By 1840, the Fur Trade Era, with its keen competition for beaver pelts, its raucous reputation for rendezvous, and its solid association with all that was wild and untamed in the Rocky Mountain West, was drawing its last breath. Mountain men who had survived the rigors of the wilderness were forced to seek new methods of employment. Two of those men, Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez, teamed up to operate a trading post in order to provide much needed services for the rapidly increasing number of settlers passing through on the way to their promised lands. After unsuccessfully trying two other locations, Bridger finally found the perfect spot, as stated in a letter he dictated and sent to Pierre Choteau Jr. requesting supplies in December of 1843.
“I have established a small fort, with a blacksmith shop and a supply of iron in the road of the emigrants on Black Fork of Green River, which promises fairly. In coming out here they are generally well supplied with money, but by the time they get here they are in need of all kinds of supplies, horses, provisions, smithwork, etc. They bring ready cash from the states, and should I receive the goods ordered, will have considerable business in that way with them, and establish trade with the Indians in the neighborhood…”
Thus, Fort Bridger was born out of the entrepreneurial spirit of its first owner, a *Mountain Man.
The establishment of Fort Bridger in 1843 was unwittingly an acknowledgement that the frontier way of life was ending. No longer would a man be able to earn his living off the bounty of the land, explore new territories, and discover nature’s wonders, unfettered by the demands and luxuries of civilization. The Mountain Men had lived in two worlds, adopting the Native American ways for survival, meanwhile, keeping ties with family back in the “states”, also for survival. The settlers, however, brought civilization with them, and as Bridger had shrewdly observed, “ready cash”, which he gladly exchanged for supplies, fresh horses, food staples, clothing and smithwork. For a decade, the Bridger Vasquez partnership worked successfully, with Bridger, who could neither read nor write, often traveling and trading, while Vasquez, kept the books and tended the store.
By 1853, two major changes in the emigration patterns brought about the first change in proprietorship of the Fort. Many settlers bound for the Pacific Northwest were bypassing Fort Bridger by braving the cut-offs or short cuts to Fort Hall, Idaho, after crossing the Continental Divide at South Pass, Wyoming. The reduction in customers had a negative impact on the economy at Fort Bridger. Meanwhile, the pioneers who were using the trail that went by Fort Bridger, in increasing numbers, were not stopping there for supplies. They were the Mormon pioneers, the second group of people to occupy Fort Bridger, and the second major change
The Mormons had originally passed through in 1847 under the leadership of Brigham Young. At the time, they were moving west, seeking religious freedom, settling in the nearby Valley of the Great Salt Lake and hoping for peaceful relations with their neighbors at Fort Bridger. After a few years and with the creation of the Utah Territory, which included Fort Bridger, the Mormon –Mountain Man relationship became strained. The Fort changed hands, but as with other intriguing aspects of history, what actually happened remains a mystery. Mormon records show receipts to the effect that they purchased the Fort in 1855 for a total price $8,000.00, $4000.00 of which was received by Louis Vasquez in 1855, and the other $4000.00, in 1858. Bridger, however, claimed that he had to flee the Fort in 1853 at the approach of 150-armed men sent to arrest him by Territorial Governor, Brigham Young. Bridger was accused of treaty violations, i.e. selling liquor and ammunition to the Indians. Young’s posse did not find Bridger, as he had heard of their approach, and fled, eventually to Washington D.C. where he pled his case to officials there. Whatever the case, the Mormon occupation of Fort Bridger was short-lived.
By the fall of 1857, political problems between the Federal Government and Salt Lake City resulted in President Buchanan ordering 2,500 troops to go to the Utah Territory to replace Brigham Young and other officials with people who were non-Mormon. As the troops approached Salt Lake, guided by Jim Bridger, in his new occupation as army scout and guide, Mormon colonists at Fort Bridger and the nearby Fort Supply, became very anxious. Perceiving the troops as an invading army, the Mormons attempted to dissuade them by ambushing their supply wagons and destroying a large portion of their provisions, at a camp about 100 miles northeast of Fort Bridger that is known as Simpson’s Hollow. However, the Army, led by Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, pressed on. With the Army undeterred, Mormon leaders made the decision to retreat and to implement their “scorch and burn” policy, leaving both Fort Bridger and Fort Supply in ashes. When the troops arrived at Fort Bridger, they found the smoldering ruins enclosed by a square cobblestone wall, now known as the “Mormon Wall”. Johnston left a few wagons in the enclosure, and then sought cover from a very harsh winter at the nearby, more sheltered location that was called “Camp Scott” in honor of General Winfield Scott. After a severe winter and months of negotiations, Johnston’s Army proceeded into Sal Lake City and installed the new officials without any further resistance, thus ending the “Utah War” or “Mormon War” in a peaceful manner.
