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FORT BRIDGER: GLIMPSES OF THE PAST

[The Tombstone Epitaph, November, 1985]

In the year 1822, William Ashley and Andrew Henry recruited a party of adventurous young men to explore the reaches of the Upper Missouri for the purpose of more firmly establishing themselves in the fledging fur trade. Their plans were, however, temporarily thwarted when the Rees, attempting to secure the benefits of the new business enterprise for themselves, effectively closed the river to significant traffic. In response, the Ashley-Henry men left the Missouri and trekked overland in search for an alternative land route to the pelt-rich mountains.

Thus it was that, in 1824, a small party of trappers, already being called Mountain Men, followed their leader, Jedediah Smith, into an exceptionally pretty valley in the southwestern part of present-day Wyoming. In 1829, one of that party returned to the valley to trap beaver. Arthur Black was killed by Indians in a willow grove near the banks of the stream which ever after would bear his name. His Mountain Man compatriots dubbed the stream "Black's Fork", a designation it retains to this day.

Despite Black's fatal misfortune, however, it was the beauty of the place -- the lushness of the grass, the cold purity of the mountain water -- that thoroughly impressed itself upon the imaginations of those rugged few who spent most of their lives a step and a half beyond the reach of civilization. A dozen years after Black's death, one of them , remembering not only the place's beauty, but also shrewdly noting its location on the route to that new "Land of Opportunity" called Oregon, returned to Black's Fork of the Green River to establish a trading post. Together with his partner, Louis Vasquez, Jim Bridger brought into being what became one of the most famous trading/military posts of the entire interior mountain region of the American West. The first emigrant reference to the establishment was recorded by Joseph Williams on July 3, 1842: "Reached Bridger's Fort. Company had left for the United States about thirty days before, and we saw nothing there but three little, starved dogs. We saw the grave of an Indian woman, who had been killed by the Shiennes. From here we could see the mountain tops spotted with snow."

At the time of Williams' visit, Bridger himself was in St. Louis acquiring supplies for his post. In fact, though some building was accomplished in 1842, the first merchandise stock was not brought west until the summer of 1843, at which time, not surprisingly, the trading post was formally opened. In the words of the eminent Oregon Trail historian and cartographer, the late Paul Henderson: "For nearly half a century . . . (Fort Bridger) had an illustrious and checkered career, as a trading post for trappers, Indians and emigrants, a Mormon outpost, a key United States military post, an Indian Agency, a station on the famous Pony Express, Overland Stage lines and the first transcontinental telegraph".

One of the emigrants to whom Mr. Henderson referred, Richard Thomas Ackley, provides us with a succinct summary of the post's activities and importance during the 1840's and 1850's. In the entry for August 24, 1858, Mr. Ackley furnished the following account.

Fort Bridger is situated in a valley with some little grass. This place was first built about 40 years ago by Jim Bridger, who came to this country with some old mountain men or trappers, and becoming pleased with the life, built a small trading post and did considerable business in trading with the Indians in furs and skins of different kinds, and ponies, and in course of time becoming identified among them by marrying one of their women. Then along about 1840, he had a number of trappers and hunters out on his own hook. These men were generally persons fond of the life, and were well posted in the art of trapping furs. They would start out with their rifle and ammunition with a certain number of steel traps, and be gone for months together without ever seeing a single soul, living upon the flesh of the animals that they would kill or trap. Some times these poor fellows would never be heard of; either meet with an accidental death or sometimes killed by the beast or Indians, or die of sickness. Then after their return, these trappers would collect around Bridger's trading post, and in a few days spend every cent they had so hard worked for, depriving themselves of everything like comfort. At the time of the breaking out of the gold excitement in California, Bridger made a big strike by selling the little necessaries of life to the travelers, as they passed by in 1850, '51 and '52; the emigration across was very large, and after leaving the Missouri River there was a stretch of about 1000 miles, so by the time they got to his place they were all pretty tired, and their stock in many instances very footsore Bridger would trade their worn out stock for about one tenth what they were worth, and the stock, after a little rest, would come out fat in about two months. A lame or worn-out steer in that country was worth about $1.50, and oftentimes the people could not get away on account of their cattle being so low. After the rush to California overland died away, the Mormon emigration kept him up for years. Then in 1857 when the Mormon War started, our troops were encamped in his midst, and that was also a harvest for him. Albert Sidney Johnston, the commander of the Expedition, rented the fort of him, and made a reserve there of 12 miles square, and put up very good log quarters for the troops, and since then, has always been kept as a military post.

