James Felix “Old Gabe” Bridger was born March 17, 1804 in Richmond, Virginia of English ancestry.
Jim moved with his family to St. Louis in 1812, drawn to the wonders wonders of the American west.
He served as a blacksmith’s apprentice from 1818 to 1822. Then at the age of 18, Jim responded to an advertisement placed by General William Ashley.
Ashley sought 100 men to “ascend the river Missouri” as part of a fur trading venture. As a member of this Upper Missouri Expedition, Jim became known as “Old Gabe” as one of Ashley’s Hundred.
Old Gabe became one of the first Americans of European descent to see the geysers and other natural wonders of the Yellowstone region.
He had a strong constitution that allowed him to survive the extreme conditions he encountered walking the Rocky Mountains from what would become southern Colorado to the modern Canadian border.
In the winter of 1824, Old Gabe gained fame as the first white man to see the Great Salt Lake (though some historians now dispute that status). Old Gabe believed it to be an arm of the Pacific Ocean.
By 1830, Old Gabe and several other beaver trappers bought out General Ashley and established the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
In 1835, Gabe married a Native American woman with whom he had three children.
In 1843, Gabe and Louis Vasquez established a trading post on the Oregon Trail, later named Fort Bridger on the west bank of Blacks Fork of the Green River.
After his wife died in 1846, Gabe married the daughter of a Shoshone Chief.
She also died giving birth in 1849.
Then in 1850, Gabe married another daughter of Shoshone Chief Washakie, with whom he had tow more children.
That same year, Old Gabe was out looking for an alternate overland route to the South Pass, when he discovered what would eventually be known as Bridger’s Pass. This short cut shaved 61 miles off of the Oregon Trail, and would later become the route for both the Union Pacific Railroad and later Interstate 80.
In 1864, Gabe blazed the Bridger Trail, an alternate route from Wyoming to the gold fields of Montana that avoided the dangerous Bozeman Trail.
He became a guide and army scout during Red Cloud’s War and the first Powder River Expedition against the Sioux and Cheyenne.
By 1868, suffering from goiter, arthritis, and rheumatism, Gabe retired to Westport, Missouri (a suburb of modern Kansas City, Missouri).
There Jim “Old Gabe” Bridger passed away July 17, 1881 at the age of 77.
For some 23 years, Jim Bridger’s grave was located in a nondescript cemetery just a few hundred yards from his farm house. Then in 1904, his remains were re-interred in the more notable Mount Washington Cemetery in Independence, Missouri.
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