Rawlins, WY, RV World, Site 51 — 1 night
Monday, June 23, 2008 — Fulltimers 1 Year & 1 Month
Monday, June 23. We sightsee at Ft. Bridger and drive to Rawlins, WY
We left Evanston, WY at 9:00 am and drove half an hour east on I-80. We had long views across the plains looking towards tables and buttes. It was a beautiful sunny day in the mid seventies, very dry and with no wind. We planned to stop en route to Rawlins to visit Fort Bridger. I was anxious to witness some of Jim Bridger’s history as he led a long, active and remarkable life. Not only a brave mountain explorer, he was apparently well liked and a good teller of tall tales.
At 9:30 we pulled off at exit 30 in a truck stop. We unhooked the Honda and the four of us drove to exit 34, turned onto I-80-BL, and found Fort Bridger State Historic Site on Carter Ave.
Born in Richmond, VA in 1804, Bridger was lucky in that his long 77-year life span bridged the primary mountain man explorer, fur trapper, fur trader era between 1820 and 1850. Bridger was contemporary (5 to 8 years younger) to famous mountain men like Benjamen Bonneville, Jedidiah Smith, William Sublette and some 5 to 8 years older than Kit Carson. Jim Bridger walked the Rocky Mountains from southern Colorado to the Canadian border and he had conversational knowledge of French, Spanish and several native languages. During his travels, Bridger would come to know many of the major figures of the early west, including Brigham Young, (founder of Salt Lake City, leader of the Latter Day Saint movement, and Utah politician); George Armstrong Custer, (Union Army officer and Indian Wars cavalry commander); John Fremont, (military officer, explorer and California politician); Joseph Meek, (trapper, sheriff and Oregon politician); and John Sutter, (California pioneer associated with the gold rush).
Bridger was seventeen in 1821 when he joined General William Ashley’s Upper Missouri Expedition. He was one of the first non-Native American white men to see the geysers in future Yellowstone Park and the Great Salt Lake, which in 1824 he believed to be an arm of the Pacific Ocean. In 1830, Jim Bridger, 26, and several other trappers bought out Ashley and established the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, competing with the Hudson’s Bay Company and John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company for the lucrative beaver pelt trade.
Timing is all. On May 16, 1842 the first organized wagon train on the Oregon Trail set out from Elm Grove, Missouri, with more than 100 pioneers. A year later James Bridger, 39, and Louis Vasquez built their trading post when the fur trade was rapidly dying due to a change in Eastern fashions and the depletion of beaver from Rocky Mountain streams. The establishment of this trading post, later named Fort Bridger, marked the end of the era of free roaming trappers and the beginning of the westward movement of civilization. Thousands of emigrants stopped here for supplies, smith-work, or fresh animals on their way west to find land, gold, religious freedom, or a fresh start in a new land.
The Bridger-Vasquez stockade was not only an active trading post but soon became a popular stopping point on the Oregon Trail. The post became one of the most important outfitting points for emigrants along the Oregon Trail and was a vital re-supply point for wagon trains on the Oregon Trail, California Trail and Mormon Trail.
Meanwhile, Bridger continued his explorations. In 1850, looking for an alternate overland route to the South Pass, he found what would eventually be known as Bridger’s Pass, which shortened the Oregon Trail by 61 miles. Bridger Pass would later be the chosen route for both the Union Pacific Railroad and later Interstate 80. Bridger also guided prospectors to the gold mines of Montana. In 1864, he blazed the Bridger Trail, an alternate route from Wyoming to the gold fields of Montana that avoided the dangerous Bozeman Trail. He laid out routes for the Central Overland Stage and the Pike’s Peak Express Company.
In 1835 Jim Bridger married a woman from the Flathead Indians tribe with whom he had three children. After her death in 1846, he married the daughter of a Shoshone chief, who died in childbirth three years later. In 1850 he married Shoshone Chief Washakie’s daughter, with whom he had two more children. Some of his children were sent back east to be educated. Virginia Bridger Hahn, born at Fort Bridger on 4 July 1849 is buried in the Carter Cemetery at Fort Bridger. She was the daughter of Bridger’s second wife, a Ute Indian.