Throughout the 19th century, on one point virtually all observers were in agreement -- the location of Fort Bridger was, happily, one of the garden spots of the west. Perhaps it was the aridity of the treeless plains which they had crossed for so many previous miles, but very few if any disagreed with the assessment rendered by Mrs. Elizabeth Dixon Smith Geer in 1847. On August 9, Mrs. Geer described her camping site at Fort Bridger as "a pretty place to see in such a barren country." "Perhaps there is a thousand acres of level land covered with grass," she continued, "interspersed with beautiful stony brooks and plenty of timber, such as it is -- quaking asp."

A year earlier, Edwin Bryant, noting the location of Fort Bridger "in a handsome and fertile bottom of the small stream on which we are encamped", recorded the further information that "The bottom produces the finest qualities of grass, and in great abundance". In addition, "The water of the stream is cold and pure, and abounds in spotted mountain trout, and a variety of other small fish. Clumps of cotton-wood trees are scattered through the valley, and along the banks of the stream."

John Wood (1850) provides our final description of what he called "a beautiful valley of fertile soil". "In this valley," he wrote on July 19th, "there is a fort called Fort Bridger, after the old pioneer who built it and lives there near where we have camped." "This valley is certainly very rich and affords the best of grass. It is watered by 7 beautiful streams running through it, called Rushing creeks. These streams are from one to 3 feet deep of clear cold water, just from the mountain tops."

The Mountain Men, of course, had observed the beauty of the place long before any emigrants put in an appearance. And at least a few of them succumbed to the charm of what appeared to them to be a mountain paradise. Perhaps the best known was "Uncle" John Robertson who, according to Paul Henderson, "constructed his little log cabin in the immediate area of Fort Bridger in 1834. "He never left these haunts to pay a visit to his birthland or his cultured family," Henderson continued, "after he entered his fur trapping vocation in 1822." "Uncle" John, in fact, lived with his Indian wife in the Fort Bridger Valley the remainder of his life of out-door activity, raising his mixed-blood family .

From the time of its establishment to the mid 1850's, Fort Bridger served the needs of many an emigrant family. Grateful though they were for support and sustenance in this place so far removed from "civilization", they nonetheless found the post itself a thing of little beauty. On August 30, 1843, Theodore Talbot passed "under the bluff on which Vasquez (and) Bridger's houses are built"; he described them as being "deserted and dismantled. . . built of logs, plastered with mud." A month earlier, on July 25, Joel Palmer, also observing that the post was "built of poles and daubed with mud", added the conclusion that "it is a shabby concern." Another member of Palmer's party, Jacob Snyder, added a significant point to the assessment of Fort Bridger: "The location is in every respect the best for a trading post that I have yet seen on the route." And the location was already showing signs of population; Joel Palmer noted the presence of "about twenty-five lodges of Indians, or rather white trappers' lodges occupied by their Indian wives."

The passage of another year apparently brought little, if any, improvement to the physical attractiveness of the area. Edwin Bryant emphasized the negative attributes of the buildings by juxtaposing the description of them in his journal to comments about the beauty of the surrounding country. "The buildings," Bryant wrote, "are two or three miserable log-cabins, rudely constructed, and bearing but a faint resemblance to habitable houses. Its position is in a handsome and fertile bottom of the small stream on which we are encamped."

During the remainder of the years that Bridger owned and operated the post, the opinions noted above continued to dominate emigrant attitudes. Orson Pratt, who came west with one of the first of the great Mormon migrations to Utah, entered the following description in his journal: "Bridger's post consists of two adjoining log-houses, dirt roofs, and a small picket yard of logs set in the ground, and about 8 feet high. The number of men, squaws, and half-breed children, in these houses and lodges, may be about 50 or 60." Mr. Pratt also, however, provides us with addition specific information about the fort's location. "I took some astronomical observations, which gave for the latitude of the post 41 deg. 19 min. 13 sec. By a mean of two barometrical observations, taken on the 7th and 8th (July), the calculated height above the level of the sea was 6665 feet. The distance from the South Pass is 109 1/2 miles."

By the mid-1850's, Bridger was either bought out or driven out of his post, depending on whose story one chooses to accept. In any event, he never lost the conviction, Paul Henderson noted, that "the Mormons run him out".

