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Monday, June 14, 2010

Expedition with Jim Bridger

Jim Bridger, 1804-1881
(Wikimedia Commons)

The next chapter in the life of James Gammell involves one of the greatest frontiersmen in American history. Jim Bridger knew more of the Rocky Mountains than any living man of his time. He and James Gammell seemed to be cut from the same cloth:

Naturally shrewd, and possessing keen faculties of observation…[Bridger] became one of the most expert hunters and trappers in the mountains.  Eager to gratify his curiosity, and with a natural fondness for mountain scenery… he familiarized himself with every mountain peak, every deep gorge, every hill, and every landmark in the country… No object of interest escaped his scrutiny, and when once known, it was ever after remembered.  He could describe with minute accuracy places he had visited but once, and that many years before; and he could travel in almost a direct line from one point to another…always making his goal…He never lost his bearing…As a Guide he was without an equal, and this is the testimony of everyone who ever employed him.

He was a born topographer; the whole West was mapped out in his mind…He could make a map of any country he had ever traveled over, mark out its streams, mountains and obstacles correctly…He never claimed knowledge of the country that he did not have. (1)

On the other hand, Bridger was ignorant of all knowledge contained in books; he didn’t even know the letters of the alphabet, and signed his name with an X.  Although totally uneducated, he spoke English, Spanish, and French equally well, besides nearly a dozen Indian tongues.(2)  Gammell must have had quite an education in the company of “Old Gabe,”(3) who was ten years his senior. Both strong-willed men, their relationship was at times rocky, as indicated by a lawsuit filed in Salt Lake County Court in April 1853.(4)   Bridger and Gammell died the same year (1881).

Enjoy this song by Johnny Horton honoring Jim Bridger:

After his escape from captivity in Van Diemen’s Land and his return to the United States (June 1842), James Gammell settled in Jackson, Michigan,(5) where he could have possibly created an idyllic life with a house, a farm, and white picket fence. But, as we know, that scenario would never be consistent with the temperament of our James Gammell.  There were still many more mountains to climb, more trails to explore, and more trials to endure before he would rest.

James married Harriet Fitzgerald on September 29, 1843, in Jackson, Michigan, and very soon after that, according to William F. Wheeler, he succumbed to his wanderlust, and ventured out on the plains.(6)  Although Wheeler includes no details about this first expedition, it is possible that James followed the Oregon Trail, where he may have met Jim Bridger for the first time at the newly built Fort Bridger (December 1843). James returned to Michigan sometime in 1845, and left again in 1846, probably before the birth of his first son, Orlin (July 5, 1846.)(7)

James didn’t settle long in Michigan before he decided to reenlist in the conflict with the British, this time over the Oregon boundary.  Nearly four years of captivity under what he described as British tyranny had only served to strengthen his quest for justice:

The controversy between the United States and England, concerning the Oregon boundary question, rose shortly after this to fever heat, and [James], with many others, believing it could only be settled by war and actuated by the feeling that he could be of some service to the United States, together with the desire of being upon the scene of conflict, started overland for the Pacific coast, intending to join in the war and to repay England as far as lay in his power for the injury she had done him. Before he had crossed the continent the boundary question had been settled by treaty, which, to his great satisfaction, included the release and restoration to their homes of the citizens of the United States who had taken part in the Canadian rebellion.(8)

Map of the Oregon Trail

In the early 1840s American settlers poured into the Northwest via the Oregon Trail. Possession of Oregon Territory became a huge issue in the 1844 election.  Democratic candidate James K. Polk advocated the placement of the border at 54ยบ40' north latitude, thus the famous slogan, "Fifty-four Forty or Fight!"  When he took office in 1845, Polk made it clear to the British that joint occupation was not acceptable.  Secretary of State James Buchanan quietly entered into diplomatic discussions.  On June 15, 1846, the Treaty of Washington was signed by Britain and the United States, setting the boundary between Canada and the United States at the 49th parallel.

