Legendary Mountain Man Jim Bridger Lives on in Monumental Bronzes


This circa 1866 portrait of Jim Bridger guided each Clark and Jones as they modeled their bronzes. (Missouri Historic Society)
(Missouri Historic Society)

Scattered throughout the Western United States are sculptures of various measurement, accuracy and elegance that assist outline one of many archetypal figures of the Nineteenth-century American frontier—the mountain man, whose heyday got here throughout the 1825–40 peak of the Rocky Mountain fur commerce period.

Whereas interval writings, paintings and even images survive, the various levels of rigor with which sculptors have researched the mountain man—what he regarded like, what clothes he wore, the firearms he used and what different gear he relied on for survival and his livelihood—have resulted in works on a sliding scale between realism and impressed romanticism. Probably the most diligent sculptors have drawn particulars from the surviving photographs and written accounts of those that lived and labored as fur trappers, explorers, guides and surveyors. In fact, every sculptor’s personal impressed imaginative and prescient additionally elements into his work.

A number of sculptors have rendered statues of Jim Bridger, arguably probably the most well-known of all American mountain males. Virginia-born James Felix Bridger (March 17, 1804–July 17, 1881) made his mark as a trapper, U.S. Military scout, wilderness information and pathfinder within the many years after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s groundbreaking 1804–06 Corps of Discovery expedition to the Pacific Coast. Amongst different milestones, Bridger was one of many first frontiersmen to discover the Yellowstone area and the Nice Salt Lake. In his final 12 months Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), the “Cowboy Artist,” sculpted the lost-wax bronze Jim Bridger, which depicts the mountain man on horseback, clean-shaven, carrying fringed buckskins and a wide-brimmed hat, and elevating a rifle as his mount shies away from no matter Bridger is focusing on. It’s an evocative piece.

Charles M. Russell bronze of Jim Bridger (1926)
In 1926 “Cowboy Artist” Charles M. Russell sculpted this lost-wax bronze of Jim Bridger, proven right here in two views. (Amon Carter Museum of American Artwork, Fort Value; Gilcrease Museum)
(Amon Carter Museum of American Artwork, Fort Value; Gilcrease Museum)

Two present-day sculptors, Ott Jones and Alan David Clark, have additionally rendered noteworthy sculptures of Bridger that advantage a more in-depth look.

Ott Jones, whose bronze Jim Bridger—King of the Mountain Males is on public show in Bozeman, Mont., completely researched earlier photographs of Bridger, in addition to among the precise objects he wore or carried. When contemplating which objects to incorporate within the statue’s remaining design, the sculptor compiled a complete listing:

The well-known circa 1866 black-and-white portrait of Bridger reveals the mountain man carrying “rare” (i.e., new) buckskins and a wide-brimmed hat

•  powder horn fabricated from hole buffalo horn, slung over his left shoulder;

•  patch knife, hung round his neck, used to chop fabric patches to carry the gunpowder and lead ball in his gun;

•  giant skinning knife with antler deal with, tucked beneath his belt;

•  hatchet, beneath his belt on his bottom;

•  “possibles” bag, during which he carried numerous objects like fire-making supplies, fabric for lead shot;

•  shot bag, hung from his belt in entrance, which carried lead shot balls;

•  hole antler or horn tip, hung round his neck, used to measure the gunpowder;

•  brush and choose (gun instruments), hung from his belt;

•  cap holder fabricated from leather-based, hung from his belt;

•  castoreum (beaver scent), carried in a buffalo horn tip and hung from his belt;

•  entice, a one-spring setup, carried over his proper shoulder.

In 2000 Jones recognized three objects from the gathering of the Montana Historic Society (MHS) at Montana’s Museum in Helena that helped him refine his design. Most necessary was a postcard produced from a widely known circa 1866 black-and-white portrait of Bridger that reveals the mountain man carrying “rare” (i.e., new) buckskins and a wide-brimmed hat. The postcard was of such poor high quality that Bridger seems clean-shaven. Sharper variations of the identical picture reveal that Bridger in reality sported a brief beard. Jones’ modeled his remaining determine with a full beard and mustache (extra on that call later).

