Fort Bridger was the first post built in the American West specifically to cater to travelers.
During its functional years, the fort had three owners: Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez from 1842 to 1855; the Mormon Church from 1855 to 1857; and the federal government from 1857 to 1890.
|Mountain man Jim Bridger|
Many stories are told about Jim Bridger, some of which have been documented. For example, in a skirmish with Indians in 1832, he was shot in the back with an arrow. The head remained in his body until it was extracted three years later by missionary Marcus Whitman.
By 1840, the mountain men could see that the era of fur trapping was coming to an end. This would not be a way of making a living for them much longer. But people were starting to move west. Bridger saw that as an opportunity and began talking to other men about establishing trading posts.
The second Fort Bridger was built farther southwest on the Green River, still near the site of the fur trappers’ rendezvous held annually from 1825 to 1840.
In 1842, Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez set out from St. Louis to establish the new Fort Bridger, in what is now southwestern Wyoming. Vasquez had been in the Rockies as long as Bridger, and was from a distinguished Mexican family and well educated. Their intent was to trade with Americans moving west as well as with the Indians.
They positioned the post on a bluff overlooking the Black’s Fork. However, the next spring they moved it down to the river bottoms. This third site of Fort Bridger is the most famous one. This fort was the first one established west of the Mississippi River for the main purpose of trading with emigrants, rather than engaging mostly in the fur trade. It was located on the trail that the emigrants were most likely to use at that time. Pioneers on wagon trains using the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails stopped here. It’s also the same fort that was later bought by the Mormons and burned by them when they abandoned it in 1857.
At this point, the Black’s Fork divided into several smaller streams that watered the surrounding valley. People on wagon trains who had spent all summer trudging across the dusty plains took joy when they saw this green haven, with plenty of grazing for their livestock and willow trees to give them shade. Bridger and Vasquez provided replacement livestock for travelers whose horses and oxen were worn out. They also built a blacksmith shop on the site.
|Fort Bridger in 1850|
Wyoming State Museum
Bridger and Vasquez stocked staples brought in overland—coffee, sugar, flour, pork, soap, blankets, knives, ready-made clothing and hats, lead, and gunpowder, as well as doing a brisk business in tanned hides, buffalo robes, moccasins, and other items which they took in trade from the Indians.
Business at the fort slacked off when a new wagon route was formed, a shortcut that saved several days of travel for those going to Oregon and Idaho. It was known as the Greenwood Cutoff, or later the Sublette Cutoff.
Within a year, however, Lanford Hastings discovered a new route that made travel to California easier. It began near Fort Bridger and went south of the original route. The Hastings Cutoff became very popular for those going to California and saved the business and relevance of Fort Bridger.
Jim Bridger butted heads with the Mormon settlers. In 1853, the Mormon militia tried to arrest him for selling alcohol and firearms to Indians, which was against federal law. Bridger escaped and stayed away for a while, during which the Mormons established a nearby outpost called Fort Supply. In 1855, they took over Fort Bridger, claiming they had paid Vasquez $8,000 for it, but Bridger denied this. Documents indicate the payment was made, half in 1855 and half later, in 1858. The deed was recorded in Salt Lake City, in 1858.
The Mormons rebuilt the fort as a 100-foot-square stone structure with walls 14 feet high, a large horse corral, and a masonry wall. Hostilities erupted between federal authorities and the Mormons in 1857, and the Mormons refused to accept the new governor President James Buchanan appointed to replace Brigham Young. As the U.S. Army approached through Wyoming, the Mormons burned the fort to keep it from falling into the hands of the enemy and retreated into Utah.
General Johnston’s troops wintered there. In the spring, two companies were left at Fort Bridger to establish it as an official army post. This was the fourth Fort Bridger. The rebuilt fort was used as a Pony Express station in 1860-61, and remained active as a military post until 1878, when it was abandoned for two years. It was re-established from 1880 to 1890, after which it was closed as an army post.
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Susan Page Davis is the author of more than fifty published novels. A history major, she’s always interested in the unusual happenings of the past. She’s a two-time winner of the Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award, and also a winner of the Carol Award and the Will Rogers Medallion, and a finalist in the WILLA Awards and the More Than Magic Contest. Visit her website at: www.susanpagedavis.com .