In later life Bridger served as guide and army scout during the first Powder River Expedition against the Sioux and Cheyenne. Known as Red Cloud’s War, the tribes were blocking the Bozeman Trail. In 1865 at age 61, Bridger was discharged at Fort Laramie. Suffering from goiter, arthritis, rheumatism and other health problems, he returned to Westport, Missouri, in 1868. He died on his farm near Kansas City, on July 17, 1881. He is buried at Mount Washington Cemetery in Independence, MO.
I thought of Fort Bridger as being the trapping and trading post established by Jim Bridger in 1843. I didn’t realize that much of the fort’s history involves occupation by the Mormons in 1857 as well as two distinct military occupations that span the period from 1857 to 1890. Fort Bridger was briefly occupied by the Mormons in the early 1850’s and then established as a military post by the U.S. Army in 1858.
Trading Post: 1843 – 1854
Jim Bridger’s original trading post consisted of two pole stockades. One measured 100’ x 100’ and contained two log cabins at right angles to one another. Each cabin was divided into two rooms. The proprietors and their families split one cabin and the other housed the blacksmith/carpenter shop and the traderoom. The other enclosure measured 100’ x 80’ and was used to corral the livestock at night to guard them against theft.
Westward bound emigrants were often disappointed upon their arrival. Unlike Fort Laramie, Fort Bridger was little more than a crude collection of rough-hewn log buildings. Emigrant, Edwin Bryant wrote, “The buildings are two or three miserable log cabins, rudely constructed and bearing but a faint resemblance to habitable houses.” Another traveler, Joel Palmer, remarked, “It is built of poles and dabbed with mud; it is a shabby concern.”
I didn’t realize that the major players in the fort were not just mountain men or military men. Women were primary contributors in the trading/trapping economy from 1843 to 1853. And Native Americans, primarily Shoshone Indians were deeply involved in the trading patterns that are associated with the great western migration from 1843 to 1868.
Westward bound emigrants needed food, cloths and leather products. Woman pursued 19th C. female dominated crafts and sold the fruits of their labor. They made clothes, ground flour, tanned hides, and made shoes. Most of these women were Native Americans. In July 1845, Joel Palmer wrote that at Fort Bridger there “are about twenty-five lodges of Indians, or rather white trappers lodges occupied by their Indian wives.” The women exchanged dressed deer, elk, antelope skins, coats, pants, and moccasins for such necessaries as powder, lead, and butcher-knives. (Palmer 1847:35). From 1843 to the military takeover of Fort Bridger in 1857, Native Americans were partners in trade and made up an important part of the social structure of this trading post along the Oregon Trail.
In July 1849, James Wilkins noted, “…considerable white frost was on the ground this morn….Altho’ there is plenty of grass and fine water, [with] a beautiful looking trout stream close by….They say they cannot raise any vegetables on account of the coldness of the nights.” (McDermott 1968:57) Unable to grow vegetables, Fort Bridger residents were dependent on native food sources — wild plants such as Indian Rice Grass harvested by Native Americans.
Mormon Occupation: 1854 – 1857
The Vasquez/Bridger trading post supplied Mormons with supplies on their trek to the Great Salt Lake that Bridger helped to discover. And Bridger discovered better and easier routes for emigrants. Nevertheless, no love was lost on Bridger by his Mormon neighbors. As soon as Mormons settled near the Bridger stockade, tensions arose between Bridger and the new settlers. Ten years later they seized Fort Bridger and the following year they established Fort Supply specifically for Mormon emigrants. It was located about twelve miles south of Fort Bridger and was meant to bypass Bridger.
Mormon settlers reported to Brigham Young, in Salt Lake City, that Bridger was selling liquor and ammunition to the Indians — a violation of federal law. On 26 August 1853, Young, a federal Indian agent, started a Mormon militia of forty-eight men for Fort Bridger from Salt Lake City. Upon arrival the Mormons discovered plenty of liquor, which they destroyed. They found no ammunition.
Jim Bridger escaped minutes before the Mormons arrived. Two months later, in October 1853 Bridger wrote to General B.F. Butler, a U.S. Senator. In his letter, Bridger claimed he was “robbed and threatened with death by the Mormons” and that over $l00,000 of his goods and supplies had been stolen.
