altJim Bridger: Mountain Man by Stanley Vestal (University of Nebraska Press, 1970; originally published 1946)

I read this book, not only because of my 95 by 65 project's goal of reading 26 existing, unread books from my bookshelves, but because I remembered Jim Bridger from Porter's stories of his 1973 vagabond trip across the United States. He was particularly interested in Yellowstone National Park, which Bridger was one of the first white men to explore, and "Jim Bridger stories" were an enjoyable part of his research.

Consequently, I read this book with an eye towards its possible use as an introduction for our homeschooled grandchildren to the history and geography of that part of the country. Although the book is more serious and adult than I was expecting, it still might serve that purpose. It certainly was enjoyable for me to read.

On the other hand, I'm having trouble figuring out what age group the author intended as his audience. The text switches, often with apparent randomness, between straight narration and narration in what I assume to be mid-19th century Mountain Man vernacular. After a while, I became accustomed to the language, but to me this attempt to add color to the story only made it feel as if it were intended for a young audience. On the other hand, the "adult" situations and language don't commend the book to children. While certainly not graphic by today's standards, one must wade through several "hells" and one "nigger" plus some unpleasant descriptions of carousing—and of atrocities. And if the term "Indians" offends you when used in referring to Native Americans, you will cringe every time at the Mountain Man talk, in which they are always "Injuns," more often than not "cussed Injuns."

On the other hand, that was the way of the Wild, Wild West, and you're not going to get a truthful history of the time and place without some of it. And truth is what impresses me most about this book. Written in 1946, the tales are blessedly free of the modern myth that Native Americans were innocent and righteous until the white men came and ruined everything. On the other hand, it is more than usually honest for the time about the stupidity and cruelty of the whites. In addition to being a well-researched biography of Jim Bridger, discerning the man in the mythos that grew up around him, the book appears to be a fair depiction of the complex clash of Indian, explorer, pioneer, and military cultures.

I think Jim Bridger: Mountain Man would be an excellent addition to any homeschool study of American history—but parents should read it first.

 


 

The Oregon Trail following up the Platte through the buffalo country had frightened the game away. And, when a hundred thousand forty-niners came swarming over that trail, heading for California goldfields, the Indians became thoroughly alarmed, suspicious, and resentful. Buffalo would not cross that broad beaten "medicine road" which cut the Plains in two. After 1850 there were two herds instead of one: the Buffalo North and the Buffalo South. The coming of the white man had turned that great pasture along the Platte into a barren desert.

Neither the passing white man nor the starving Indian saw anything to admire in the other. The whites passed through too quickly to discover how false their notion of the Plains Indian was—the notion which they had brought from the Dark and Bloody Ground, the notion that every Indian was a treacherous thief and murderer, thirsting for the blood of every stranger and delighting in torture of the helpless.

The Indian hunter, on the other hand, whose most necessary virtues were courage, generosity, and fortitude, could only despise the caution, thrift, and sharp practice of the Yankees as the meanest vices; each being in his eyes simply a species of cowardice.

Because of this dislike and misunderstanding on both sides, there was constant friction and increasing distrust. But the Plains Indian had no newspapers to state his case, and so, by 1851, had been given a thoroughly bad name in the States.

There was constant enmity between Jim Bridger and the Mormon settlers, particularly their leader, Brigham Young.  This excerpt also shows the integration of plain text and Mountain Man vernacular.

Some would have it that all the trouble between these two men originated in a woman's spite. These persons would have it that, after Bridger's Ute wife died in childbirth, July 4, 1849, Jim married a Mormon woman, that they fell out and parted, and that her spiteful, whispering tongue was the source of all the evil rumors about Bridger current among the Saints.

This story hardly fits Bridger's known circumstances, tastes, and habits. He had as much sense as any Mountain Man alive—and hardly any Mountain Man alive was fool enough to wed a fofurraw white gal from the settlements. Pale as a ghost, thin as a rail, and green as grass, a white gal was no good in camp or on the trail. Moreover, Mountain Men had lived so long among the pesky redskins that their idea of female beauty war an Injun idee, and you can lay to that. Bridger sincerely respected his Injun women, treated them as wives, and adored his halfbreed children. And in those days, even if he had wanted to wed a white gal—would she have had him?

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 3, 2017 at 7:58 am | Edit
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