Jim Bridger rifle, powder horn and binoculars at Montana's Museum in Helena
On show at Montana’s Museum in Helena, within the assortment of the Montana Historic Society, Jones found this Hawken rifle, powder horn and binoculars identified to have belonged to Bridger. (Courtesy Ott Jones, Montana Historic Society)
(Courtesy Ott Jones, Montana Historic Society)

Displayed alongside the postcard have been a Hawken rifle, a powder horn and binoculars identified to have belonged to Bridger. Jones inspected every merchandise and selected to incorporate the rifle (held within the determine’s left hand up near the muzzle, its butt resting on the bottom) and the powder horn (resting on the determine’s proper hip, the strap throughout his left shoulder). The sculptor selected to omit the binoculars.

Historians have intensively studied and debated the topic of firearms in use throughout the fur commerce period. In his 1967 e book Firearms, Traps and Instruments of the Mountain Males creator Carl P. Russell referred to a rifle as soon as owned by Bridger as “the ‘normal’ percussion Hawken rifle as distributed to the mountain males throughout the larger a part of the interval of beaver commerce…[resembling] in virtually each explicit the Hawken rifles as soon as owned by Equipment Carson, Mariano Medina, Edwin T. Denig and James Clyman.” Because the publication of Russell’s e book, nonetheless, firearms historians have challenged his declare concerning the Hawken, noting that possession of the well-known rifle wasn’t widespread till after 1840, which marked the tip of the fur commerce period.

With a gun stick fabricated from some hardwood and a very good rifle positioned in his fingers, carrying from 30 to 35 balls to the pound, the reader could have earlier than him an accurate likeness of a real mountaineer

Whereas objects that belonged to Bridger have been obtainable to evaluate firsthand, Jones discovered it tougher to search out modern bodily descriptions of Bridger or his fur commerce cohorts. For assist he consulted the 1988 e book The Mountain Males, by George Laycock. Laycock contains many particulars about their accoutrements and look, together with an particularly precious firsthand description of the everyday mountain man from the 1858 e book Rocky Mountain Life, by author and someday explorer Rufus B. Sage:

His hair, by inattention, turns into lengthy, coarse and bushy and loosely dangles upon his shoulders. His head is surmounted by a low-crowned wool hat or a impolite substitute of his personal manufacture. His garments are of buckskin, gaily fringed on the seams with strings of the identical materials, reduce and made in a trend peculiar to himself and associates. The deer and buffalo furnish him the required protecting for his toes, which he fabricates on the impulse of need. His waist is encircled with a belt of leather-based, holding encased his butcher knife and pistols—whereas from his neck is suspended a bullet pouch securely mounted to the belt in entrance, and beneath the best arm hangs a powder horn transversely from his shoulder, behind which, upon the strap connected to it, are affixed his bullet mould, ball screw, wiper, axe, and so on. With a gun stick fabricated from some hardwood and a very good rifle positioned in his fingers, carrying from 30 to 35 balls to the pound, the reader could have earlier than him an accurate likeness of a real mountaineer, when absolutely geared up.

2003 Jim Bridger statue, by Ott Jones
Jones’ 8-foot-tall bronze of Jim Bridger stands exterior the Bozeman Space Chamber of Commerce customer heart in south-central Montana, close by of the Bridger Mountains.
(Courtesy of Ott Jones)

Jones included many of those particulars in his design, although it’s value noting Sage didn’t discover the area till the early 1840s, after the shut of the fur commerce period, and printed his account almost 20 years later.

In a chapter of his e book titled “King of the Mountain Males,” Laycock features a bare-bones description of Bridger as “tall, muscular…having a thick neck, excessive cheekbones, lengthy brown hair, blue-gray eyes and a hooked nostril.” Although he doesn’t cite a supply, the profile is just like one present in a 1905 biographical sketch of Bridger by Maj. Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, printed within the 1925 e book James Bridger, by J. Cecil Alter. As a surveyor for the Union Pacific Railroad, Dodge tapped Bridger for his pathfinding experience, and the final later employed him as a scout, so his description was from life:

In particular person [Bridger] was over 6 toes tall, spare, straight as an arrow, agile, rawboned and of highly effective body, eyes grey, hair brown and considerable even in previous age, expression gentle and manners agreeable.