Worse was to follow. In the spring of 1854, Brigham Young sent fifteen well-armed men to take control of the Bridger trading post. The men built a large wall of stone around the fort and several stone buildings. As well as the stockade, these men also took control of the Green River ferries. Both locations were an integral part of the Mormon settlement plan and considered to be part of the greater Utah territory.
Mormons controlled the fort until Jim Bridger returned a year later in July 1855. The Mormons asked him to sell, but he refused. However, due to pressure from the Mormon militia, he agreed to a sale of $8,000 a month later. $4,000 was paid immediately, and the balance was to be paid fifteen months later in November 1856. However the Utah War, an armed dispute between Latter Day Saint settlers in Utah Territory and the U.S. government intervened. Because of this confrontation, which lasted from May 1857 until July 1858, Jim Bridger never received the $4,000 balance owed him for his fort.
“No. 25 Erected June 25, 1933 — THE MORMON WALL.
On August 3, 1855 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints concluded arrangements for the purchase of Fort Bridger from Louis Vasquez, partner of James Bridger, for $8,000. Final payment was made October 18, 1848. A cobblestone wall was erected in the fall of 1855, replacing Bridger’s stockade. A few additional log houses were built within the fort. The place was evacuated and burned on the approach of Johnston’s Army September 27, 1857. A portion of the wall is here preserved. In 1855 Fort Supply was established by Brigham Young six miles south where crops were raised for the emigrants.
—Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association”
Military Occupation: 1857 – 1890
The Utah War made Bridger Fort a point of contention. In the fall of 1857 the U.S. Army planned to use the fort as a base to enter Utah Territory. Under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnston, the Army marched across the high plains towards Fort Bridger.
“Wild Bill” Hickman was a frontiersman and a personal bodyguard for Joseph Smith, Jr. and Brigham Young. A representative to the Utah Territorial Legislature, he was an important figure in the Utah War. To keep them from falling into the hands of the approaching United States Army, Hickman and his brother burned both Fort Bridger and Fort Supply on the night of 7 October 1857. As a result, Johnston’s Army, with little shelter and inadequate food supplies, endured an insufferable winter awaiting the spring thaw.
According to Wyoming Tales and Trails, the camp scene above right is “…somewhat inaccuarate. The Fort in the right background had been burned down by William A. Hickman in the autumn as a part of the Mormon’s scorched earth defense. The tents are also inaccurate. The Army used 250 of Henry Sibley’s newly invented and patented conical tents rather than the walled tents depicted in the image.”
Wyoming Tales and Trails also posts this description of the scene at Fort Bridger when the Army arrived. It is written by a New York Times correspondent.
“We reached Fort Bridger on the 14th [of November, 1857], and we shall remain here, in camp, this Winter. The wall of the Fort is built of cobble-stone, laid in mortar, four feet thick at the bottom about two feet thick at the top, and twenty feet in height. Adjoining this wall is a large corral, inclosed by a stone wall of the same description, about eight feet in height. These improvements were found uninjured, but the wooden gates, (which were very strong, (were almost entirely consumed by fire; all the buildings which surrounded the Fort were also burned to the ground. Hearing that there were vegetables at Fort Supply, cached and yet in the ground, a party went there to-day to see what could be found.
‘On arriving at the spot I realized for the first time in my life what I had imagined of the appearance of a sacked, burned and abandoned village. The place was marked by the blackened and charred timbers sticking up in every direction, and by the tumbling adobe walls and mud chimneys. There was a sense of desolation about those ruins of a recently beautiful settlement which was, to say the least, unpleasant. The Fort had been surrounded by pickets, which had burned down with the buildings. This settlement contained about 18 houses besides a grist and saw mill. There were about 40 acres of potatoes in the ground, but they were all spoiled by the frost. We found, by poking about among the ruins, a hole containing about three bushels of excellent potatoes. We found a patch of turnips and beets uninjured by the frost, and of them we secured a good supply. The wheat had been cut before the Mormons left, and had been burned in the stack. In the meadow there was 5 acres of hay, cut and lying as it had been raked up at the time of cutting.
‘Just before leaving the place a black and white cat ran out towards us, from under a pile of half-burnt timber. We gave her food and tried to capture her. She would not allow that, but persisted in keeping her lonely watch over the ruins of the old home.”
