Conventional wisdom is that people just didn’t believe trappers’ tales of fountains of boiling water, mountains of glass and the other wonders of the upper Yellowstone. But that’s not entirely true, at least in the case of the famous Mountain Man, Jim Bridger. The U.S. Army apparently found Bridger reliable; they frequently hired him as a scout, included his descriptions in their reports and called him “Major.”
One of the officers who believed Bridger was John W. Gunnison, a lieutenant in the Army Corps of Topographers. When a severe winter kept Gunnison from doing surveys of the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1849-50, he used the time to do research on the people who lived there. He published a book in 1852 that included this description of Bridger.
The builder of Fort Bridger is one of-the hardy race of mountain trappers who are now disappearing from the continent, being enclosed in the wave of civilisation. These trappers have made a thousand fortunes for eastern men, and by their improvidence have nothing for themselves.
Major Bridger, or “old Jim,” has been more wise of late, and laid aside a competence; but the mountain tastes fostered by twenty-eight years of exciting scenes, will probably keep him there for life. He has been very active, and traversed the region from the head-waters of the Missouri to the Del Norte—and along the Gila to the Gulf, and thence throughout Oregon and the interior of California.
His graphic sketches are delightful romances. With a buffalo skin and piece of charcoal, he will map out any portion of this immense region, and delineate mountains, streams, and-the circular valleys called “holes,” with wonderful accuracy; at least we may so speak of that portion we traversed after his descriptions were given.
He gives a picture, most romantic and enticing, of the head-waters of the Yellowstone. A lake sixty miles long, cold and pellucid, lies embosomed amid high precipitous mountains. On the west side is a sloping plain several miles wide, with clumps of trees and groves of pine.
The ground resounds to the tread of horses. Geysers spout up seventy feet high, with a terrific hissing noise, at regular intervals. Waterfalls are sparkling, leaping, and thundering down the precipices, and collect in the pool below. The river issues from this lake, and for fifteen miles roars through the perpendicular canyon at the outlet. In this section are the Great-Springs, so hot that meat is readily cooked in them, and as they descend on the successive terraces, afford at length delightful baths. On the other side is an acid spring, which gushes out in a river torrent; and below is a cave which supplies “vermilion” for the savages in abundance.
Bear, elk, deer, wolf, and fox, are among the sporting game, and the feathered tribe yields its share for variety, on the sportsman’s table of rock or turf.
— From Gunnison, J.W., A History of the Mormons. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1852. p. 151
— Photo, Wikipedia Commons.
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