Jim Bridger’s amazing story captured my attention when I was a young man, and I never let my enthusiasm wane.
It all began when I viewed the film Jeremiah Johnson. I was so impressed that I went to the library the next morning to learn more. I didn’t find Jeremiah Johnson, but I found boundless praise for a man named Jim Bridger, described as “King of the Mountain Men” and “The Grand Old Man of the Rockies.”
How could this Western hero have escaped my attention?
I found two biographies about Bridger, and it was obvious that they were outdated and incomplete. I decided then and there that I would research this fascinating character and write his story.
Bridger was an explorer of the West, and I became an explorer of Bridger. He was orphaned at 13 yet became a fearless frontiersman. He could neither read nor write, yet he carried a map of the West in his head. He lived among wild men in lawless territory, though he was repeatedly praised for his honesty and integrity.
I learned that at age 18, Bridger went 2,500 miles up the Missouri River with Andrew Henry, Mike Fink, and one hundred “Enterprising Young Men.” At 20 Bridger discovered Great Salt Lake. When he was 21, he was the first to run the rapids of Bad Pass Trail through the Bighorn Canyon. At 22 he was with the first Euro-Americans who explored the thermal wonders within today’s Yellowstone National Park. How many historical figures do I know of who had done this much by the age of 22? Very few.
Bridger excelled as a mountain pilot, hunter, and brigade leader. He was an extraordinary guide and led map makers, Smithsonian scientists, emigrants, and army commanders. He searched for home and married a Flathead woman, and upon her death a Ute woman, and upon her death a Shoshone woman. He blazed the Bridger Trail in 1864 to try to avert a war between the United States and Red Cloud and his Lakota-Cheyenne-Arapaho alliance. Bridger was among the first to be proposed for Mount Rushmore.
Just as my fascination with Jeremiah Johnson led me to Jim Bridger, my interest in Bridger led me to a career as a writer and historian. I soon became the first full-time employee and founder of a museum that grew into the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, a 14-acre, Smithsonian-affiliated campus that focuses on the Mississippi River and the rivers of America. I worked with a crackerjack team to write scripts for exhibits and films that have now been seen by over 4 million people.
I kept working on the Bridger manuscript whenever I could. I made it a point to meet and ask writing advice from nationally known historians including Bob Utley, Stephen Ambrose, Doug Brinkley, and John Barry. I was fortunate to meet scores of Western history colleagues, both in person and through their writing. I owe them a debt.
I researched at more than 30 archives including twenty or more trips to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. I uncovered an extensive amount of new information about Bridger, and when I found a prize nugget, I invariably called my wife and later texted my children to share the news.
This blog shares some of the excitement that motivated me to write Jim Bridger: Trailblazer of the American West. Thanks for reading and being a part of story.
More next time.