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Wyoming History


Fort Bridger

Over the past nine summers archaeological emma.bmp (318056 bytes)excavations at Fort Bridger have defined four well-preserved occupational sequences. These include the trapping/trading post established by Jim Bridger in 1843, the Mormon stone fortifications built in 1857, and two distinct military occupations that span the period from 1857 to 1890. These four stratigraphic levels show a continuous occupation of the area in the years between 1843 and 1890. As the result of these excavations the most striking revisions to the historical record have been in three areas. First the fact that women were primary contributors in the trading/trapping economy from 1843 to 1853 has been overlooked in the historic literature; but this fact is very obvious in the material cultural remains at Fort Bridger. Second, the fact Native Americans were deeply involved in the trading patterns that are associated with the great western migration from 1843 to 1868 have also been under-represented in the historic literature; but once again the importance the Soshoni Indians played in this period is clearly seen in the historical artifacts recovered during excavation. And thirdly, the degree of environmental change that took place from 1843 to 1890 is just now coming to light. The reason we are just now beginning to understand the nature of the environmental change is due, in part, to the nineteenth century writers' lack of understanding the nature of continuity and change in the areas environment. Contemporary writers often saw Fort Bridger as an "island in the wilderness," but failed to understand the nature of this so-called "oasis in the desert." This paper will focus on the nature of the environmental change that has occurred due to human modification at Fort Bridger. We will also briefly discuss the significance of women and Native Americans at this trading post along the Oregon Trail. 

Brief Historic Overview

    Women at Fort Bridger actively participated inwoman.jpg (22481 bytes) trading with westward bound emigrants. Immigrants bound first for Oregon and later Utah and then, after 1849 - California: were often in need of food, clothes, and leather products. Women, as elsewhere in the trapping/trading frontier, made clothes, ground flour, tanned hides, and made shoes. Manos, sewing needles, hook and eyes, thimbles, decorative buttons, shoe parts, and prepared leather found in excavations indicate the presence of women at Fort Bridger. A reexamination of the historical diaries written by westward bound emigrants collaborate the fact that the material cultural remains found at Fort Bridger are indeed associated with nineteenth century female dominated crafts. The diaries also record the fact that the women living at Fort Bridger were selling the fruits of their labor. Most of these women were Native Americans.
    Native Americans played an extremely important role in the fort's early trading economy. Joel Palmer, traveling west in 1845, noted on July 25th of that year: at Fort Bridger there "are about twenty-five lodges of Indians, or rather white trappers lodges occupied by their Indian wives." These women exchanged "dressed deer, elk, ... antelope skins, coats, pants, [and] moccasins" for "powder, lead, ... butcher-knives, ... etc," (Palmer 1847:35). The nature of the material cultural remains recovered during the course of excavation suggest a substantial Indian population lived within the walls of Bridger's Trading Post. One Mormon emigrant reported "Bridger's Post consists of two adjoining log houses, dirt roofs, and a small picket yard of logs set in the ground about eight feet high. The number of men, squaws, and half breed children in those and other lodges may be about 50 or 60..." (Gowens and Campbell 1975). Relations with the Native Americans at Fort Bridger went beyond just trading. Loren Hastings traveling west in 1847 wrote that "at night having a fiddle and fiddler we went up with our wives to Ft and danced until 2 o'clock. I showed Bridger's wife and other squaws how to dance U.S. dances. There was some wild romance in this" (in Farragher 1979:145). From 1843 to the military takeover of Fort Bridger in 1857, Native Americans were partners in trade and made up an important part of the social structure of this trading post along the Oregon Trail.

