Wandering Along a Trail of Western History

Built by Mountain Man Jim Bridger in 1843 as a Trading Post to Supply Oregon Trail Emigrants, This Wyoming Fort Helped Open the West

Wednesday, August 27 2008 22:22   Wyoming

Visit the grounds at Wyoming’s Fort Bridger State Historic Site and it’s like wandering along a trail of history, a tributary of the great American West where explorers, fur trappers, Oregon Trail emigrants and Pony Express riders coursed by on their way to settling and taming the frontier.

Fort Bridger’s beginnings go back to 1843 when mountain man Jim Bridger set up a trading post on the Black Fork of  the Green River, close to the Oregon Trail. Bridger, and fellow trapper and adventurer Louis Vasquez, built a small pine-log stockade which included two log and mud buildings and a coral for horses. The buildings housed Bridger’s trading post, blacksmith shop and living quarters.



But Fort Bridger State Historic Site is more than just the story of a mountain man’s trading post, and later a US Army outpost. It reflects the history of what was going on in the West from the 1840s through the early 1900s.
Candy Moulton, a Wyoming author and someone who enjoys participating in wagon train re-enactments, told us Fort Bridger is one of her favorite places.

“In 2002 we organized a wagon train to travel across the Cherokee Trail in southern Wyoming—traveling east, rather than west as most adventurers went,” she said. “We camped on the grounds at Fort Bridger, bringing to life the period of the emigrant for other visitors to the site. That is just one of the wagon trains I've traveled with that has spend a day or so at Fort Bridger, a place that the majority of the pioneers who went West visited.”

Moulton has authored “Legacy of the Tetons,” a book about the emigrant movement and settlement around Wyoming’s Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole. Her book includes a section about the Mormon handcart migration, and of course there’s a Fort Bridger angle to it.

“For me Fort Bridger is important as a place where my husband’s great-great grandparents finally got to leave their battered handcart and climb aboard a wagon as they traveled from England to Great Salt Lake City with the Willie Handcart Company in 1856,” she said. “That company was one of two handcart groups who suffered immeasurably that fall when they started across the plains too late to reach Utah before winter storms swept over the land.”



In 1933, the Fort Bridger property was dedicated as a Wyoming Historical Landmark and museum after decades of neglect. Since then many of the old buildings have been preserved, restored or rebuilt by local groups and volunteers.

 If you’re planning on a trip that takes you through southwestern Wyoming, getting to Fort Bridger is pretty easy. Fort Bridger State Historic Site is 30 miles east of Evanston, just off Interstate 80 in the town of Fort Bridger on Business Loop I-80.

We visited Fort Bridger State Historic Site on a weekday morning in early June. After paying our entrance fee to a very friendly Wyoming Division of State Parks and Historic Sites employee, we parked and began our exploration.

The first thing that surprised us was the size of the property—the park is only about 40 acres, but it just seems to keep on going. We were also surprised by the number of restored US Army and post traders buildings. Our last surprise was how relatively small was Bridger’s fort.

Long since gone, Bridger’s stockade and log buildings are replicas, reproduced based on diary accounts from that period. The stockade sits about 60 yards northwest from where the original structures were built.

To reach Bridger’s fort, we had to walk past several restored buildings from the US Army outpost period—roughly 1858 through 1890. The path is easy and ADA-accessible. We looked at Carter’s warehouse, Carter’s mess hall, the post trader’s store, the school house and wash house, the ice house, the carriage house and the Pony Express barn.

Carter, by the way, was Judge William Alexander Carter, who along with his wife Mary, were Fort Bridger’s only two post traders. Arriving in 1857 with Army Colonel Albert S. Johnston and his troops, Carter was given the appointment of post trader. From there he built quite a large commercial empire in Wyoming which included lumber, agriculture, cattle, mining, and politics. Carter died in 1881, and Mary continued overseeing his enterprise until the Army abandoned the post.

The buildings are furnished, but visitors can only look through the windows at what life was like during those days.



