Mountain man and scout Jim Bridger's folks died near St. Louis while he was still a young lad of 14 back in 1818. To make his way in the world, Jim found work running a flatboat ferrying travelers back and forth across the Mississippi. The men he encountered were a rough-and-tumble crowd from Indian towns and forts out west, plus a lot of Cajuns from New Orleans. They were a reckless bunch, profane and spoiling for a fight at the drop of a hat. Jim had to grow up quick and learn to keep his ears open, his eyes peeled and his mouth shut, but he marveled at their stories of the wild frontier.

He became apprenticed to a blacksmith in St. Louis and learned to shoe horses, set wagon tires, make beaver traps and hammer out tools, so a lot of fur trappers came through the shop, as St. Louis was the center of the fur trade. He was awestruck by their stories of the buffalo herds, mountains and Indians. After a few years in the blacksmith shop he became about as restless and uneasy as a hungry coyote caught in a bear trap.

Finally, he broke free of St. Louis and headed up the Big Muddy toward the western edge of civilization, landing in what was not yet Jackson County. While camped around the Big Spring near today's Truman and Noland roads, he tied up with a company of fur trappers and headed off with them toward the Rocky Mountains. The first things he learned were how to get along with Native Americans and simply survive in the wilderness, and he developed a passion for exploring across the West.

Along about 1835 he struck up quite a friendship with Insala, a Flathead chief. Apparently, the chief took quite a liking to Jim, because he insisted he marry his daughter, Cora. That made him the chief's son-in-law, and Jim became a prominent member of the tribe. Cora made him a multiple-colored blanket to wear during special occasions and at tribal dances. The tribal members soon started calling him “blanket chief.” Cora then presented her man with a newborn, in fact, she soon presented him with a total of three new babies, then died shortly thereafter. When word spread throughout Indian country that Cora had died, a Shoshone chief offered Jim his daughter's hand in marriage. She soon gave birth to a baby girl and promptly died also. Some time later he married another Indian princess named Little Fawn and had two more babies.

Jim never had the opportunity to learn to read or write, and as his babies began to grow and get older, he decided he needed to make a change. He wanted them to have an education. So, they pulled up stakes and headed east, landing once again at the Big Spring, which had developed into the town of Independence with hundreds of covered wagons heading out the Santa Fe, California and Oregon trails.

Reference: “Kewpie Dolls, Peanuts, and Murder” by Jeanette Melton.

To reach Ted Stillwell, send an email to Ted@blueandgrey or call him at 816-896-3592