The Environment
    Prior to 1843, when Jim Bridger (23039 bytes)built his trading post on the banks of the Black's Fork, the valley was marked by high elevation meadow grasses and cottonwoods. The Black's Fork, which drains the Uinta Mountains and flows eastward to the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado, passes through three distinct environmental zones. The first is a mountain zone marked by conifers and populous species. The next and lower zone begins at about 7200 to 6200 feet elevation and is a mixture of shadscale, greasewood, and sage. The third zone is marked by mountain meadow grasses. Meadow grasses are evident from  6,200   to  10,000 feet above sea level. These meadows are interspersed within the other two zones, but make up a distinct environmental niche that may stretch for miles.
    The geomorphological studies conducted at Fort Bridger show that prehistorically a wet meadow existed were the fort now sits. By 1843 this wet meadow was replaced by a sagebrush shadscale greasewood sagebrush community. It was this high elevation (6600 ft. above sea level) greasewood community that humans worked to alter. From 1843 to 1890 there was a constant effort to alter this plant community. Ultimately both the grass meadow land near Fort Bridger and the shadscale greasewood community would disappear. Remnants of these communities can be found down stream, but in the area around Fort Bridger new plant communities replaced the natural environment.
    From 1843 to 1857 it appears the area around Fort Bridger witnessed a certain amount of environmental degradation brought about by overgrazing. Prior to the Mormons' introduction of exotic plants to the valley in 1855 intensive grazing by animals owned by westward bound emigrants and Bridger's own cattle caused unforeseen damage to natural grasses. Overgrazing led to soil erosion in the immediate area. The pollen record reflects an increase in weeds which replaced the grasses that originally dominated the (32262 bytes)
    One westward bound traveler provides a brief glimpse of what Bridger looked like during the California Gold Rush. At Fort Bridger on July 25, 1849, James Wilkins noted "there are here 20 or 30 families of mountaineers principally Canadian French married to Indian women, and living in tents of skins...." A keen observer, he added "considerable white frost was on the ground this morn...Altho' there is plenty of grass and fine water, a beautiful looking trout stream close by. They say they cannot raise any vegetables on account of the coldness of the nights" (McDermott 1968:57). Initially unable to grow vegetables, the residents were dependent on Native Americans for these food sources. Their use of wild plants harvested by Native Americans is also born out by the presence of Indian Rice Grass found in one of the storage pits within Bridger's Trading Post (Gardner 1993). It should also be noted that when Wilkins referred to the presence of "plenty of grass" he is referring to locations up and down stream from Fort Bridger. According to some diary accounts Jim Bridger had restricted camping near his post. Until the archaeological excavations were completed we could only speculate that this was due to over grazing at the Fort.

    Sometime in 1853 the first experiments at large scale agriculture began to take place. In that year Mormon colonists began to drain wet meadows and irrigate sage brush/greasewood flats along the valley of the Black's Fork River. From 1853 to 1857 agriculture efforts focused on growing crops that could be used for local consumption and trade with westward bound emigrants. The Mormons also traded potatoes, turnips, wheat and barley to the Cocoons at Fort Bridger. Within the area excavated - wheat and barley pollen coupled with macro floral remains from these plants are found in close association with manos and flaked lithic artifacts suggesting Native Americans were making flour from these two new food sources.
    In addition to growing food, the Mormons also imported numerous exotics that failed to take root in the high desert of southwestern Wyoming. The pollen record shows that the Mormons were at least able to raise Castanea (chestnut trees), Nyssa (black gum trees), Ulmus (Elm trees) and possibly rose bushes to pollination stages (Gardner 1993). These plants, however, died at a later date due to either lack of water, diseases, cold temperatures, or a combination of these factors. Today these plants are not evident. The Mormons were, however, more successful in growing peas, rose hips, potatoes, turnips, barley, and wheat (in Gardner 1993). Nonetheless, in 1857 the Mormons abandoned their fields and much of the immediate area reverted to natural meadows. Around Fort Bridger, however, the area appears relatively barren.
    In 1857 the year the military took over Fort Bridger, the environment around the fort was recorded by a photographer. The oldest photograph of Fort Bridger shows that by 1857 there was very little vegetation near the post and all cottonwoods and conifers that may have once grown around the compound had been cut down. Overgrazing and tree harvesting created a barren windswept landscape around the fort. The military soon took steps to alter this landscape. Ultimately they would create a landscape unlike anything evident before their arrival.

