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The history of the American West is an incredible and complicated story of brave people, lurking dangers, and the vast unknown, unexplored wilderness of this enormous continent. Shaping this nation required some pretty extraordinary people to step forward and make history. Here are a few frontiersmen and explorers of the American west that helped make Idaho and the country what it is today.
These legendary explorers are well known to most Americans today and their expedition is a standard subject in most elementary schools throughout the western and midwestern states.
History tells us that, at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson, Captain Meriwether Lewis and his devoted friend Second Lieutenant William Clark set out to explore, survey, and map the recently made Louisana Purchase. In doing so, Americans from back east could get a foothold in the west before the French, British, or other Europeans could make their way through. They also hoped to make this journey profitable on an economic and scientific level by accounting for the region’s flora and fauna and establishing trading posts with Native American tribes.
Along their travels, they met a 16-year-old woman who was a member of the Shoshone tribe. Her name has many forms, but one of the more popular ones is Sacagawea. She was born near Salmon, Idaho, and, because she spoke Shoshone, she found favor with Lewis and Clark’s company.
Not only was her guidance and interpreting skills necessary to make the journey a success, but she was responsible for saving the written journals and records of Lewis and Clark after their small boat had capsized while floating the Missouri River. Without Sacagawea, much of the historical record we have about their epic mission would have been drowned forever.
Sacagawea’s presence alongside American explorers has reverberated throughout the generations as an instance of good relations between Native American and Anglo American cultures.
Idaho is only one of 11 states through which Lewis and Clark passed, setting up a foundation upon which the history of the western states could begin. These explorers were pivotal in making Idaho what it is today. Many schools, streets, towns, and businesses are their namesakes. Many statues of them can be found all over the country, including one in downtown Boise’s Cecil D. Andrus Park which is across the street from the Idaho State Capital Building. This statue does not depict Sacagawea, but commemorates the assistance the Expedition received from the nearby Nez Perce tribe.
Major Andrew Henry was not just a mountain man, but a businessman as well. He and gunpowder fortune beneficiary named William Ashley formed the Rocky Mountain Fur Co. to compete with the fabled Hudson Bay Co. who had merged with another fur trapping giant, The Northwest Fur Co. They, with the help of 100 young adventurers, became mountain men of renown as legends of their adventures trapping and hunting in the wilderness spread.
During their treks, Henry’s company fell afoul of the Blackfoot tribe. In an effort to keep going towards the source of the Columbia River without antagonizing the Blackfoot, they inadvertently discovered Henry’s Fork, a tributary of the Snake River, and, not much further away, Henry’s Lake. Outside what is now St. Anthony, Idaho, the company set up Henry’s Fort for the winter. This was the first time in recorded history that men of European descent had settled in this area.
James Felix Bridger, like the majority of the explorers and mountain men of America, served in the U.S. military before taking up trapping and trekking. He was famous for his storytelling talents, as well as his stout hardiness and survival skills throughout his many adventures. During the exploratory age of 19th century America, he became a living legend among his peers, and his name spread throughout the frontier like wildfire. Now historians and history buffs everywhere look on him as the archetypal Mountain Man.
You can see a portrayal of Bridger in the 2015 film The Revenant played by English actor Will Poulter. This film does well in capturing the popularly, if not historically, accepted version of the relationship between Jim Bridger and fellow mountain man Hugh Glass, the victim of the grizzly bear attack seen in the movie. Apparently, Bridger was yet a very young man when the attack occurred, some accounts naming him at 19-years-old, others saying he was but 17. He and another man named Fitzgerald, the story goes, volunteered to stay with Glass until he died of his wounds. Both Fitzgerald and Bridges made the mistake of assuming Glass was actually dead and left him after taking his belongings.
In the movie, Hugh Glass takes his brutal and righteous vengeance on Fitzgerald while graciously forgiving Bridges for his youthful and inexperienced mistake. There are some accounts that argue Glass merely chastised both men verbally and was adamant to return for his gun and other belongings, not to seek revenge.
Jim Bridges has a wide swath of land in Utah and Idaho named after him. The Cache Valley is known to the locals as Bridgerland. This region encompasses more than 1,100 miles of valley nestled at the edge of the Bear River Mountains. It stretches from Thatcher, Idaho, through Preston, then across the border into Logan and Hyrum, Utah.
The real Jeremiah Johnson (whose real name is John Garrison) is one of the most famous American mountain men of all time. This is mostly due to some tall tales about him seeking revenge on the Crow tribe for having killed his wife while he was away. Supposedly he did this by killing their warriors and eating their livers.
There are many alternative accounts of Johnson’s life as he roamed northern Wyoming, eastern Idaho, and southern Montana, many which contradict each other. The reason the revenge story gained so much traction was due, in part, to Idaho author Vardis Fisher’s western novel, Mountain Man: A Novel of Male and Female in the Early American West. The novel helped inspire the 1972 hit movie Jeremiah Johnson starring Robert Redford. Since the success and popularity of the film, Fisher’s novel, and other novels like it, the historical figures from the age of explorers and mountain men have enjoyed a renewed and romanticized fame.
Many courageous men and women took part in the complex and fascinating history of America.
You and the family can learn more about some of these great adventurers and others like them who had a hand in creating the Idaho we know today at the Idaho History Museum, the Idaho State Arhchives, the Old Penitentiary, or through the Boise Township Tours. Go! make a day trip out of it and get familiar with Idaho’s roots.
Idaho State Museum
Idaho State Archives
Boise Township Tours
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