While he was there, though, Bridger maintained quite a positive reputation with those who traveled the road west. A letter written at Fort Bridger by James Reed on July 31, 1846, illustrates the point.

I want you to inform the emigration that they can be supplied with fresh cattle by Messrs. Vasques & Bridger. They now have about 200 head of oxen, cows and young cattle, with a great many horses and mules; and they can be relied on for doing business honorably and fairly. Mr. Bridger will go to St. Louis this fall and return with the emigration in the spring, and will be very useful as a pilot. He will be found during the winter in St. Louis, at Mr. Robert Campbell's. I must put you on your guard against two or three persons who have left California and Oregon for horse stealing and other crimes. Of course they dislike those countries. They are perfect vagabonds.

The independent trappers, who swarm here during the passing of the emigrants, are as great a set of sharks as ever disgraced humanity, with few exceptions. Let the emigrants avoid trading with them. Vasques & Bridger are the only fair traders in these parts.

Such positive opinions certainly did not, however, mean that sharp bargains were not struck, nor that advantage was not taken of the fact that emigrants could only choose to trade or not to trade, but not with whom to trade. The Reverend Edward Evans Parrish (1844) provides a case in point. On Friday, August 30, he noted that "Mr. Holly had to leave a good cow on account of lameness." The next day he added the further observation that "Most of the owners of lame cattle are trying to put them off, but are getting almost nothing for them. Mitchell Gillman got a coarse hat in trade for Sam, one of his oxen, which had become lame."

Such trading cut both ways though. A year after Reverend Parrish passed through Fort Bridger, Joel Palmer, on July 25, 1845, made reference to "about twenty-five lodges of Indians, or rather white trappers' lodges occupied by their Indian wives." These wives, he noted, "have a good supply of robes, dressed deer, elk and antelope skins, coats, pants, moccasins, and other Indian fixens, which they trade low (italics added) for flour, pork, powder, load, blankets, butcher-knives, spirits, hats, ready-made clothes, coffee, sugar, etc."

Two more diary excerpts will illustrate the prices exacted in "mountain trading". The contemporary reader should, however, bear in mind that these prices were being charged during a time when "cash money" was hard to come by at all, and almost impossible for ordinary people to accumulate in appreciable amounts. "The fort is occupied by a number of French and Indians of the Snake tribe," reported John Wood on July 19th, 1850, "who live well and prosper by trading." Among the "chief articles they have to trade are furs, moccasins, whiskey, milk and buckskin pantalouns, etc. They sell milk at 10 cents a pint, and whiskey at $2.00 a pint." Whether it was supply , demand, or a combination of the two that accounted for the price differential, certainly that differential suggests that those involved in the mountain trade saw real possibilities of profit in satisfying travelers' thirst!

"French and Indians" were, of course not the only ones who reaped the benefits of "mountain prices". Eight years after Mr. Wood visited Fort Bridger, on August, 25, 1858, the wagon train with which Richard Thomas Ackley was traveling passed "Several Mormon teams. . . on their way from the valley (Salt Lake) to Fort Bridger loaded with butter, eggs, cheese, potatoes and so on; merchandise of all kinds brings a good price here; sugar and coffee $1.00 per pound, butter 75c, potatoes $10.00, and flour $12.00 per hundred, eggs 60c per dozen and other things in proportion."

Reaching back to a time long before white men first penetrated the mountain wilderness, the Fort Bridger Valley had been a favorite "haunt" for Indians of the region, particularly the tribe variously called Snake and Shoshoni. As many of the diary excerpts noted above make clear, this Indian preference did not diminish in the slightest with the coming of the Mountain Men. Indeed, it was the possibility of trading with these Indians that was one of the factors influencing Bridger's decision to locate on Black's Fork. During the entire period of 19th century exploration and settlement, the Shoshoni maintained a superlative reputation among whites because of their general lack of hostility (which in no sense mean't that individual warriors of the tribe were at all reluctant to "acquire" horses from whites by whatever method appeared at the moment to offer the greatest likelihood of success!).

Members of the Ute tribe, on numerous occasions, also participated in joint trapping/hunting ventures with white trappers and traders. In August of 1843, Theodore Talbot joined the ranks of the many emigrants who took alarm at the sudden appearance of Indians. Traveling along Black's Fork on Wednesday the 30th, Talbot and his companions found the building "deserted and dismantled". The reason for this state of affairs soon presented itself.

