Jim Bridger, king of the mountain
It was 1822, and beaver hats were still fashionable.
Jim Bridger, barely eighteen years old, didn’t hesitate about signing on when he saw a newspaper ad calling for one hundred young men to follow the Missouri River to its source. Being slightly more than six feet tall, and having worked as a blacksmith apprentice in St. Louis for nearly five years, he reckoned he met the qualification of being fit enough to work for one, two, or three years trapping beaver.
A prime silky-brown beaver skin —or plew—was selling for between five and eight dollars. Jim’s routine when he spotted a beaver dam or lodge, or noticed a log cut down, was to wade barefooted upstream to the bottom of the beaver slide and set his trap.
With grizzlies and hostile Indians all around, trapping was dangerous work. As well, these mountain men were always wet from wading in icy mountain water. After surviving his first winter in the mountains, the greenhorn Bridger earned the right to be called a regular hivernan, or Mountain Man.
It was Bible-reading Jedediah Smith who nicknamed the self-assured Bridger ‘Old Gabe’, after the angel Gabriel.
In 1825 William Henry Ashley of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company initiated a regular rendezvous system, whereby company representatives hauled supplies to specific mountain locations in the spring, engaged in trading with trappers, and brought pelts back to Missouri River and Mississippi River communities in the fall. The rendezvous was held during summer, when beaver pelts were of poor quality and not worth as much, so trappers had free time to attend. The chosen locales were conveniently near trapping regions.
By the late 1830s, the beaver trade was dying out because silk hats had become fashionable. Thus mountain men began looking elsewhere to make a living without leaving the mountains. Bridger decided to build a small fort on Black Fork of Green River in what is now Wyoming. To serve emigrants on the Oregon Trail, the complex included a blacksmith shop and a supply of iron.
By the time he died in 1881, Bridger was known for being a top-notch mountain man, a born explorer with an accurate memory for map making, a trader, and an army scout. Although the fur-trade days are long gone, his name continues to evoke images of that romantic era.