Famous Men of the Santa Fe Trail

Bridger had a fund of most remarkable stories, which he had drawn upon so often that he really believed them to be true.

General Gatlin, who graduated from West Point in the early 1830’s, and commanded Fort Gibson in the Cherokee Nation over sixty years ago, told me that he remembered Bridger very well; and had once asked the old guide whether he had ever been in the great canyon of the Colorado River.

“Yes, sir,” replied the mountaineer, “I have, many a time. There’s where the oranges and lemons bear all the time, and the only place I was ever at where the moon’s always full!”

He told me and also many others, at various times, that in the winter of 1830 it began to snow in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, and continued for 70 days without cessation. The whole country was covered to a depth of seventy feet, and all the vast herds of buffalo were caught in the storm and died, but their carcasses were perfectly preserved.

“When spring came, all I had to do,” declared he, “was to tumble ’em into Salt Lake, an’ I had pickled buffalo enough for myself and the whole Ute Nation for years!”

He said that on account of that terrible storm, which annihilated them, there have been no buffalo in that region since.

Bridger had been the guide, interpreter, and companion of that distinguished Irish sportsman, Sir George Gore, whose strange tastes led him in 1855 to abandon life in Europe and bury himself for over two years among the Indians in the wildest and most unfrequented glens of the Rocky Mountains.

The outfit and adventures of this titled Nimrod, conducted as they were on the largest scale, exceeded anything of the kind ever before seen on this continent, and the results of his wanderings will compare favorably with those of Gordon Cumming in Africa.

Some idea may be formed of the magnitude of his outfit when it is stated that his retinue consisted of about fifty individuals, including secretaries, steward, cooks, flymakers, dog-tenders, servants, etc. He was borne over the country with a train of thirty wagons, besides numerous saddle-horses and dogs.

During his lengthened hunt he killed the enormous aggregate of forty grizzly bears and twenty-five hundred buffalo, besides numerous antelope and other small game.

Bridger said of Sir George that he was a bold, dashing, and successful hunter, and an agreeable gentleman. His habit was to lie in bed until about ten or eleven o’clock in the morning, then he took a bath, ate his breakfast, and set out, generally alone, for the day’s hunt, and it was not unusual for him to remain out until ten at night, seldom returning to the tents without augmenting the catalogue of his beasts. His dinner was then served, to which he generally extended an invitation to Bridger, and after the meal was over, and a few glasses of wine had been drunk, he was in the habit of reading from some book, and eliciting from Bridger his comments thereon. His favorite author was Shakespeare, which Bridger “reckin’d was too highfalutin” for him; moreover he remarked, “thet he rather calcerlated that thar big Dutchman, Mr. Full-stuff, was a leetle too fond of lager beer,” and thought it would have been better for the old man if he had “stuck to Bourbon whiskey straight.”

Bridger seemed very much interested in the adventures of Baron Munchausen, but admitted after Sir George had finished reading them, that “he be dog’oned ef he swallered everything that thar Baron Munchausen said,” and thought he was “a darned liar,” yet he acknowledged that some of his own adventures among the Blackfeet would be equally marvelous “if writ down in a book.”

A man whose one act had made him awe-inspiring was Belzy Dodd. Uncle Dick Wooton, in relating the story, says: “I don’t know what his first name was, but Belzy was what we called him. His head was as bald as a billiard ball, and he wore a wig. One day while we were all at Bent’s Fort, while there were a great number of Indians about, Belzy concluded to have a bit of fun. He walked around, eying the Indians fiercely for some time, and finally, dashing in among them, he gave a series of war-whoops which discounted a Comanche yell, and pulling off his wig, threw it down at the feet of the astonished and terror-stricken red men.

The Indians thought the fellow had jerked off his own scalp, and not one of them wanted to stay and see what would happen next. They left the fort, running like so many scared jack-rabbits, and after that none of them could be induced to approach anywhere near Dodd.”

They called him “The-white-man-who-scalps-himself,” and Uncle Dick said that he believed he could have traveled across the plains alone with perfect safety.

Jim Baker

Jim Baker, mountain man

Jim Baker, mountain man

Jim Baker was another noted mountaineer and hunter of the same era as Kit Carson. He was born in Illinois, and lived at home until he was 18 years old, when he enlisted in the service of the American Fur Company, went immediately to the Rocky Mountains, and remained there until his death. He married a wife according to the Indian custom, from the Snake tribe, living with her relatives many years and cultivating many of their habits, ideas, and superstitions. He firmly believed in the efficacy of the charms and incantations of the medicine men in curing diseases, divining where their enemy was to be found, forecasting the result of war expeditions, and other such ridiculous matters. Unfortunately, too. Baker would sometimes take a little more whiskey than he could conveniently carry, and often made a fool of himself, but he was a generous, noble-hearted fellow, who would risk his life for a friend at any time, or divide his last morsel of food.

Like mountaineers generally, Baker was liberal to a fault and eminently improvident. He made a fortune by his work, but at the annual rendezvous of the traders, at Bent’s Fort or the old Pueblo, would throw away the earnings of months in a few days’ jollification.

He told General Marcy, who was a warm friend of his, that after one season in which he had been unusually successful in accumulating a large amount of valuable furs, from the sale of which he had realized the handsome sum of $9,000, he resolved to abandon his mountain life, return to the settlements, buy a farm, and live comfortably during the remainder of his days. He accordingly made ready to leave and was on the eve of starting when a friend invited him to visit a monte-bank which had been organized at the rendezvous. He was easily led away, determined to take a little social amusement with his old comrade, whom he might never see again, and followed him; the result of which was that the whiskey circulated freely, and the next morning found Baker without a cent of money; he had lost everything. His entire plans were thus frustrated, and he returned to the mountains, hunting with the Indians until he died.

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