At the end of hostilities, Brigham Young paid the remaining $4,000 owed on the fort during the peace negotiations and thought he owned it. Though the government accepted the payment, they rejected Brigham Young’s claim to the fort, and furthermore, refused to recognize Jim Bridger’s continuing claims to the fort. By his death in July 1881 the matter was still unresolved. Only after almost two decades of effort by his descendants, was the debt finally settled when Congress appropriated $6,000 for the family.
During the Civil War, (1861-1865) the garrison dwindled in numbers as soldiers were sent back east. However, regular troops returned in 1866, utilizing the fort as a base of operations for southwestern Wyoming and northeastern Utah. The post guarded stage routes and the transcontinental telegraph line, accommodated a Pony Express station, patrolled emigrant trails, took action against Indian raids, guarded the miners who moved into the South Pass and Sweetwater region, and protected and supplied workers building the Union Pacific Railroad not far to the north.
In the frontier army, a newly-arrived officer could evict and assume the quarters of the man directly beneath him—a process known as ‘ranking-out’, dreaded by officer’s wives. It often started a chain reaction that left the youngest second lieutenant pitching a tent for himself and his wife.
By the late 1880’s the building served as a bachelor officer’s quarters and has been refurbished to show the contrasting lifestyles of an older captain and a young first lieutenant. Divided by a hallway, each officer has a private bedroom and parlor. They share a dining room and kitchen, which is usually the working area of the maid who is provided a small room next to the kitchen for her sleeping quarters.
After the turn of the century the rest of the log officer’s quarters, and many other wooden buildings were sold at public auction and carted off to become parts of local ranges and homesteads. This building was occupied and remained a private residence until the 1930’s and, consequently, was left at Fort Bridger.
The Commanding Officer’s Quarters was of frame construction and completed in 1884 during a period of extensive improvement at the Post. It supplanted the old log Commanding Officers Quarters which had been in use since 1858. This two story Victorian house served as the Commanding Officer’s quarters from 1884 until the post was abandoned in 1890. The luxury of the quarters and the list of V.I.P.’s who were entertained here suggests that the intended use of this building was as a guest house for visiting Army and civilian dignitaries.
After the abandonment of Fort Bridger in 1890, the building was purchased by a local family around the turn-of-the-century, moved closer to the highway and converted into a hotel. In the 1940’s, the building was acquired by an architect who, recognizing its historic value, dismantled and stored it. In 1979-80 it was reconstructed by the State using both original and new materials. Later, in 1984 the interior was repainted and refurnished to represent the building’s use as the commanding Officer’s Quarters.
The Commanding Officer’s Quarters measures approximately 41’ x 65’ including the rear wing. Entering from the front, the family parlor and the officer’s den are on the right, with the formal parlor and the dining room on the left. The kitchen and pantry adjoin the dining room and make up the rear wing of the lower level. Servants quarters made up the rear wing of the second floor, but it is now reserved for staff housing. Upstairs in the main part of the house, two bedrooms have been refurnished. Out back an outhouse from the original military fort is a reminder that indoor plumbing came late to the frontier.
The decedents re-interred in the Carter Cemetery in 1933 represent a very significant cross section of those individuals whose names and contributions will ever be associated with Fort ridger’s early day history. They include:
“UNCLE JACK” (JOHN) ROBERTSON – an early mountain trapper who came to the vicinity in the 1830s and remained until his death. A colorful local character, it is said he was instrumental in convincing Jim Bridger of the wisdom of establishing a trading post on the Black’s Fork.
VIRGINIA BRIDGER HAHN – born at Fort Bridger on July 4, 1849, daughter of the intrepid Jim Bridger by his second wife, a Ute Indian.
“JUDGE” WILLIAM ALEXANDER CARTER – who came to Fort Bridger with the United States Army in 1857; stayed to become a merchant-sutler; and with his family and associates went on to establish one of the most extensive business enterprises in Wyoming Territory.
