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19th Century American History American West Biography Famous Americans Latter-day Saint History

The Mountain Man and the Prophet: Jim Bridger, Brigham Young, and a Storied History

Jerry Enzler’s Jim Bridger biography reveals new details about the mountain man’s history with Brigham Young.

Few men are as important to the history of the American West as Jim Bridger and Brigham Young. Jerry Enzler reveals never-before-known details about their influential relationship drawn from his biography, Jim Bridger: Trailblazer of the American West.

What kinds of research materials did Jerry Enzler have access to while researching the role of Brigham Young in Jim Bridger’s life?

I found significant new information in the Utah Territorial Militia Records at the Utah State Archives and Records Service. I also utilized revealing documents in the District Court and Case Files at the Utah State Archives and Records Service. Additionally I found valuable unpublished records at the Utah State Historical Society.

I consulted several published records including: Territory of Utah, Acts, Resolutions, and Memorials, First and Second Annual Session; “The Utah Expedition,” Executive Documents, U. S. House of Representatives, 1857–58; and Journal of Discourses. I also benefitted from recent scholarship by Will Bagley, David Bigler, William MacKinnon, Ronald Walker, Richard Turley, and Glen Leonard, as well as the work of Fred Gowans and Eugene Campbell.

The Archives Division of the Church Historical Department provided important records related to Jim Bridger, even loaning me a take-home Study Copy of documents and correspondence.

Trailblazer of the American West reveals some never-before-seen challenges between Jim Bridger and the Utah Territorial leadership. Could you share some of the highlights?

It was difficult for the free-spirited Jim Bridger to acclimate to the legislative authority of the Utah Territory. For example, authorities in Salt Lake City passed an act requiring that brands on livestock be reversed when sold to show that the livestock were not stolen. In 1852 four men purchased horses at Fort Bridger without the brand reversed, and when they arrived in Salt Lake City, territorial officials confiscated their horses.

This delayed their journey to the California gold mines, and their only recourse was to sue Bridger and Vasquez for damages, claiming $35,000 for four horses. Court arbitrators reduced the sum to $904, but that was still approximately three times what the horses were worth.

There’s a lot more too. See below for 10 new findings from my biography.

Describe the only recorded meeting of Jim Bridger and Brigham Young.

Jim Bridger met Brigham Young on June 28, 1847 near the mouth of the Little Sandy in present-day Wyoming. Bridger and two of his men were riding east to Fort Laramie, and Brigham Young was leading a pioneer group of 143 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seeking a new home near Great Salt Lake. They agreed to camp together that evening.

Jim Bridger gave them a lengthy description of the lands ahead as well as his recent trip to California. Young and other members of the Church had been studying Frémont maps and journals, and Bridger pointed out that Frémont was in error when he depicted Great Salt Lake connected to Utah Lake as one continuous body.

Several Latter-day Saints recorded Jim Bridger’s extensive description of the Great Basin and surrounding area. Bridger told them that the Indians south of Utah Lake grow corn, wheat, and other grains in abundance.

Wilford Woodruff on Jim Bridger

Wilford Woodruff, a future president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, found Jim Bridger to be “a great traveler, possessing extensive knowledge of . . . mountains, lakes, rivers, springs, valleys, mines, etc.”

Not all Latter-day Saint pioneers admired Jim Bridger

But a few of the pioneers were upset that Jim Bridger’s descriptions differed from information that Black Harris had given them the day before. Some even said Jim Bridger was not “a man of truth” and spoke without even knowing of the lands he described.

Brigham Young and Jim Bridger bid farewell

As they parted the next morning, Jim Bridger invited Young to stop at Fort Bridger on their way. Brigham Young wrote Bridger a pass to ride the ferry that the Latter-day Saints had set up to cross the Little Sandy. Young also wrote of his interest in hiring Jim Bridger to guide them through to Salt Lake to “take them to a place that would suit us.”

But Jim Bridger did not return in time to guide the Latter-day Saints.

Did Jim Bridger tell Latter-day Saints that he’d give them $1,000 for each bushel of corn grown in the Salt Lake Valley?

That’s a common myth, but it’s not what the mountain man said. Jim Bridger warned that “it would not be prudent to bring a great population to the basin until they ascertain whether a grain would grow or not.” He said, “I would give one thousand dollars if I knew an ear of corn could be ripened in these mountains.”

Brigham Young often gave Jim Bridger’s statement correctly. But at least one time Young mistakenly quoted Bridger saying he would give a thousand dollars for every bushel they could raise in the valley.

Where did Jim Bridger tell Brigham Young that a promised land could be found?

Jim Bridger spoke highly of the Great Basin, calling it a “Paradise.” He said, “If these people settled in it he would settle with them . . . [except he worried that] the frost might affect the corn.”