We had not been here but a short time, when the guard gave the alarm of "Les Indians, Les Indians!" Sure enough, we could plainly see figures mounted on horseback coming dashing down the distant hills towards us. On more critical examination we thought that we could perceive white men among them. We were too far to see their countenances, but the dress and the manner of riding led us to make the supposition and their nearer approach soon confirmed it. Vasquez with his gallant party of mountaineers and a band of Indians came dashing into camp at full speed. Having exchanged salutations with the mad-cap party and the rest of Vasquez' Company, and the 15 or 20 lodges of Youta's who were with him having by this time come up, we all went into camp for the evening. Vasquez has just returned from hunting in the Youta Mountains.

During the days of the fur trade in particular, relations between Shoshoni's and whites was cemented with some frequency by intermarriage. Bridger himself had a Shoshoni wife, and so did "Captain Walker" who provided exceptional service to the Reverend Edward Evans Parrish and his party in 1844. Upon their arrival at "the Green River Fort, known as Bridger's Fort," Reverend Parrish noted that "Captain Walker kindly conducted us to the place of encampment and then returned to his own wigwam among his own Indians of the Snake nation." "It is said," Parish continued, that "he has several squaws whether servants, concubines or wives, I know not." Despite his ministerial distaste for the middle possibility, Parrish nonetheless reported that "Mr. Walker has taken some pains to pilot this company from Fort Larimo (sic.) to Fort Bridger."

By no means, however, was all contact between Indians and whites mutually peaceable and profitable. Fort Bridger , unknown to most of the emigrants at the time, represented a gateway to the most difficult part of the trail to traverse -- and the portion that was marked by the greatest danger of Indian attack. But not all such danger lay ahead! The trail to Oregon and California had, by the time it reached Green River, already passed through the territory of some of the fiercest warriors on the high plains -- the various bands of the Dakota (called Sioux by their enemies) and the Cheyenne.

The danger posed by these hard-riding high plains roamers was described by, among numerous others, John Boardman in 1843. On Sunday, August 23th (sic), Boardman and his party "Arrived at Bridger and Vasquez's fort, expecting to stay 10 or 15 days to make meat, but what our disappointment to learn that the Sioux and Cheyennes had been here, run off all the buffalo, killed 3 Snake Indians, and stolen 60 horses."

One week later, Theodore Talbot's party received the "greeting" noted above, upon their arrival at Fort Bridger. Vasquez, after he and his hunting entourage had settled down from the excitement of their return home, told Talbot of an Indian danger more deadly than that referred to by Mr. Boardman. In reporting that danger, Mr. Talbot also presents us with strong evidence as to why the Cheyennes were considered by many to be the premier horsemen and warriors of the entire high plains region.

His partner, old Jim Bridger, the most celebrated trapper of the Rocky Mts. has started with a party of forty men to trap on Wind River. They were all attacked here, a short time since by the large party of Sheyennes of whom we were warned by "Blind Chief". They drove off the cavayade belonging to the Fort, and also the horses belonging to 60 lodges of Snakes who were camped in the thick willows in the valley just below the fort. Most of the men were out hunting at the time of the attack but they soon set out in pursuit and succeeded in overtaking them and getting back most of the horses. They say it was a beautiful sight to see the Sheyennes, formed in the shape of a crescent driving the stolen horses at full speed before them. A party of skirmishers following close behind zig-zagging or as it is called "making snake" along the line, which they endeavored to prevent the pursuers from breaking. There were in all six or eight killed. Only 1 of the Sheyennes was killed. The Sheyennes were led on by Tesson and Louis Rivy, a half breed, and Frenchman. On their return home they were going to attack Capt. Fremont but were intimidated by his bold stand and the howitzer's death-dealing bombs.

Incidents such as those described above, together with other similar episodes, had, over the years, a predictable impact on emigrant attitudes and assumptions concerning Indian behavior. Camping at Fort Bridger on Sunday, July 30, 1847, Lorenzo Dow Young succinctly expressed in his diary what was probably the dominant view when he noted "We tied up our horses, but they broke loose in the night and put out. We feared they were stole by Indians, but found them next morning 5 miles from the fort." (One may well wonder how many times in the years that followed Indians were saddled with responsibility for the disappearance of livestock lost through white laxness, if not actual theft!) Young's party remained at Fort Bridger until Saturday, August 5, because, as he noted on the previous Tuesday, "We still remain at the fort waiting for teams from the valley to go on in company with us to meet our brethren. We do not consider it safe to travel alone on account of the Indians."

