Mountain Man Jim Bridger Has Deep Roots in South Kansas City
By Diane Euston
James Felix Bridger, nicknamed “Old Gabe,” was born in 1804 in Virginia. When he was a young child, he and his family moved to St. Louis. When he was 13, he had lost his entire family, leaving him alone. He was uneducated in a formal setting and illiterate. He started to go on expeditions to the west when he was a teenager. He fur trapped, traded with the Native Americans and was fluent in several Native American languages, conversational French, and Spanish.
By 1824, when he was only 20 years old, Bridger was credited with “founding” the Great Salt Lake. In that same year, the South Pass was founded by a small group of men, including Bridger and another well-known and educated mountain man, Louis Vasquez (b. 1798).
Bridger went on to marry three Native American women and have six known children, one dying in an Indian attack in the Oregon Territory.
Bridger didn’t just travel over mountains. He was also a businessman.
In 1843, Bridger and Vasquez established Fort Bridger in Wyoming, designed to be a stop for supplies and provisionals for those traveling on the Oregon Trail. This is when the true partnership of Bridger and Vasquez blossomed.
By the 1850s, the relationship with the Mormons was questionable and the men opted to sell the fort in Wyoming to them, although accounts say they were never paid. Raising young children on the frontier was not an ideal situation, so by this time the men decided to move to the Jackson Co. area and settle into a much more stable life. By 1855, Bridger and Vasquez had left the frontier. Bridger continued to whet his appetite of the west by traveling as a scout. According to his daughter, he was sometimes gone as long as three years.
Bridger and Vasquez both had residences in Westport; however, both men purchased farms not too far away from one another in southern Jackson Co. Bridger’s farm, now partially marked across from St. Joseph’s Hospital, went as far north as Watts Mill and as far south as Glen Arbor Rd., just past Red Bridge Rd. Vasquez’s farm shared a property line with the great-great grandson of Daniel Boone and is bordered by Bannister Rd. on the south and 91st St. on the north.
By the time Vasquez and Bridger moved to Missouri, the town of New Santa Fe was outfitting travelers on the trails to the west. It was a bustling town on the Santa Fe Trail where State Line Rd. and Santa Fe Trail is today. In January of 1853, a deed indicates that none other than Bridger and Vasquez bought, $50 cash in hand, two lots in New Santa Fe.
These two men, with the spirit of a younger, vibrant businessman named Josiah Watts (1828-1895), ran a store in New Santa Fe called “Vasquez, Bridger and Watts.” Watts himself was a bit of a trailblazer, partaking in the Gold Rush in 1849 and returning to the New Santa Fe area after this failed attempt at getting rich quick. Watts was the brother of Stubbins Watts, the local “fiddling miller” of Watts Mill who was a known friend of Bridger’s.
The business operated through the height of the town’s success and operated as both an outfitting store for travelers heading west and as a loan service for those strapped for cash, similar to a title loan company today.
The Border Wars ripped the area apart, and most businesses, including the outfitting store Vasquez, Bridger and Watts closed for good at the onset of the Civil War. Vasquez lived on his farm where he died in 1868.
By 1875, Jim Bridger was blind. According to a biographical sketch published in 1950 by
the Kansas City Times, Bridger oftentimes said, “I wish I war back thar ‘mong the mountains agin. A man kin see so much farther in that country.”
In 1881, Jim Bridger died and was buried on a hill ½ mile north of Watts Mill in the Watts Burial Ground (currently 101st and Jefferson). He was later removed by an old friend and reinterred at Mount Washington Cemetery.
So much can be learned from these old mountain men and their dedication to the dreams they held. Gene Ceasar, author of King of the Mountain Men: The Life of Jim Bridger concluded,
Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com