Eager to join the conflict over the Oregon Territory, James started out from Michigan “with his own outfit, consisting of six horses and two wagons, in company with William Gansen, a son of Gen. Gansen of New York.” Several weeks into the journey Gansen drowned as they were attempting to cross the Platte River. When James reached Fort Laramie, he joined up with a company of three hundred emigrants and became the hunter for the wagon train, reportedly killing six buffalo in one day. He later reported two incidents that opened his eyes to the law of the Wild West. At the fort a “Mr. Cox shot his own brother while quarreling over a game of cards. He was tried by a citizen’s court martial, [which] found him guilty and shot him on the spot.” Another man, who “killed his partner, was tried at once and hanged.”(9)

Upon hearing the news from other emigrants at Fort Laramie that the Oregon conflict had been settled by treaty, James had no reason to continue on to the Pacific coast.  He traveled as far as Jim Bridger’s trading post, located in a lovely spot on Black’s Fork of the Green River in present-day southwest Wyoming.  William G. Johnston wrote his impressions of the spot:

We came to Fort Bridger…at the foot of the Uintah Mountains, which loom up grandly above the beautiful, fertile valley, surrounding the trading post, one of the most attractive spots thus far seen… There are several log buildings, surrounded by a high picket fence, and having a heavy, wooden entrance gate…(10)

Drawing of Fort Bridger

Bridger built his crude fort in just eight days in December 1843.  It was hardly a secure fortification against an Indian attack:

I cannot imagine how the term ‘Fort’ came to be applied to these trading stations, for they have no one point of resemblance to such a structure, Fort Bridger being even more completely destitute than the others of any such feature.  It is simply composed of a few log huts, closely huddled together, without as much as a loophole to discharge a musket through.(11)

On July 17, 1846, Edwin Bryant wrote a vivid description of the buzz of activity that took place on most summer days around Bridger’s place, located in the middle of nowhere:

Fort Bridger is a small trading post, established and now occupied by Messrs. Bridger & Vasquez.  The buildings are two or three miserable log cabins, rudely constructed, and bearing faint resemblance to human habitations. It is in a handsome, fertile bottom, about two miles south of the old wagon trail… There is the finest quality of grass in great abundance.  The stream is pure and cold, and abounds in spotted mountain trout.  There are clumps of cottonwood trees… There are numbers of traders here from the neighborhood of Taos, with dressed buckskins, buckskin shirts, pantaloons and moccasins to trade with the emigrants.  The emigrant trade is a very important one to the mountain merchants and trappers… During the day I visited several of the emigrant corrals.  Many of the trappers and hunters now collected here were lounging about, making small trades for sugar, coffee, flour and whiskey. Several Indians visited our camp…

Circles of white-tented wagons may now be seen in every direction, and the smoke from the campfires is curling upwards, morning, noon and evening.  An immense number of oxen and horses are scattered over the entire valley grazing upon the green grass.  Parties of Indians, hunters and emigrants are galloping to and fro and the scene is almost one of holiday liveliness.  It is difficult to realize that we are in a wilderness, a thousand miles from civilization.(12)

On July 20, 1846, after a flurry of activity, all the wagon companies moved off from Fort Bridger, including the celebrated Donner-Reed party to its ruin, when it was trapped by an early snowstorm in the Sierra Nevadas.  James F. Reed wrote from Fort Bridger, July 31, 1846: “We have arrived here safe, with the loss of two yoke of my best oxen…I have replenished my stock by purchasing from Messrs. Vasquez & Bridger, two very excellent and accommodating gentlemen, who are the proprietors of this trading post.”(13)

In August, just a few weeks after the ill-fated Donner party left Fort Bridger, James joined Bridger’s trapping party headed for Jackson Hole and the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. They would be gone for eight months. Bridger had explored the Yellowstone region for the first time in about 1830, forty-one years before the first official U.S. Geological Survey of Yellowstone (1871) and its designation as the first National Park. William Wheeler recorded James Gammell’s account of his first visit:

In 1846 I started from Fort Bridger in company with old Jim Bridger on a trading expedition to the Crows and Sioux.  We left in August with a large and complete outfit, went up Green River and camped for a time near the Three Tetons, and then followed the trail over the divide between Snake River and the streams which flow north into Yellowstone Lake.  We camped for a time near the west arm of the lake and here Bridger proposed to show me the wonderful spouting springs at the head of the Madison.  Leaving our main camp, with a small and select party we took the trail by Snake Lake (now called Shoshonne Lake) and visited what have of late years become so famous as the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins.  There we spent a week and then returned to our camp, whence we resumed our journey, skirted the Yellowstone Lake along its west side, visited the Upper and Lower Falls, and the Mammoth Hot Spring, which appeared as wonderful to us as had the geysers.  Here we camped several days to enjoy the baths and to recuperate our animals, for we had had hard work in getting around the lake and down the river, because of so much fallen timber which had to be removed.  We then worked our way down the Yellowstone and camped again for a few days' rest on what is now the reservation, opposite to where Benson's Landing now is.

