Of Brigham and Bridger

Jim Bridger and Brigham Young are two very important people in the Euro-American colonization of the American west. Their relationship with each other, however, was complicated. Kurt Manwaring recently discussed that relationship with Jerry Enzler in connection with Enzler’s biography, Jim Bridger: Trailblazer of the American West. What follows here is a copost to the full interview (a shorter post with quotes and some commentary), but feel free to hop on over to the full interview here.

Young and Bridger only met on one occasion–June 28, 1847, as the vanguard company of Latter-day Saints settlers made their way west. Bridger was an experienced trapper and frontiersman that the Saints consulted for information about the areas they were considering settling. As Enzler summarized:

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.

One common story from this meeting is that Bridger was quite negative about the prospects of settling along the Wasatch Front in what is now Utah, going as far as to offer $1000 if they could grow an ear of corn there. For example, one early settler in Utah Territory later recalled that:

All the accounts we could get of Salt Lake Valley was very discouraging. Mr. Jim Bridger who had been in the mountains for 20 years, said he had been in the valley every month in the summer and always saw frost. He also said it would be impossible to raise anything there. He offered $1,000.00 for the first ear of corn raised in the valley. But when it was raised he did not pay it. He tried to discourage the Saints from stopping here, but this was the place we had started for and in spite of all reports we located there and built up a fine city and raised grain in abundance — also fruits and vegetables.[1]

This myth helped to build up the idea of the Latter-day Saint settlers as intrepid and determined pioneers who did the impossible.  That doesn’t seem to align with what Bridger actually said, though.  As Enzler shared:

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.

I’ve never actuality heard the accurate version before, so it’s good to know the details.

While they parted on friendly terms at the time, about a year later,  Brigham Young’s view of Jim Bridger suddenly soured. The reasons for this change aren’t entirely clear, but in 1848, Bridger had heard that Young was upset with him and sent a letter where affirmed that he wanted to remain on good terms, stating that:

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.

Despite this, Brigham Young remained very suspicious of Jim Bridger. When Bridger’s business partner, Louis Vasquez, warned the Latter-day Saints that one of the Shoshone bands was hostile towards the Saints and might attack them in 1849, Young curtly dismissed the warning, stating to a council that:

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.

It’s somewhat of a shocking statement.  When asked why Young remained suspicious of Bridger, Enzler said that: “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.”

A few years later, however, their relationship became even more stained as Brigham Young oversaw efforts to take over Fort Bridger, which was owned and managed by Bridger and Vasquez at the time.  Enzler explained that:

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.

Bridger watched this unfold from a place in hiding: “He watched the fort from a concealed spot with his spyglass, somehow keeping in touch with his wife Mary,” as Enzler explained.

A few years later, however, the Church negotiated buying the fort:

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.

Even with that, however, “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.”  His unhappiness with the transaction in this case seems understandable.

It’s an interesting story to learn about, and Jim Bridger: Trailblazer of the American West presents some newly discovered information on the subject, as well as other interactions Jim Bridger had with the Latter-day Saints in Utah Territory.  Many of these discoveries are discussed in the interview, so I encourage you to head on over there to learn some more.


[1] Charles Pulsipher, “History of Charles Pulsipher,” in Pulsipher Family History Book, ed. Terry Lund and Nora Lund (Privately Published, 1953), 67.