Carter’s Fort: 1859 – 1928
Instead, William Alexander Carter took charge of the fort and made it profitable. Carter had come with Johnston’s Army as a sutler or storekeeper. He rebuilt and restocked the fort and stayed there with his family. He opened a general store and carried on a brisk trade with soldiers, scientific expeditions, miners and mountaineers, Indians, and emigrants on the Overland Trail. It made him wealthy. From 1859 until his death in 1881 Carter was a sutler and probate judge for Green River County. He was a key player in the economic development of the intermountain west. Carter was involved in mining, oil, logging, cattle ranching and he operated a sawmill.
Although Judge Carter dabbled in many areas, his main responsibility revolved around his activities as the post trader at Fort Bridger. In this store he sold various items not supplied by the Army to the garrison, including limited amounts of liquor. In addition to food, dry goods and other items regularly found in a general store of the period, Carter also provided a post office, as well as telegraph and even telephone service in the store’s many years of operation.
In 1860 Judge Wm. A. Carter erected the first school house in Wyoming for the education of his four daughters, two sons and other children of the fort. Competent instructors from the east were employed and the students of this school were permitted to enter eastern colleges without further preparation. Thus the way was paved for future education in Wyoming.
As an indication of his wealth and influence William Carter provided three buildings not commonly available to the average person on the American frontier. The first frame building served the family as a private school. It measured a mere 11 feet 3 inches by 14 feet 3 inches. Here the six children of Judge Carter received their rudiments of education. The adjacent stone structure was the milk house, an 11 feet by 16 1/2 feet processing and storage facility for luxury dairy products. The third building, the wash house, a 20 feet 2 inches by 11 feet 5 inches frame affair, made it possible for the Carters to bath in relative comfort and also to have the servants do the wash. Inside this small edifice is a “washing machine,” a new invention on the frontier. The walls of all these buildings rose less than 10 feet.
The Carriage House, Stables and Chicken Coop comprise a set of buildings. The first board and batten building with the large double doors served as the carriage house. Judge Carter owned several animal-drawn vehicles which lent an air of wealth to the isolated frontier outpost. He also constructed a stable next to the carriage house for his teams, as well as for use by the Pony Express for the little more than a year that this service kept a station at Fort Bridger. A tack room connected to the stables, as did a crude low wooden shelter for such stock as milk and beef cows. Adjacent to this shelter is the frame chicken coop. The Carriage House is the largest of these buildings at 21 feet by 16 feet 3 inches while the enclosed stable measures 12 feet 9 inches by nearly 16 feet. None of these structures stand more than 10 feet high.
At the northeast corner of Judge Carter’s complex are a Warehouse, Mess Hall and the log chinked Ice House. Three doors at the southern side appeared one over the other, allowing this tall building of 18 feet 7 inches by 14 1/4 feet to be entered at all levels as the ice stock began to grow lower with the coming of warmer weather. Ice could be taken to the stone building next door, the two story warehouse and butcher shop-meat storage area. The lower story contained the beef and included a type of walk-in freezer while the upper portion of this large 24 feet by 60 feet facility could hold stock such as dry goods. An “L” off the southeast corner provided space for Carter’s employees to take their meals. Two windows and a center door faced to the east to provide light and some additional warmth from the morning sun. This side measured 32 feet while the shorter ends were 18 feet.
Originally, Fort Bridger was in Utah Territory. It became a part of the newly created Wyoming Territory on 25 July 1868. Carter’s personality and the Fort were so intimately connected that to many contemporaries, Fort Bridger was referred to as “Carter’s Fort.” A highly respected man, he became known as “Mr. Fort Bridger,” Wyoming’s first millionaire.
William Carter’s family continued to live at the fort until 1928, when it was sold to the Wyoming Historical Landmark Commission for preservation.
Fort Bridger State Historic Site: 1928 – Present
Today, the fort is a Wyoming State Park. It contains a group of well-preserved and maintained structures. Some restoration has been accomplished, including the 1884 barracks building, which now houses a museum. Crumbling ruins of the commissary building and the old guardhouse, both built in 1858, are visible. In better condition are the 1884 “new” guardhouse, the 1858 sentry box and officer’s quarters. Also standing is the sutler’s store, Pony Express stables, post office, a group of lesser buildings, and a portion of the wall constructed by the Mormons. The foundations of other buildings are marked. Interred in the cemetery are Bridger’s daughter and Judge W. A. Carter, pioneer rancher in the area. Portions of the original fort grounds and some buildings are located on privately owned property outside the State-owned area.