From here we crossed the present Crow Reservation and made our winter camp at the mouth of the Big Horn, where we had a big trade with the Crow and Sioux Indians, who at that time were friendly towards each other.  The next spring we returned with our furs and robes, passing up the Big Horn River and over the mountains to Independence Rock and thence home.(14)

Bridger returned the following spring (1847) in time to meet the advance party (Brigham Young, Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow) of the Mormon pioneers,(15) and Gammell took his earnings and returned to his wife and year-old son, Orlin, in Michigan.
  1. Alter, J. Cecil, Jim Bridger, pp. 340-41. Words spoken by Major General Grenville M. Dodge, 11 December 1904, at the dedication of the monument he erected to Bridger in Mount Washington Cemetery, Kansas City, Missouri.
  2. Alter, pp. 172, 301.
  3. Jedediah Smith, who was known for reading his Bible around the campfire, gave Bridger a nickname. He called him ‘Old Gabe’ because Bridger, with his self-assured manner, reminded him of the angel Gabriel spreading the word of God.
  4. Salt Lake County, Utah, court files, April 21, 1853: “James Gammell, plaintiff, vs. James Bridger for trespassing. Settled by the Partys May 2, 1853. The plaintiff is to pay the cost to Sheriff. James Bridger has seized upon the above named goods ($500) without due process of law.”
  5. James’ letter to Mackenzie, dated January 24, 1843, indicates that he was settled in Jackson, Michigan.
  6. Wheeler, William F., “The Late James Gemmell,” Montana Historical Society, vol. II, p.332. Gemmell told Wheeler that he went out on the plains in 1843 or 1844.
  7. 1900 U.S. Census, Los Angeles, California, indicates that Orlin was born in July 1846.
  8. Wheeler, p. 333.
  9. James Gemmell obituary, The Dillon Tribune, April 9, 1881.
  10. Alter, p. 233. Quote from the diary of William G. Johnston, Sunday, June 17, 1849.
  11. Alter, p. 231. Written by William Kelly, 14 June 1849.
  12. Alter, p. 219. A quote from Edwin Bryant, What I Saw in California, pp. 135, 142-44.
  13. Alter, pp. 219, 221; Vestal p. 159.
  14. Wheeler, p. 331.
  15. Alter, p. 223.  "Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers chanced to meet James Bridger near the mouth of Little Sandy. A granite monument bearing a bronze plate, in the town of Farson, Wyoming, marks the “Site of the Bridger-Young Conference” of June 28. 1847.”


  1. Dear Liz,

    I just discovered your blog and feel that all my Christmases have come at once! I have also been researching the life of James Gemmell, my gg-grandfather. I am descended through his wife Susan Mariah Brown, their daughter Jeanette Gemmell, then her daughter Christina Duncan who was my father's mother.
    I have not taken time to to read everything here, but what I have seen is amazing. Your research is excellent. I don't know that I have anything that you do not already have, but if I do, I would be happy to contribute to this effort.

    Your cousin,

  2. Thank you, Sandra, for your comments. You are my first contact from the Montana Gemmell family! I would be thrilled to receive any information that you have. Do you have any additions or corrections to my James Gammell (Gemmell) descendant list? (I think I posted it in February.) Please feel free to contact me by email. (See "View My Complete Profile" above for a link to my email.)

    Your cousin,

  3. Hello Liz, I would love to buy your book. I have just recently discovered that I am related to James Gammell. My great Grandmother compiled an ancestry book years ago and there is some stuff about Charley Gammel, brother of Alice, Josephine Gammell, Virginia Gammell Garrity, Horace, Horward, Ida Braach Gammell, george, and so on. Please let me know how I can get my hands on this book. Thank You so much.
    Karyn McHoes Lawless

  4. Karen, how nice to meet another cousin. You can order the book by clicking on the book cover at the top of this page. It is available at Y Mountain Press, Provo, Utah. Here is a link to my Facebook page. We can communicate on that page:

    Elizabeth Gammell Hedquist