Three years later, John McGlashen provided a final example of evolving white assumptions and attitudes toward native inhabitants. "We are," he wrote on May 31, 1850, "surrounded here by a begging, prowling set of Indians, therefore have determined to leave as soon as possable (sic.)."

Indians were, of course, most certainly not the only people on or near the trail who "helped themselves" to the stock of others.. In August of 1858, Richard Thomas Ackley and his one-time friend , Tom Atkins, provide a perfect example. According to Ackley, he and Atkins, sitting in camp one day, observed a soldier riding by. The soldier was "mounted on a fine sorrel horse" and had "a loose horse following alongside". Ackley, in his diary entry for August 24, continues the story: "I said to Tom Atkins 'Let's take that horse,' and suiting the words I ran to our own wagon and got a lariat, at the same time telling the soldier who was well armed, that two horses were more than he had any use for. So we captured him and took him up to the wagon and had him tied." Their acquisition accomplished, Atkins "rode the pony and led the horse and went on to Fort Bridger to give the horse up and make the five dollars that they gave to persons for such runaway stock. We followed on slowly with our wagon." The ethics of collecting a reward for strayed stock with a stolen animal seems not to have troubled either young man in the least. But "honor among thieves" was no more prevalent on the trail than elsewhere. As Ackley and his party "approached Bridger we met about 150 men, some on foot and others mounted, on their way to the States." What happened then is detailed in the remainder of the diary entry.

I noticed one fellow riding my pony with my saddle. I wasn't long getting up to him. The first demand I made, was for him to dismount, which of course he refused, at the same time discussing my authority. I drew my revolver on him and by this time his friends had collected all around, and Jim Packard, Douglass and Ned had run up to see the trouble. (The fellow had bought the pony from Tom in Bridger, which afterward made a split up with us). After considerable blowing what we would do, my pistol was put up, and by request of Douglass the fellow was allowed to go on. The country along here is very barren, and almost destitute of vegetation.

Although economic loss most certainly attended the series of incidents detailed above, other instances of theft, both successful and frustrated, imposed much more serious penalties upon the participants. On June 30 and July 1 of 1860, Vincent Page Lyman was involved in such an affair. Lyman and his party camped at Fort Bridger the evening of June 30, finding it "another old shabby looking place, but beautifully watered and a fine place to herd stock". "Here, just at dark," his diary entry for the day reads, "one of our men was fired at and his horse taken away from him." "Three of us mounted soon after and followed him into the mountains, but did not catch him that night."

Early the next day, Lyman "in company with a mountaineer from the Fort and the man that owned the horse (started) in pursuit of the thief." Following the thief's trail "to within about 50 miles of Salt Lake City," the trio "caught him napping in Echo Canyon" on July 3. The episode then ended quickly, with the thief being confronted with a near-classic "Hobson's Choice", as described in the epitaph inscribed on his wooden tombstone!

We ordered him to give himself up and the horses (for he had .two others at this time) but he's (sic.) do neither and showed his teeth and threatened to shoot us. There was no other alternative. We killed him and buried him by the side of the road. Took the horses and returned to the train which we met at "Bear Creek" some 56 miles from "Bridger". Miles 56.

July 4.--The train passed through "Echo Canyon", stopped and put up a head-board with this inscription, viz.: "George B. Baker, shot on the 3rd of July, 1860 for horse-stealing and attempt to murder. We killed him because he would not give up himself to be hung by our train."--Emigrants, Camped on Weber river. Miles 18.

