On June 15, 1866 Colonel Henry B. Carrington defied orders from the U.S. War Department to fire mountain man Jim Bridger from his position as Carrington’s expedition guide. Instead, he gave Bridger a raise, to $10 a day.
Carrington’s expedition was tasked with opening a wagon road around the Big Horn mountains to Montana, across Sioux and Cheyenne treaty lands. The road was needed to enable miners to get to the gold fields in the West. The gold from the mines was needed to pay Civil War debts.
It isn’t clear why the War Department wanted to fire Bridger, but Carrington’s response to the order is clearing up. He reported that it was “impossible of execution.” Then he doubled Bridger’s pay from $5 a day to $10 a day. Bridger stayed on, and assisted Carrington not only with opening the road but also “subduing” the Sioux and Cheyenne and building Fort Phil Kearney.
This was the last of Jim Bridger’s big adventures. He would return to Missouri, where by 1875 he was completely blind. He died in mid 1881.
Bridger had been active in the West since the early 1820s. He is said to be the first American to discover the Great Salt Lake and crossed South Pass, an important link in the United States’ westward expansion, in 1827. After he founded Fort Bridger in 1843, it became an important stopping place along the Oregon Trail.
Although Bridger spent little if any time in New Mexico, he and trappers and guides like him were instrumental in breaking down the barriers, for good or ill, between New Mexico and the United States. If the story of the War Department’s decision and Carrington’s response has anything to tell us, it’s that even in their own time, the activities of these men met with a mixed reception, even in the United States.
Source: Stanley Vestal, Jim Bridger, mountain man, U of Nebraska P, Lincoln, 1946.