We continued along the path, passing the 1887 guard house and sentry box, and eventually reached the 1880s barracks which now houses the Fort Bridger Museum. Inside are several displays including life-sized models of soldiers and civilians portrayed at various tasks.

Just behind the museum is the remaining part of the Mormon Wall, a bit of history from when in 1855 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints bought Bridger’s fort.

The Mormons built the wall as an additional defensive barrier against the Indians, but it’s more likely the wall was built in case fighting broke out between the Mormons at the fort and an advancing Army force under Johnson’s command. Before the troops arrived, however, in September 1857 the Mormons burnt Fort Bridger to the ground and deserted the area.

From the museum we took another path (not ADA-accessible) that goes back to Jim Bridger’s fort.

We pretty much had the fort to ourselves, so it was easy to stand quietly inside the stockade and imagine what it must have been like in 1843; Oregon-bound settlers stopping at the fort for trade goods, French-Canadian trappers camped outside the fort and sitting by a campfire, maybe even Bridger working the bellows at the blacksmith forge.

What’s amazing is to think that during the 12 years Bridger and Vasquez operated their trading post, thousands of emigrants passed by on their way to Oregon or California, many stopping to resupply or pick up fresh horses. What was even more remarkable for us was to take a short walk just north of Bridger’s fort and find a part of trail history.

Just steps away from the fort visitors will find the original route of the California, Oregon, Mormon, Pony Express and Overland Stage trails. We walked along the same place where settlers passed on their way West. It was exciting to feel history.

Inside the fort there is a store where visitors can buy souvenirs, sandwiches and snacks. It’s operated by a concessioner and it adds to the flavor of being in the reconstructed Fort Bridger.

We headed back into the Army outpost portion of the park, and took another path which leads visitors past the military parade grounds, the band stand and towards the Carter cemetery.

The cemetery was established on the fort grounds in 1933 through a joint effort by William A. Carter, Jr. and the Historical Landmark Commission of Wyoming. Re-interred there are the remains of Judge Carter, Virginia Bridger Hahn (Bridger’s daughter) and John “Uncle Jack” Robertson, a fur trapper who came to the area in the 1830s and stayed around the fort until, well into his 60s, he died.

Near the cemetery is the two-story commanding officer’s quarters, built in 1884. After the Army closed the fort, the building was sold and even used as a hotel for a short period. It has been beautifully restored.

There’s plenty to see at the main portion of Fort Bridger State Historic Site, and if you have time there’s another smaller area on the other side of state Highway 30. Over at that site you’ll find the 1880s commissary (now the site offices), a homestead cabin, the quartermaster’s storehouse and the oil house. There’s also a shop.

There are special events worth seeing at Fort Bridger, including an Easter Egg Hunt put on by the local Lion’s Club, an annual historical moonlight tour (reservations are a must) and a Halloween Night tour (we’re told there are at least three ghosts at the fort)  sponsored by the Fort Bridger Historical Association.

But the biggest event is the annual Fort Bridger Rendezvous which takes place during Labor Day Weekend (see below).

“The first time I visited Fort Bridger, the grounds were packed with tents and tipis,” Moulton recalled for us. “It was the annual Fort Bridger Rendezvous. Indians were drumming and dancing, traders had pelts, wool blankets, moccasins, and other items for sale. And what I remember most was a presentation by Bobby Bridger, grand-nephew of Jim Bridger, giving a talk about his relatives’ exploits.” 

We spent most of the morning at Fort Bridger and came away with a real sense of the West. We were told that in the settling of the frontier, from the early emigrants and the Pony Express, to the Overland Stage and the Union Pacific Railroad, somehow Fort Bridger was involved.

It’s also interesting to note that when Bridger and Vasquez built their trading post, it marked the end of an era. The days of free roaming fur trappers were ending and the time of the settlers was about to begin.

The Fort Bridger web site can be found at http://wyoparks.state.wy.us/Sites/FortBridger/index.asp