The Changing Environment at Fort Bridger
Fort Bridger (6,673’ el.) is located in a high elevation valley where in 1843, Jim Bridger and his partner, Louis Vasquez, built a trading post on the west bank of the Black’s Fork, a river that drains the Uinta Mountains to the north and flows eastward into the Green River. When Bridger settled here it was a mountain meadow grassy area interspersed with greasewood and sage as well as some pines, cottonwood and juniper. However by 1850, intensive grazing by animals owned by westward bound emigrants and Bridger’s own cattle led to soil erosion in the immediate area. Today weeds have replaced the grasses that originally dominated and the area around Fort Bridger is relatively barren.
Around 1853 the Mormon colonists began to drain wet meadows and irrigate sage brush/greasewood flats along the valley of the Black’s Fork River. For local consumption and trade they grew potatoes, turnips, wheat and barley. They also managed to grow peas and rose hips. However in 1857 when the military took over, the Mormons abandoned their fields and much of the immediate area reverted to natural meadows. Overgrazing and tree harvesting created a barren windswept landscape around the fort.
In the 1860’s the military began to first plant pine trees around the fort’s parade ground. In 1870 a number of conifers were planted that have survived to the present. The military planted pines and watered them by irrigation. Irrigation ditches were excavated along straight lines in front of officers row. This irrigation ditch is still in place but in the early 1900’s irrigation ceased. However, along the Black Forks, as wetter conditions in the wet meadows returned, the trees planted by the military and native brush communities thrived. Aspen and willows along with cottonwoods increased in number during the years spanning 1900 to 1930. Today, willow, aspen, mountain meadow grass, and pines are the dominant plant communities at Fort Bridger.
We spent several hours at the fort walking around and looking at the various buildings. We left at 12:15 pm and returned to the truck stop where we ate lunch. Just after one o’clock we began our drive to Rawlins where we arrived almost four hours later at RV World. Rawlins, pop. 8,538, straddles the continental divide in south central Wyoming. Tomorrow we will drive to Casper, WY.
I obtained information from the posted signs on the grounds of Fort Bridger State Historic Site. However I also found a great deal of information on the Internet.
Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association erected The Mormon Wall sign.
I found excellent information on the Wyoming Tales and Trails page about Fort Bridger and the Mormon War.
Legends of America; A Travel Site for the Nostalgic & Historic Minded provided me with wonderful details about the history of Fort Bridger and the biography of Jim Bridger. http://www.legendsofamerica.com
I found the Stanbury Expedition sketch on a page titled, “The Oregon Trail” as well as the 1843 and modern Oregon Trail Maps. http://www.historyglobe.com/ot/ftbridger.htm
To put Jim Bridger’s life on a comparative timeline, I researched the lives of other mountain men fur trappers, fur traders, fur entrepreneurs as well as other famous men of the period. I found brief biographies on Linecamp: American Western History Museum in their section on Mountain men, trappers and fur traders. http://www.linecamp.com/museums/americanwest/hubs/mountain_men_trapers_fur_traders/mountain_men_trapers_fur_traders.html
Roadside Use of Native Plants, Wyoming, gave me a list of deciduous and evergreen trees found in the Fort Bridger area. http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/rdsduse/wy.htm
Western Wyoming Community College has a marvelous page on Wyoming History: Fort Bridger. It reports on the findings at Fort Bridger after nine summers of archeological excavations. They have defined four well-preserved occupational sequences, which include the trapping/trading post established by Jim Bridger in 1843, the Mormon stone fortifications built in 1857, and two distinct military occupations. The four stratigraphic levels show a continuous occupation of the area in the years between 1843 and 1890.
As the result of these excavations the most striking revisions to the historical record have been in three areas. First the fact that women were primary contributors in the trading/trapping economy from 1843 to 1853. Second, the fact Native Americans were deeply involved in the trading patterns that are associated with the great western migration from 1843 to 1868. And thirdly, the degree of environmental change that took place from 1843 to 1890. http://www.wwcc.wy.edu/wyo_hist/fortbridger.htm