Central to Jones’ modeling course of was the way to sculpt his topic’s hair, each on the top and face. The aforementioned MHS postcard, capturing Bridger in his early 60s, was the one authenticated picture the sculptor needed to reference. Thus Jones rendered Bridger with a head of hair that hung partway to the shoulders. His resolution to interrupt with the postcard picture and depict the mountain man with a full beard and mustache has borne out as partially right.

In his biographical sketch Dodge cites the 1866 picture because the “solely identified portrait” of the mountain man. As reproduced in Alter’s e book, the picture clearly reveals Bridger with a scraggly beard however no mustache. On condition that Bridger posed for the portrait greater than 1 / 4 century after the height of the fur commerce, Jones took artistic license and added a mustache to his determine of a youthful Bridger. The one different sculptural parts not sourced to any historic document are two eagle feathers tucked into the mountain man’s hatband.

Whereas Jones strove to make his statue of Bridger as correct as attainable, he did reference each a human skeleton and a dwell mannequin to render the fundamental anatomy of a match, middle-aged man. The ensuing determine captures the famed mountain man’s power of character as mirrored in one other passage by Dodge:

Bridger was accustomed to carrying metallic arrow factors in his flesh, to bearing knife and bullet wounds, and to the final discomforts that attended the lifetime of a frontiersman

Bridger was accustomed to carrying metallic arrow factors in his flesh, to bearing knife and bullet wounds, and to the final discomforts that attended the lifetime of a frontiersman, but he however attracted enterprise by his pure graciousness.

Dodge additionally described the 7-foot-tall granite monument at Bridger’s gravesite at Mount Washington Cemetery in Kansas Metropolis, Mo. The overall was the patron for the monument, which officers devoted on Dec. 11, 1904, simply earlier than Dodge printed his biographical sketch. On its face, above a abstract of Bridger’s storied profession, is a sculpted bust of the mountain man in reduction, clearly tailored from the 1866 portrait. The id of its sculptor is unknown. Regardless, as Jones confirms, “I by no means used the gravesite for any of my analysis.”

Having settled on a design, Jones first had his depiction of Bridger solid into maquettes (scale mannequin sculptures) for 2 business editions; the primary was 13 inches tall, the second 23 inches tall. In 2003, to solid his remaining, monumental mannequin in bronze, the sculptor turned to Northwest Artwork Casting foundry in Bozeman. Gifted by the sculptor to the individuals of Gallatin County, the statue was unveiled in September 2004 exterior the Bozeman Space Chamber of Commerce customer heart, at N. Nineteenth Avenue and Baxter Lane. Standing atop a 3-foot-tall brick-and-stone pedestal, with the eponymous Bridger Mountains seen within the distance, Jones’ 8-foot-tall bronze serves as becoming tribute to the enduring determine of the Rocky Mountain fur commerce period. It is usually a credit score to Jones’ efforts to incorporate historic particulars each particular to Bridger and in line with written accounts of the interval.

Jim Bridger bronze, by David Alan Clark
Standing with proper hand outstretched and uplifted, Clark’s statue convey’s Bridger’s id as a information the ultimate. (Courtesy David Alan Clark)
(Courtesy David Alan Clark)

David Alan Clark’s monumental bronze Jim Bridger stands on the entrance to Fort Bridger State Historic Website, within the southwest nook of Wyoming. It’s a becoming locale, as Bridger and associate Louis Vasquez first established the location in 1843 as a fur buying and selling outpost and resupply level on the Oregon Path. Through the 1857–58 Utah Warfare the mountain man turned scout leased the location to the Military, which occupied it on and off till 1890, when Wyoming was admitted to the Union.

In 2004 Clark approached the Fort Bridger Historic Affiliation together with his idea for a sculpture on the historic website. Receptive to the concept, the affiliation commissioned the sculptor and commenced elevating funds to cowl the price of the design course of and foundry casting of the 8-foot-tall statue. As expressed on his web site, Clark considers analysis an integral and fulfilling a part of any new challenge:

I consider that the perfect public artwork is the results of collaboration between my consumer and myself. My associate (and spouse), M.J., and I really like researching every new fee, creating novel methods to precise the spirit of the place and dealing intently with our shoppers to create a singular and timeless murals.

