- Jim Bridger: Trailblazer of the American West by Jerry Enzler
About a dozen notable characters of the Old West have reached near-mythic status through the books, stories, and films about them. They include Jesse James, Gen. George Custer, Billy the Kid, Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, and Indian leaders such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, and Geronimo. Judging from the thorough and factual account under review, Jim Bridger (1804–1881) belongs among these Old West worthies, even though he has never been elevated to such status. Author Jerry Enzler makes clear how significant Bridger was—and is—to the history of the frontier West.
Enzler's Jim Bridger provides a narrative overview of the famous westerner's life through an extensive discussion of Bridger's time in the mountains (1820s–1860s), almost year by year, emphasizing his shifting roles as a fur trapper and mountain-man leader; guide for overlanders and missionaries; and scout for military expeditions and scientists and explorers. These discussions supply the fullest account, thus far, of Bridger's life in the interior West.
Alongside these contributions are helpful additions on Bridger's personal life. He married three times—sequentially to three Indian women. He was the father of several children, half of whom died early. Bridger was illiterate and thus, like Calamity Jane, has always been a challenge for those who wish to scrutinize closely his thoughts and ideas. Enzler also provides illuminating coverage of Bridger's attitudes toward Indians, mainly as a friend and advisor to the Shoshone, Flatheads, and Crows but a dead-set opponent of the Blackfeet and Arikara.
Factual details are the strongest ingredient of Enzer's book. Utilizing a variety of printed primary and secondary accounts and a limited number of manuscript sources, the author furnishes thorough depictions of Bridger's life as a mountain man, explorer, and guide. "Old Gabe," as Bridger became known, emerges in full color here. Some readers might wish, however, that the author was more balanced in his views. Enzer is so sympathetic to Bridger that he seems unable to admit the limitations that others see in his subject: his negativity toward Mormons, his prolonged absences as husband and father, and his narrow-mindedness in social and cultural affairs. Also, more demanding editing could have improved the book. Too many typos and missing words remain, transitions are often abrupt, and interesting contextual material often is not closely linked to Bridger.
But these are minor shortcomings. This volume is now the most extensive of Bridger biographies. It reads easily, provides new information on Bridger as trapper and guide, and reveals a good deal about his ambition, energy, and memory. Altogether, a delightful read.