Bridger also recommended Bear River Valley and the county around Utah Lake.

How did Jim Bridger respond when learning that Brigham Young’s perception had changed?

About one year after their meeting at the Little Sandy, Jim Bridger heard that Brigham Young was upset with him. In July 1848, Bridger wrote a letter through a scribe to “The President of the Salt Lake Valley”:

“I am truly sorry that you should believe any reports about me having said that I would bring any Indians or any number of Indians upon you or any of your Comunity. Such a thought never enter my head and I trust to your knowledge and good sense to know that if a person is desirous of living a good friendship with his neighbors [he] would [not] undertake such a mad project. . . .

“Believe Mr President I am desirous of maintaining an amicable friendship with the people in the valley and should you want a favour at my hand at any time I shall always think myself happy in doing it for you. From your Friend and well wisher James Bridger.”

Do we know why Brigham Young continued to be suspicious of Jim Bridger?

Brigham Young was an amazing community builder who was also known for frank language. Evidence has not been found to support Young’s comments, and perhaps his statements about Jim Bridger were part an effort to energize his people.

In December 1848, Young wrote to Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez stating that he was open to advice from them. So, in April 1849, Vasquez wrote to Young warning that the Indians “are badly disposed toward the Whites” because they had killed some of the Utes toward Taos.

Vasquez then wrote, “To mind the matter, you [the Latter-day Saints] have killed four [Utes] this Spring. Last October, Mr. Bridger was at the Uinta for the purpose of staying the winter with them. Their conduct alarmed him so that he had to return to this place [Fort Bridger] to winter.”

In May, 1849, Vasquez warned Young that the Bannocks were upset about a murder and stolen horses and intended to cross the mountains to Great Salt Lake. He urged Young to do what was necessary for the safety of his people.

After Vasquez’s letter was read aloud at council, Young surprisingly said:

“I believe I know that Old Bridger is death on us, and if he knew 400,000 Indians were coming against us, and any man were to let us know, he would cut his throat. . . . I believe Bridger is watching every movement of the Mormons, and reporting to [Senator] Thomas Benton at Washington. . . It is a backhanded man [Bridger] that can’t be understood. That letter is all bubble and froth.”

Brigham Young

How, when, and why did Brigham Young direct the Latter-day Saint takeover of Fort Bridger?

In 1853 Ute strongman Walkara led a series of attacks on southern Church settlements. Brigham Young revoked all licenses to trade with Indians, and he also revoked Tavern Keeper licenses that had been granted for Fort Bridger and Green River for the accommodation of travelers.

Jim Bridger was no supporter of Ute Indian treachery. Yet Judge Leonidas Shaver issued a writ for his arrest on August 17, 1853, charging that Jim Bridger, “on the 1st day of August 1853 unlawfully aided and abetted the Ute Indians, and supplied them with arms and ammunition for the purpose of committing depredation upon and making war on the citizens of the United States.” It was a charge of treason.

Jim Bridger may have sold arms and ammunition to the Utes. And maybe he did not.

Historian Fred Gowans writes of “Brigham Young’s growing desire to control the Fort Bridger–Green River area” stating “Some of the Mormons were not content to see this lucrative business go to the enrichment of the mountain men.”

James Ferguson and his posse arrived at Fort Bridger, but Bridger was not there and had escaped arrest. Some of the posse rode on to the Green River ferries, and Bill Hickman, one of the posse, remembered they killed two or three of the mountaineers and confiscated property, livestock, and whiskey, again destroying it “in small doses.”

The posse returned to Salt Lake City, reporting that “Bridger was either gone for good or, if he returned, his influence would be diminished.”

With Bridger gone, the Church tried to occupy Fort Bridger. But angry mountaineers resisted the takeover, so instead the Church established Fort Supply about twelve miles southwest.

10 new findings about Fort Bridger and Latter-day Saints pioneers

To the best of my knowledge, these 10 research findings about Jim Bridger and Brigham Young have not been previously published or have only recently been published by colleagues:

1. Bridger strangely found himself on the side of the Church in opposition to the mountain men

Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez had operated ferries across Green River for some time. In 1853, the Territory of Utah legislature granted an exclusive three-year charter for Green River ferries to Daniel Wells, who sold the rights to Hawley, Thompson, and MacDonald. Hawley and Company realized they had little chance of successful operations unless Bridger and Vasquez were associated with the effort.

In May 1853, the new company insisted that Bridger and Vasquez pay all the expenses to run their two ferries and turn over 60% of their receipts – 50% to Harley and Company and 10% to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund to help the Church grow.

On June 16, 1853, James Ferguson represented the new partnership of Bridger Hawley Thomson & Co. in a suit for $20,000 against the mountain men.

Bridger, knowingly or unknowingly, was now part of a civil suit on the side of Church members against the mountaineers.

Sheriff Lewis Robison took possession of the mountain men’s boat and fixtures at Green River on June 30. Fifty mountaineers raised their rifles in protest, and Robison reported “The law cannot be executed . . . without an armed force. . . . There appeared to be a determined resolution to resist the laws, and they expressed themselves that they did not care a damn for any laws.”

The court ultimately decided in favor of Bridger Hawley Thompson & Co in the amount of $13,500 plus $112.75 in costs, but little of that was collected.

2. Brigham Young was the master planner for the “Ft. Bridger and Green River Expedition”

Brigham Young specifically instructed James Ferguson to “raise fifty men fully equipped for service with rations for twenty days.” Young signed his order as “Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs and Commander in Chief of the Militia.”

3. James Ferguson sought direction from Brigham Young

Now in control of the fort, Ferguson reported to Young, “There are here some 4 or 500 head of Bridger’s stock together with some few dry goods. You have marked out our course in regard to the contraband stores. What should we do with the rest? and what with the fort?”

4. A pioneer posse set a trap for Jim Bridger

William Kimball suggested that the posse set a trap for Bridger by making it look as if they had gone back to Salt Lake City. Young agreed and instructed Ferguson and Kimball to:

“leave Bridger property undisturbed . . . at Bridger and Green River. It is more than probable that Mr Bridger will return and We May have a good chance to get him by throwing him off his guard.”

Brigham Young

But Jim Bridger was not easily decoyed, and the posse never captured him.

5. An attempt was made to take advantage of Jim Bridger’s absence

Seth Blair, the U.S. attorney for Utah Territory, proposed a scheme to Brigham Young where they would set up several people to sue Jim Bridger for damages. If Bridger was not found, they could then confiscate his fort in payment.

Blair offered: “I can draw up declarations and forward them in & the Surpoenas [sic] can be Sent out & coppys left at his Residence & it is most probable—that judgement [against Bridger] will go by default,” meaning that the court could then just take Bridger’s property.

6. Brigham Young sought legal justification for schemes against Jim Bridger

Young checked into this scheme with Judge Shaver, who said the current writ would not justify taking the fort, but that it might be seized if they could charge Bridger with selling spiritous liquors or rum to Indians.

7. Brigham Young tried to capture Jim Bridger with the aid of the Indians

Young also encouraged Ferguson to befriend Washakie so he might be “influenced to bring Mr. Bridger in, or give some information concerning his whereabouts.”

8. Brigham Young was livid that Jim Bridger complained to Congress

With the aid of Ardis Parshall, historian William P. MacKinnon documents that Jim Bridger went to Washington and complained to President Franklin Pierce and Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, who was managing the Nebraska territorial bill. Douglas considered reducing the proposed size of Utah Territory, and Young privately vented to his contact in Washington. Young’s initial response was so heated that the final draft had some earthy language crossed out.

Brigham Young also privately suggested that “if just laws of your own [Congress’s] making are enforced, he [Bridger] may be strung up between the heavens and the earth.”

9. Brigham Young had a strategic response to the possible reduction of Utah Territory

Brigham Young strategically warned Douglas that if Congress moved Fort Bridger and the Green River area out of Utah Territory and into Nebraska Territory, the Church could make “several settlements there [in Nebraska] in a short time & you see that we stand every chance for having two Territories in lieu of one.“

10. Brigham Young simply wanted Jim Bridger gone

A rarely cited statement in the annals of Wyoming records that Brigham Young wrote to Washakie stating that his friend, Bridger, “probably would have been fined if he had not fled. . . . Perhaps he might’ve got clear and not even been fined.”

Where was Jim Bridger when Latter-day Saints seized control of Fort Bridger?

By this time Jim Bridger had gone into hiding. He watched the fort from a concealed spot with his spyglass, somehow keeping in touch with his wife Mary.

How was the ownership of Fort Bridger resolved?

On August 3, 1855, Lewis Robison completed the purchase of the fort from Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez for $8,000 and an additional $1,000 paid in 1858. This is the first Jim Bridger biography that recognizes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did indeed pay Bridger and Vasquez for the fort and its contents.

Bridger was not happy with the transaction, though. Of the $9,000 paid to Bridger and Vasquez, $7,463 was for livestock, goods, and rental, leaving only $1,537 for the fort and the lucrative business.

Ironically, Jim Bridger’s family was paid $6,000 “for the relief of the heirs of Jim Bridger, deceased.” The payment was not for the lease of the land, but for the stone wall which had been built by the Church.

If you could go back in time and observe any event that affected both Jim Bridger and Brigham Young, what would it be?

I would go back to June 28, 1847 to witness the first and perhaps only time that Jim Bridger and Brigham Young met. How interesting it would be to see these two giants in American history dine together and talk about the future.

Further reading

By Kurt Manwaring

Editor. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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