By the year 1846, Fort Bridger was quite well established as a stop on the road to Oregon. Not all authorities, however, were convinced that the route past the fort was the best possible. In that year, for example, one J.M. Shively published a guide entitled Routes and Distances in which he observed that "the traveler must lose at least 100 miles by keeping. . .to Bridger's fort." "I was one of the company that made the road to Bridger's and opposed it all I could. There is no use in going that way; they have no provisions, nor anything else that you want." The alternative route proposed by Mr. Shively was originally denominated "Greenwood's Cut-Off" after the New Englander who had been one of the first white men to take to the life of a Mountain Man. Much more popularly known as "Sublette's Cut-Off, the route left the Sandy and cut directly across to Bear River. According the Mr. Shively, all one had to do was to "ride back on the road far enough (from the Sandy) to get a view of the country westward." At that point, "You will see a blue mountain in the distance, straight on your course; that mountain is on Bear river, near your track; take a pocket compass and a small party, and see if you can get through with the wagons." If the short cut should prove to be too difficult, then Mr. Shively advised continuing on down Sandy "65 miles, to Green River; cross it. . .; keep down Green River 6 miles, and fill your kegs, and cross over to Ham's fork, 16 miles; up Ham and Black's fork, 38 miles, to Bridger; you are now 1059 miles from Independence.

If guide book "authorities" such as Mr. Shively were recommending that Fort Bridger be by-passed on the way to Fort Hall, there was, in 1846, another proposed route which called for by-passing Fort Hall on the way to California! Edwin Bryant and party encamped at Fort Bridger for several days in mid-July "for the purpose of recruiting our animals, which, being heavily packed, manifest strong signs of fatigue." Pitching his tent "for the first time since we left Fort Laramie," Bryant noted the proximity of his camp to that "of Messrs. Hastings and Hudspeth . . . (who) left the settlements of California the last of April, and travelling over the snows of the Sierra, and swimming the swollen water-courses on either side, reached this vicinity some two weeks since, having explored a new route, via the south end of the great Salt Lake, by which they suppose the distance to California is shortened from one hundred and fifty to two hundred miles." The route referred to is, of course, the famous (or infamous) "Hastings Cut-Off" which, like its namesake, promised so very much more than it could deliver -- at least to the first group which availed themselves of it "advantages"!

Mr. Bryant was not "sold" on the new route. "My impressions are unfavorable to the route," he wrote, "especially for wagons and families; but a number of the emigrant parties now encamped here have determined to adopt it, with Messrs. Hastings and Hudspeth as their guides; and are now waiting for some of the rear parties to come up and join them." Among those so waiting were the members of a train destined to be immortalized as the victims of perhaps the most fearsome tragedy to mar the years of significant trail travel; the party was led by George and Jacob Donner.

In a letter dated "Fort Bridger, one hundred miles from Eutaw or Great Salt Lake, July 31, 1846," James Reed described the reasons why the Donner Party proposed to follow the new route even though "The rest of the Californians went the long route--feeling afraid of Hastings' Cut-off." First of all, there "is said to be a saving of 350 or 400 miles in going to California, and a better route," he wrote; "We are now only 100 miles from the Great Salt Lake by the new route--in all 250 miles from California; while by way of Fort Hall it is 650 or 700 miles--making a great saving in favor of jaded oxen and dust. On the new route we will not have dust, since there are but 60 wagons ahead of us."

Reed recognized that there were some difficulties to be confronted in exploring what he described as "manifestly Capt. Fremont's newly discovered route to California". The primary difficulty? "There is. . . thought to be, one stretch of 40 miles without water; but Hastings and his party, are out a-head examining for water, or for a route to avoid this stretch." Perhaps governed by the economic necessity of continuing to attract emigrant traffic, Jim Bridger gave a very optimistic assessment of the new route -- a lapse of judgment perhaps his worst since the youthful decision to abandon a Hugh Glass whom he thought was only hours away from death.

Whatever the factors involved in his decision, Reed reported that "Mr. Bridger, and other gentlemen here, who have trapped that country, say that the lake has receded from the tract of country in question. That there is planty of grass which we can cut and put into the waggons for our cattle while crossing it." Later in the same letter, Reed emphasized the point: "Mr. Bridger informs me that the route we design to take, is a fine level road, with a plenty of water and grass, with the exception before stated. It is estimated that 700 miles will take us to Capt. Sutter's Fort, which we hope to make in seven weeks from this day."

One cannot but wonder whether, in the years that lay ahead, "Old Gabe" ever regretted the encouragement he gave to those solid farmers who paid such a bitter price for immortality in the frozen world of the high Sierras.

