Famous Men of the Santa Fe Trail

Carson’s nature was made up of some very noble attributes. He was brave, but not reckless like Custer; a veritable exponent of Christian altruism, and as true to his friends as the needle to the pole. Under the average stature, and rather delicate-looking in his physical proportions, he was nevertheless a quick, wiry man, with nerves of steel, and possessing an indomitable will. He was full of caution but showed a coolness in the moment of supreme danger that was good to witness.

Kit Carson House in Taos, New Mexico

Kit Carson House in Taos, New Mexico

During a short visit at Fort Lyon, Colorado, where a favorite son of his was living, early in the morning of May 23, 1868, while mounting his horse in front of his quarters (he was still fond of riding), an artery in his neck was suddenly ruptured, from the effects of which, notwithstanding the medical assistance rendered by the fort surgeons, he died in a few moments.

His remains, after reposing for some time at Fort Lyon, were taken to Taos, so long his home in New Mexico, where an appropriate monument was erected over them. In the Plaza at Santa Fe, his name also appears cut on a cenotaph raised to commemorate the services of the soldiers of the Territory. As an Indian fighter, he was matchless. The identical rifle used by him for more than 35 years, and which never failed him, he bequeathed, just before his death, to Montezuma Lodge, A. F. & A. M., Santa Fe of which he was a member.

James Bridger

James Bridger

James Bridger

James Bridger, ” Major Bridger,” or ” Old Jim Bridger,” as he was called, another of the famous coterie of pioneer frontiersmen, was born in Washington, DC in 1807. When very young, a mere boy in fact, he joined the great trapping expedition under the leadership of James Ashley, and with it traveled to the far West, remote from the extreme limit of border civilization, where he became the compeer and comrade of Kit Carson, and certainly the foremost mountaineer, strictly speaking, the United States has produced.

Having left behind him all possibilities of education at such an early age, he was illiterate in his speech and as ignorant of the conventionalities of polite society as an Indian; but he possessed a heart overflowing with the milk of human kindness, was generous in the extreme, and honest and true as daylight.

He was especially distinguished for the discovery of a defile through the intricate mazes of the Rocky Mountains, which bears his name, Bridger’s Pass in Wyoming. He rendered important services as guide and scout during the early preliminary surveys for a transcontinental railroad, and for a series of years was in the employ of the government, in the old regular army on the Great Plains and in the mountains, long before the breaking out of the Civil War. To Bridger also belongs the honor of having seen, first of all white men, the Great Salt Lake of Utah, in the winter of 1824-25.

After a series of adventures, hairbreadth escapes, and terrible encounters with the Indians, in 1856 he purchased a farm near Westport, Missouri [Kansas City]; but soon left it in his hunger for the mountains, to return to it only when worn-out and blind, to be buried there without even the rudest tablet to mark the spot.

“I would rather sleep in the southern corner of a little country churchyard, than in the tomb of the Capulets.” This quotation came to my mind one Sunday morning two or three years ago, as I mused over Bridger’s neglected grave among the low hills beyond the quaint old town of Westport [Kansas City], Missouri. I thought I knew, as I stood there, that he whose bones were moldering beneath the blossoming clover at my feet, would have wished for his last couch a more perfect solitude and isolation from the wearisome world’s busy sound than even the immortal Burke.

The grassy mound, over which there was no stone to record the name of its occupant, covered the remains of the last of his class, a type vanished forever, for the border is a thing of the past; and upon the gentle breeze of that delightful morning, like the droning of bees in a full-flowered orchard, was wafted to my ears the hum of Kansas City’s civilization, only three or four miles distant, in all of which I was sure there was nothing that would have been congenial to the old frontiersman.

At one time early in the 1860’s, while the engineers of the proposed Union Pacific Railway were temporarily in Denver, Colorado, then an insignificant mushroom-hamlet, they became somewhat confused as to the most practicable point in the range over which to run their line. After debating the question, they determined, upon a suggestion from some of the old settlers, to send for Jim Bridger, who was then visiting in St. Louis, Missouri. A pass, via the overland stage, was enclosed in a letter to him, and he was urged to start for Denver at once, though nothing of the business for which his presence was required was told him in the text.

In about two weeks the old man arrived, and the next morning, after he had rested, asked why he had been sent for from such a distance.

The engineers then began to explain their dilemma. The old mountaineer waited patiently until they had finished, when, with a look of disgust on his withered countenance, he demanded a large piece of paper, remarking at the same time, — “I coulda told you fellers all that in St. Louis, and saved you the expense of bringing me out here.”

He was handed a sheet of manila paper, used for drawing the details of bridge plans. The veteran pathfinder spread it on the ground before him, took a dead coal from the ashes of the fire, drew a rough outline map, and pointing to a certain peak just visible on the serrated horizon, said, — “There’s where you fellers can cross with your road, and nowhere else, without more diggin’ an’ cuttin’ than you can think of.”

That crude map is preserved, I have been told, in the archives of the great corporation, and its line crosses the main spurs of the Rocky Mountains, just where Bridger said it could with the least work.

The resemblance of old John Simpson Smith, another of the coterie, to President Andrew Johnson was absolutely astonishing. When that chief magistrate, in his “swinging around the circle,” had arrived at St. Louis, and was riding through the streets of that city in an open barouche, he was pointed out to Jim Bridger, who happened to be there. But, the venerable guide and scout, with supreme disgust depicted on his countenance at the idea of anyone attempting to deceive him, said to his informant, — “H—l! Bill, you can’t fool me! That’s old John Smith.”

At one time many years ago, during Bridger’s first visit to St. Louis, Missouri, then a relatively small place, a friend accidentally came across him sitting on a dry-goods box in one of the narrow streets, evidently disgusted with his situation. To the inquiry as to what he was doing there all alone, the old man replied, —  “I’ve been settin’ in this infernal canon ever since mornin’, waitin’ for someone to come along an’ invite me to take a drink. Hundreds of fellers have passed both ways, but none of ’em has opened his head. I never seen sich a unsociable crowd!”

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