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Sill log found during excavation that dates to the 1843 trading post.

    In the 1860's the military began to first plant pine trees around the fort's parade ground. In 1870 a number of conifers were planted that have survived to the present. In the summer of 1993, a number of these conifers had to be removed due to disease. Planted in the 1870's the rings of these pine trees show how xt.bridger.bmp (315656 bytes)the fort's environment changed from then until 1993. Beginning in 1870 and continuing up to 1890 the military watered the pine trees by irrigation. Irrigation ditches were excavated along straight lines in front of officers row. This irrigation ditch is still in place. In 1890, when the post was abandoned, homesteaders continued to use these ditches to water their hay meadows. But sometime in the early 1900's irrigation ceased. By this time the conifers had well-developed root systems and they continued to thrive without regular watering. It is at this point that the tree rings begin to reflect region-wide climate patterns. For example, during the 1930's the rings of the pine trees are extremely narrow reflecting the drought associated with the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. From 1900 to present, the environment at Fort Bridger was dissimilar to the surrounding area, due to the fact it lay along the banks of the Black's Fork River. Here along the Black Forks the trees planted by the military and native brush communities thrived. Aspen and willows along with cottonwoods increased in number during the years spanning 1900 to 1930. When wetter conditions returned the willow communities further expanded and eventually came to dominate the area. Today, willow, aspen, mountain meadow grass, and pines are the dominate plant communities at Fort Bridger.
    The geomorphology studies conducted during 1993 confirm the information obtained from z.grassland.jpg (12557 bytes)pollen analysis and tree ring data. The general sedimentary sequence at the site shows that the cultural deposits overlie fluvial soils. These fluvial deposits were formed in a wet meadow/flood plain that predates Jim Bridger's arrival in the area. By the time Bridger arrived the Black's Fork had incised "and the alluvium became better drained." In 1843, the fort was built on a terrace made up of sage brush, saltbush and grassland vegetation (Eckerle 1993:10, see attachment). Based on the pollen record it appears pines, cottonwood, and juniper trees grew nearby. Both pine trees and cottonwood were soon cut down for use in building the fort. Ultimately the trees vanished from the adjacent area. In the 1840's and early 1850's, due, in part, to the lack of trees, coal had to be used to heat Bridger's home and fire his black smith shop.
    In the strata identified as Bridger's occupation - very well sorted fine sands are evident. (Eckerle 1993:7). Wind-born, well sorted fine sands were probably being blown into the compound from areas where overgrazing had taken place and where heavy wagon traffic created erosional surfaces susceptible to wind erosion. Soils from the Mormon level are not so easily categorized due to the fact in 1857 the occupants burned down the interior buildings. Nonetheless fine sands are evident in the strata designated as the "Mormon occupational level" indicating that wind erosion continued. This wind erosion would temporarily be curbed by the military. The military's irrigation practices reverted the post to a grassland terrace, a trend that would continue following 1890. Within the upper strata grass pollens and sage pollens predominate. Yet, there is little salix (willow) pollen. This is intriguing since willow is the dominant overstory in the immediate area. There is also evidence of wind-born deposits in the strata post dating 1890. These wind-born deposits, however, are not as predominate as they are in the Bridger horizon. In fact in the years from 1890 to the present, very little soil deposition has taken place. Neither major alluvial or aeolian deposits built atop the military occupation. In most instances only 1 to 4 cm. of deposition overlies the clearly defined military occupation ending in 1890.

img22.jpg (34707 bytes)
Color photograph of the 1843 sill log after excavations were completed.