Like its perhaps more famous counterpart on the Laramie River in eastern Wyoming, no major battle ever took place at Fort Bridger. The post did, however, figure significantly in one of the least-known political/military confrontations in American history--the so-called "Mormon War". To escape persecution, and to achieve a combination of political independence and theological dominance impossible in the "States", members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, under the leadership of Brigham Young, trekked to Utah in the 1840's. There they established what was for a time known as The State of Deseret. Word of the increasing assumption and exercise of political authority was received with suspicion in Washington, D.C. Very real differences of opinion spawned differing interpretations of the same action, and differing interpretations, in turn, were fertile ground indeed for the growth of a full crop of rumors. What was perceived in Washington, D.C. (and very likely in some quarters in Utah as well) as a threat of open disobedience to the authority of the United States Government and perhaps even a threat of secession called forth a response not dictated entirely by events in the west. After all, by the mid-1850's, increasing references to secession were being vehemently voiced south of the Mason-Dixon Line. A Union Government afflicted with such rhetoric so close to home very likely, as a result, lost whatever patience it might have had with a somewhat more veiled "threat" emanating from the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.

In any event, an American army under the command of General Albert Sydney Johnston was ordered to Utah. His line of march, not surprisingly, brought him to the trading post on Black's Fork. "He wintered his troops at Fort Bridger," according to Paul Henderson, and "In May, 1858, he issued an order to establish a United State Military Post on or near Bridger's old trading post, and that it be named Fort Bridger in honor of Chief Scout James Bridger who had guided him to this strategic location for a fort. . .." A description of the fort occupied by the Army in the winter of 1857-58 is provided by Cornelius Conway.

Fort Bridger is rather a small fortification, having been originally intended for the protection of the traders frequenting the plains, but nevertheless it has very substantial walls and answers the purpose of an inland military post well enough. The walls are built of small cobble stone, well laid up with lime and mortar, about eighteen feet high, and about one hundred feet square; inside is a fine place for military and commissary stores, and in which all such are kept. A fortification was constructed on the east and west corners, on which a . . . field-piece was placed for its defense. In a short time after our arrival in November, 1857 we were snugly encamped, although we had beautiful weather in Fort Bridger, which was made our winter quarters, and our animals were all sent a distance of about thirty miles to be herded, except such as were required for the use of the Garrison.

The fort described by Mr. Conway was very substantially modified and "added to" during the following year. "Using materials native to the area," Paul Henderson noted that "The logs were cut and sawed at an old water-powered Mormon sawmill in the northern foothills of the Uinta Mountains, building stone and lime for the fireplaces and chimneys from quarries two miles distant, northwest from the Post," and" Fuel was procured from the nearby hills." Adobe construction was also used.

In a September, 1858, letter, C.E. Gould described for his brother Frederick in Battle Creek, Michigan, the nature and results of the army's construction activities. "Our present occupation," he wrote, "is building quarters for winter out of dobies--or sundried brick--it would surprise you to see what a pile of them it takes to build quarters for this regiment along--you might give a guess, perhaps, when I tell you it takes over three million and every brick is one foot long six inches wide and four inches thick." "There is," he continued," ten buildings one hundred and thirty feet long each, and forty-two feet wide, thirty buildings twenty-two by sixteen and seventeen buildings eighteen by sixty-three. They all contain two hundred and fifty one rooms--This for only one thousand men. Just think what it would be for the whole command, or nearly five thousand men." "I must stop writing soon," Gould concluded, "I am going to send you a plan of Fort Bridger as I thought perhaps you would like to see what kind of a thing this renowned fort is--the stone fort or our depot--was built by the mormons to resist the troops--we put earth works and mounted them with cannon, out-side edge of the ditch is defended by pointed stakes inclined outward all-together it is a pretty strong work." And well equipped, too, at least with artillery. Enlisted man Gould reported the presence of "thirty pieces of artillery--24 pieces of light artillery--nine and twelve pounders--six pieces of heavy twenty-four and thirty-two pounders all brass guns."

The pattern of events that came to be called "The Mormon War" fortunately did not include direct military action in the sense of battles and full-blown campaigns. Before a political settlement was achieved, however, there were extended incidents of "guerrilla" harassment and even a modest application of the "scorched earth" policy invoked by Mormon raiders against the United States troops. A member of that army, Cornelius Conway, has left quite a graphic description of such actions and attacks.

The first appearance of these infatuated mortals (Mormons) before us was at Willow Springs, where we arrived in October 1857. On observing our approach they endeavored to cause a stampede by firing their guns in the direction of the Tenth Infantry, but which proved of little success, as but a very few of our animals got away, and those that did were easily retaken the morning following. The Mormons here passed the several commands in small parties, claiming to be returning from California, but at Green River they threw off all disguise, and sought not to cloak their intentions, where they burned three of our provision and baggage trains. And I must in justice here remark, that but for the want of energy, and decision, on the part of those officers in command at this time, this calamity may have been obviated. Our loss on this occasion was considerable and was felt severely throughout the division; depriving us as it did of all our salt, a great portion of our meat, bread, tools, axes, and other implements necessary for such an expedition; and they pursued our march with a degree of tact and perseverance that to us seemed a little astonishing--stealing our animals or anything else they could lay hands on, until that efficient and talented officer, Col. Johnson (sic.) arrived with his dragoons, when they dispersed at once, leaving some little of their plunder behind them.

We were in this part of the expedition probably nonplussed more than any where else during the campaign as we had not horses to oppose against their ponies prior to the arrival of Col. Johnson, but finding eventually they were overpowered they proceeded at one to Fort Bridger, where they set fire to the buildings contained within the Fort and entirely consumed them; and as though they could carry their demoniacal fury no farther, they proceeded to fire the grass for miles along our route, but in this they had very little success. On our arrival we encamped about a mile from Fort Bridger, where there was abundance of wood and grass.

Once ensconced at the new military post of Fort Bridger, however, the routine of the Army rapidly became that familiar to all enlisted men everywhere. "Our Sunday consists in dress parade at eight o'clock--that is the whole command is paraded in full uniform--and two o'clock P.M., Divine service--Here we have reveille at four o'clock in the summer and five in the winter, at work at six recall at twelve--and fatigue call at one and recall at six P.M. again--when not at work we have drill about six hours a day, then you mount guard every fourth night or so, and you cannot turn out with an old dirty rifle or belts, your belts and shoes have to be blackened till they shine like patent leather and your rifle not the least bit of dust on it so that it would not soil the whitest handkerchief ever was." "I am well enough satisfied," wrote C.E. Gould to his brother, but he concluded with the admonition, "but Frederick never enlist!

The remaining years of the existence of Fort Bridger as a military post were, in general, uneventful. Paul Henderson has summarized the last thirty years of the fort's existence thusly:

Late in 1860 all the troops operating in the west were called east to suppress the War of the Rebellion. Fort Bridger stood deserted until 1866, when Major Burt came in with his troops to regarrison the Post.

During subsequent years, until 1878, the post was improved and enlarged by the erection of native cut stone buildings. Out of a clear blue sky the order came late in 1873 for the troops to withdraw for duties at other western forts. Again, Fort Bridger stood deserted until 1880 when the soldiers came marching back to again continue to improve and enlarge the place.

However, late in November, 1890, The United States Flag with its forty-four stars was hauled down to end the military regime at Fort Bridger.

For contemporary travelers who drive across Wyoming on I-80, or who follow the more historic route across South Pass, between Lander and Farson, Fort Bridger is still there -- still located amongst the green beauty of the trees and meadows of Black's Fork. Today a State Historic Park, it is as welcome and refreshing a stop today as it was for emigrants 125 years ago. But today it serves still another purpose; it is a historic shrine dedicated to the memory of all those who passed this way before us, and to the role they played in the building of a country.

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AUTHOR'S NOTE

Paul Henderson, who died in February, 1979, was historical consultant to the Wyoming State Parks Commission during the restoration of Fort Bridger as a Wyoming State Park. Mr. Henderson, who worked for the CB & Q Railroad for 47 years, was an amateur historian (in the highest and best sense of the word) of the Oregon Trail for most of his adult life. Upon his retirement from railroading, he worked as consulting historian for the Wyoming State Parks Commission for 8 1/2 years. A copy of the Henderson manuscript cited in this article was given to the author at some point during the year of sabbatical research he and his wife spent in Bridgeport, Nebraska, working in the Henderson Collection of Oregon Trail diaries. The diary excerpts all come from copies of diaries in that collection.

In the summer of 1985, the Oregon-California Trails Association dedicated a marker in western Nebraska to the memory of Paul Henderson and his outstanding historical and cartographic work on the Oregon Trail. It seems more than appropriate that this article on Fort Bridger should be similarly dedicated.

Copyright Robert Munkres 1981-2009 All Rights Reserved