While Bridger had been back East complaining about his unfair treatment by Brigham Young, he had made arrangements to lease his fort to the Army since they were going to be in the neighborhood, he did this in spite of Mormon claims that they had already negotiated the purchase of the fort. Consequently, in 1858, Fort Bridger was designated an Army depot, so the Military became the third occupant/owner of Fort Bridger. Colonel Johnston had taken over the Fort upon his arrival in 1857, troops had begun construction of necessary buildings in 1858, and in 1859, President Buchanan declared that the military reservation of Fort Bridger would encompass the area of the Mountain Man/Mormon Fort, a large coal reserve, and a sufficient buffer, for a total of 500 square miles. Over the next three decades, under military ownership, the Fort underwent several changes. Commanding officer's came and left, the troops were mustered in and out, buildings were built and then replaced, and the size of the reservation decreased and increased as deemed necessary by military leaders.
During times of flux by the military, the one constant presence at Fort Bridger was a man named William A. Carter, more often referred to as Judge Carter. He had come to the post with Johnston's Army in 1857 with permission to build a mercantile or "sutler" store on the military base. His store thrived as did his other occupations, which included Postmaster, probate judge, cattle baron, freighting contractor and beef and lumber contractor for the Army. Not surprisingly, in early Army circles, Fort Bridger was often referred to as Carter's Fort. During the Civil War, when all but a handful of the soldiers were called back East to fight, Carter armed around 50 of his own employees to help garrison the Fort. Later, after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad made travel much easier and safer an atmosphere of relative calm prompted the Army to abandon Fort Bridger. However the Fort was not vacant for long, because, an uprising of the Ute Indians in nearby Colorado resulted in the Fort’s re-activation in 1881. In 1890, however, Fort Bridger and several other frontier posts were permanently abandoned as the western territories entered statehood.
Following the last bugle call over Fort Bridger, the site underwent a transition that placed it in its fourth occupational phase. All of the buildings, except those areas still in use by the Carter family, were sold to the public and most were moved off of the grounds of the old fort. Local residents and livestock moved into the stone buildings that could not be moved away, as much of the remaining Fort ground was used to graze cattle. In fact the 1888 barracks building served as a milking barn for dairy cattle. This occupational period is referred to as the Milk barn era, or fourth 'M', representing the early civilian ranching community. This phase now includes the early Motor Age with the addition of the recently restored Black and Orange Cabins that were originally built to provide lodging for Lincoln Highway travelers.
The final and current occupational phase of Fort Bridger’s history, the Museum era began on June 25th 1933 at a ceremony at the site when the Fort was dedicated as a Wyoming Historical Landmark and Museum. This was in response to a donation of part of the original Fort grounds and buildings to the State of Wyoming by members of the Carter family. Gradually other areas were purchased and the process of restoration and preservation of this very valuable historic resource was begun and continues.
Today the military barracks a.k.a. civilian milk barn contains a Museum operated by the Wyoming State Parks and Historic Sites Division. An active local group, the Fort Bridger Historical Association, a chapter of the Wyoming State Historical Society, supports the site. Staff and volunteers provide costumed interpretation of the site’s restored buildings during the summer months. The season concludes with one of the largest Mountain Man Rendezvous in the nation every Labor Day weekend sponsored by another active support group, The Fort Bridger Rendezvous Association.
Several of the original Carter family and military buildings have been restored and refurnished for visitors to see. Private donations have also funded the restoration of the Ranch House and the reconstructions of the military bandstand, and of the trading post first established by Jim Bridger in 1843.
* The varied, lengthy and complex history of the Fort Bridger State Historic Site presents several interpretive challenges. The primary obstacle has been in trying to fairly represent all the aspects of the Fort's past with a comprehensive interpretive program that promotes understanding while helping to eliminate confusion. The story of the 5 M's has evolved as part of the effort to find a presentation that, with little variation, can be appropriate for all audiences. Is it working? Can you name the 5 M's?
For more information, please visit http://wyoparks.state.wy.us/Site/SiteInfo.aspx?siteID=17 .