        In general, it appears that in 1843 Fort Bridger was built on a grassland marked by sage and greasewood. Nearby there were cottonwoods, pines and junipers, but none of these trees were in high numbers on or near the site. By 1850 the environment had degraded. Overgrazing and deforestation of the river bottom created a localized crisis. Blowing sand and dust became the norm. When the military took over they began to slowly reverse the trend and actually created a small pine forest or park that would last from 1870 to the present. Coupled with the expansion of willows, aspens, and cottonwoods downstream, the Fort visually became an "Island in the Wilderness" (Gowens and Campbell 1975). It was the military who permanently altered the landscape around Bridger's Post.
    The military had a landscape design in mind for Fort Bridger. Specifically they planned where they would plant trees. Along officer's row, adjacent to the bandstand, and near the settlers post the military planted pine trees. Unlike the Mormons the military did not introduce exotic trees, the military simply transplanted pine trees from the Unita Mountains. By moving these trees from the mountains north to the Fort the military utilized local flora to recreate a concept of a wooded landscape similar to one found in the eastern United States. As a result they created a historic landscape that is still visible today. It was not the landscape of 1843. Nor was it the same landscape the military found in 1857. It was landscape designed to suit the concept of what should be. The desert with its browns and grays gave way to the well watered green parade ground with its tree lined officers row. In less than 100 years the area around Fort Bridger went from a wet meadow, to a sage brush/greasewood/grassland, that soon became a barren overgrazed valley; reclaimed at least in the minds of the military, as a wooded bottomland. Except for the transaction from wet meadowland to sagebrush/grassland the changes had been caused by human activities.
img31.jpg (39507 bytes)
In the above excavation photograph the  "Mormon wall"  is located in the fore ground. the Sill log trench is located just east of the Mormon wall.  The foundations extending east (i.e. towards the top of this photograph) attach to the Mormon wall date to ca 1857 on the left and 1868 on the right side of this photograph.  This photograph was taken facing east.


We would like to thank Angela Gomez and Emma Gardner for typing this. We also want to thank Dr Richard Etulain, Dr. Tex Boggs, Dr. Colleen Altaffer Smith, and Martin Lammers for their  assistance in  this ongoing research project. Thanks to Linda Newman Byers, Kevin Thompson,Connie Larson, Jamey Zehr, Dr. x.will.jpg (22984 bytes)Danny Walker, Tisa Cheney, Cecil Sanderson,   David Johnson, Halcyon Lapoint, Debbie Braithwaite, Jennifer Rouse, Jana Pastor, Karla Behunin, Marcy Rockman, Hidemichi Fujisawa, and the volunteers from Bridger Valley who provide labor and funds for this project. The door that Dr Elizabeth Jameson opened for me taught me the nature of women's contribution to fur trading in the west - for this I will be eternally grateful. Dr. William Snell, Dr. Murl Dirksen, Dr Connell-Szasz provided encouragement and thoughtful discourse about Native American: this paper reflects many of our discussions. Over the years Jodie gave money and effort to support the excavations at Fort Bridger this debt can not be repaid with words.

Sources Cited

Farragher, J. M., Women and Men On The Overland Trail, 1979, Yale
1979 University Press, New Haven, CT and London.

Gardner, A. D., "Data Sets (1990-1991) and Historic Overview
1992 (1992) for Fort Bridger," Ms. on file Archaeological Services of Western Wyoming College, Rock Springs, WY.

Gowens, F. R. and E. E. Campbell, Fort Bridger: Island in the
1975 Wilderness, Brigham Young University Press, Provo, UT The citation in the text is from the Journal History, July 7, 1847. This journal is for the "Saints" 1847 migration to the Salt Lake Valley.

Palmer, Joel, Journal of Travels over the Rocky Mountains to the
1847 Mouth of the Columbia River: Made During the Years 1845 and 1846, J. A. and U. P. James Publisher, Cincinnati, OH.

McDermott, J. F. ed., An Artist on the Overland Trail - 1849
1968 Diary and Sketching, James F. Wilkins, 1968, Hunnington Library, San Mateo, CA.

Additional information about "trapper era" forts excavated in Wyoming can be found at  the following web site:


If you have any questions please feel free to contact Dudley Gardner.

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