By Clark’s personal admission, whereas his portfolio is “broad and figurative,” he’s “not a Western artist.” Thus, whereas researching and designing the Bridger statue, he and his spouse sought the enter of two Wyoming-based specialists—Martin Lammers, historian of the state historic website, and A. Dudley Gardner, a professor of historical past and political science at Western Wyoming Group School. Their collaboration continued by 2006, when the sculptor accomplished his preliminary maquette.

Whereas modeling the face, Clark referenced the identical 1866 portrait of an aged Bridger utilized by Ott Jones, although he too rendered his topic as a middle-aged man, representing Bridger on the time he established the fort in 1843. Clark obtained his copy of the picture from Kansas Metropolis’s Mount Washington Cemetery, website of the mountain man’s grave and the 1904 memorial erected by Grenville Dodge.

Whereas researching Bridger’s stature and different bodily traits, Clark additionally drew on Dodge’s 1905 biographical sketch, however he and Lammers found one other modern description. An excerpt from the 1996 e book Information of the Plains and Rockies, 1803–1865, by David A. White, describes Bridger from his days as a information, sitting round a campfire. Left with the impression the mountain man had an “Olympic-caliber physique,” Clark modeled his statue in type.

Clark and crew took nice care to analysis objects worn or carried by mountain males. For instance, the sculptor personally inspected a J. Henry English-pattern flintlock commerce rifle, a variation of which Vasquez introduced to Bridger in 1853. Clark’s determine grasps the rifle in his left hand and has a similar-vintage flintlock pistol tucked in his belt. The flints within the jaws of each weapons’ hammers are wrapped in crimson flannel—a considerate historic element. The powder horn resting on Bridger’s proper hip relies on one other interval artifact inspected by the artist. Different period-specific particulars embrace “pucker toe” moccasins, a commerce knife in a leather-based sheath and a “possibles” bag.

As consultant fashions of the mountain man character, the Jim Bridger sculptures by Jones and Clark serve to visually improve the historical past of the fur commerce period

Two years handed from the time Clark accomplished his maquette until the ultimate, monumental mannequin was prepared for the casting course of. Within the interim the sculptor examined the Western works of Nineteenth-century painters Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (notably Trappers at Fault—Searching for the Path) and Alfred Jacob Miller for a glimpse at frontier figures, gear and clothes. All through the design and modeling course of Clark was impressed at how the area people of mountain males fans (a “most discerning viewers”) obtained behind the trouble. He credit their enter with figuring out, for instance, the selection of firearms introduced (flintlock vs. percussion).

Forged by the Eagle Bronze foundry of Lander, Wyo., utilizing the lost-wax technique, Clark’s Jim Bridger was devoted on Aug. 8, 2008. Dealing with the intersection of Major Avenue and I-80 enterprise in Fort Bridger, the workmanlike statue stands with its proper hand outstretched and uplifted, conveying Bridger’s id as a information the ultimate exhibiting the best way.

As consultant fashions of the mountain man character, the Jim Bridger sculptures by Jones and Clark serve to visually improve the historical past of the fur commerce period, each implicitly as outcomes of their surrounding communities and explicitly as fashions of a personality that unquestionably impacted the historical past of the West. WW

Fred F. Poyner IV is a Seattle-based historian and creator with almost 30 years of expertise researching and writing concerning the artwork and historical past of the Pacific Northwest, together with his two most up-to-date books, Pacific Fishermen Inc.: 150 Years of Norwegian Heritage Shipbuilding (2020) and Portland Public Sculptors: Monuments, Memorials and Statuary, 1900–2003 (2021). For additional studying he recommends James Bridger: Trapper, Frontiersman, Scout and Information—A Historic Narrative, by J. Cecil Alter and Grenville M. Dodge; Journal of a Trapper, or, 9 Years within the Rocky Mountains, 1834–1843, by Osborne Russell (edited by Aubrey L. Haines); Jim Bridger: Mountain Man, by Stanley Vestal; and Jim Bridger: Trailblazer of the American West, by Jerry Enzler.

Share: