Pros: An interesting look at the early days of the West
Cons: Some personal details lacking
Thank goodness for the University of Nebraska Press in Lincoln. Thanks to them, many old books about the American West have been reprinted and kept alive for present and future generations to read. This particular book was first written in 1946 and reprinted by the University in 1970. It has gone through several reprints since then.
One of main things I like about these older books is that they are written in a more "folksy" tone and are not so stuffy as more modern books. This provides quite a bit more color and humor on what are often very dry subjects. Also, the older books were written either during or after the event or the person's life, so are closer to the immediate facts. Things tend to get lost with time, so these early accounts are invaluable.
These things are true of this book by Stanley Vestal. Jim Bridger is portrayed in a kindly but honest light, as a man respected but flawed. The personal tone really tells why Bridger acted as he did in certain circumstances and how he felt such compassion and respect for the western Indians. Since Bridger was one of the instrumental characters in the fur trade, many details of the fur trade as an American institution are given, as well as Bridger's role in it.
The book is divided into five main parts. The first gives details of Bridger's early years and his training as a blacksmith. Later he signs on with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company as an employee. An early event in his experience, occurs when his friend Hugh Glass is badly mauled by a bear. The expedition must hurry to winter quarters before the snows fly, so Bridger and Fitzgerald are left behind to guard Glass until he dies or gets well enough to travel. Fitzgerald gets nervous and talks Bridger into leaving Glass there as he is sure to die soon. Bridger feels terribly guilty over it and is astounded when Glass turns up alive at their fort. Because of how guilty he felt Bridger vowed never to rely on anyone but himself.
The second part of the book tells about Bridger's life guiding fur trapping expeditions of his own. Bridger was there at the Battle of Pierre's Hole in 1832. He was at several of the other big rendezvous. And he was there at the end, when fur trapping died when beaver pelts were no longer a hot commodity.
The third section finds Bridger at loose ends at what to do with himself after the fur trade ends. Settling in a city is out of the question. He eventually builds his own fort and builds it right on the Oregon Trail. He also has some confrontations with the Mormons and Brigham Young in Salt Lake City.
The fourth section tells about Bridger's experiences guiding emigrants and others across the country. Due to Bridger's phenomenal memory and keen attention to detail, he remembered every landmark and knew every animal track across the Plains. He guided big game hunters, emigrants, and the army.
The final section details Bridger's life as a paid army scout. He was there at the Fetterman massacre. He was stationed at Fort Phil Kearney. He was sixty years old or so by that time, and was not respected by the young officers. But after the Fetterman massacre they started to sit up and take notice; maybe the old man knew something about Indians after all.
The book has several maps to help the reader pinpoint the part of the country that is being talked about. Unfortunately, other than the picture of Bridger in the front matter, there are no other pictures. I found out partly why in the final chapter. It seems that while living out his final years on a farm in Kansas City, Missouri, no one ever bothered to talk to him about his past or take his picture. I found that very sad. You would think some other pictures could be found, though, maybe documents, places where he had been, or places where he had lived. Without the breaking up of text with pictures, sometimes the reading got a bit tedious with so little "white space."
Bridger was married at least twice and had several children. There wasn't very much detail given in this area and what there was, was often confusing. There were two Indian wives and several children. He had one daughter that was at the Whitman Mission when the Cayuse massacred all the inhabitants. The book tells of Joe Meek's daughter being killed, but not what happened to Bridger's daughter. Perhaps it isn't known. I wish more information had been given about his personal life.
At any rate, the book is very interesting, and gives great details about this era of history. It opened up the minds of the American public to the potential of the resources of the land beyond the Mississippi. Bridger rubbed shoulders with many of the other famous men of his time, such as Tom FitzPatrick, Andrew Henry, Kit Carson, Etienne Provost, and many others. Anyone who enjoys American history would like this book.