

Jim Bridger knew this might lead to war. He showed the miners an alternate route through Crow country west of the Bighorn Mountains which became known as the Bridger Trail.

About 2,500 people took the Bridger Trail in 1864, compared to 1,500 on the Bozeman Trail. The Lakotas stopped miners on the Bozeman Trail, telling them to turn around and go “by the Blanket Road” (the Blanket Chief was Bridger’s Crow name).

But eventually gold seekers eager to get to the Montana gold mines wanted to travel on the more verdant Bozeman Trial. They wanted gold, “the yellow metal that [whites] worship and that drives them crazy.”

The Civil War had created an unprecedented $2.76 billion in national debt, and Washington was desperate for gold to shore up the treasury. Montana gold would back the newly printed federal paper currency, called greenbacks because of the color of the ink on the back of the bills.

Against Bridger’s warning, the U.S. Army built three forts along the Bozeman Trail in 1865 and 1866. This led to bloody war with Red Cloud and his alliance of Lakotas, Cheyennes, and Arapahos and astounding financial costs.


Why did the U.S. Army so frequently disregard Jim Bridger’s counsel (to disastrous results)?

One soldier summarized it succinctly:

James Bridger was with us all the summer of 1866 up until late in the fall. If Colonel Carrington and the officers had followed the advice of Bridger I do not think there would have been nearly as many of our men killed. He told the officers not to follow the Indians and to send more men on escort duty, but they thought he was old and did not know anything about Indian warfare.


How challenging do you think it was for Jim Bridger to spend the last decade of his life outside of the West?

In 1868, when Bridger was sixty-four, he retired to his home in Westport Missouri adjacent to Kansas City. He missed the West but was able to live with his family.

In 1872, the United States established Yellowstone National park, the first national park in the world, and Bridger would have been pleased. In 1856, The Kansas City Journal had prepared an article about Bridger’s Yellowstone but did not print it for fear they would have been laughed out of town for believing “Old Jim Bridger’s lies.” In 1879, the paper printed a public apology to Bridger for not believing him in 1856.

In 1874 famed photographer and artist William Henry Jackson drew a charcoal sketch of Bridger based on an 1857 photograph taken in St. Louis. This portrait of Jim Bridger was exhibited at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and is now in the Smithsonian.

A description of Jim Bridger as an old man

Bridger suffered from injuries from being thrown from his saddle and his eyesight started to diminish. In a little-known account, neighbor Charles Harrington remembered:

“Daughter Jennie (Virginia) keeps house for him,” his daughter Mary Elizabeth “visits her father’s room several times each night to make sure he is covered up and comfortable,” and his son William “resides on his portion of the farm.”

Bridger “frequently visits the little town of Santa Fe” and “feels his way with a heavy staff with a club on the end.” Visitors “come from far and near to hear him spin his wonderful yarns about the West and the events of his thrilling life. . . . He can still out talk any seven men. . . . He is as anxious to live West as ever, and declares he would not stay East a day if he could only have the use of his eyes.”

In his final years, Jim Bridger would frequently sit on his veranda, resting his chin on his cane with his face toward the West. He would often say, “I wish I was back there among the mountains again. You can see so much farther in that country.”


If Jerry Enzler could go back in time and observe any event in Jim Bridger’s life, what would it be?

I would like to observe Jim Bridger at the 1837 rendezvous at the junction of Horse Creek and Green River near Pinedale, Wyoming. Bridger helps the Nez Peirce hold onto their horses in the face of thirty attacking Bannocks.

Rendezvous 1837 by Alfred Jacob Miller.
Rendezvous 1837 by Alfred Jacob Miller. Bridger is in the left foreground wearing a steel helmet and cuirass given to him by William Stewart. Credit: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Thomas Fitzpatrick arrives with the supply caravan, and William Stewart is there with a helmet and cuirass brought especially from Europe as a gift to Jim Bridger.

Stewart gives a grand banquet. Bridger sits, or rather squats “in Oriental fashion, one of the most remarkable men of this remarkable assemblage.”

Alfred Jacob Miller is there, the first trained artist to attend a rendezvous, and he sketches the grand drama of the trappers, traders, Indians, horses, and mountains. He draws two sketches of Bridger in armor.

At this grand annual celebration of friendship and survival. I would ask Bridger what he intended to do with the rest of his life.

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By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

2 replies on “Is Jim Bridger Responsible for What Happened to the Donner Party?”

I am not aware of any existing grave sites along the Bridger Trail. According to my reading of The Bridger Trail by James Lowe, no one died on the Bridger Trail in 1864. Six people died on the Bozeman Trail in 1864. The two trails joined together as they proceeded west, and two people turned back alone and were killed near present-day Livingston, Montana.

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