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Profile in Situational Awareness: Jim Bridger

The following is an account regarding the observational prowess and situational awareness of the legendary frontiersman, Jim Bridger. Keep in mind, this is not legend, this account comes to us from a military man, Captain H. E. Palmer, of the Eleventh Kansas Calvary. This account is found in another work by a military man, Biographical Sketch of James Bridger: Mountaineer, Trapper, and Guide (1905) by General Grenville M. Dodge.

After you have a read I’ll ask a few self-assessment questions. Again, ponder long and hard, these are pragmatic military men relating what they saw as observable fact and not some campfire tale or jejune super-hero story.

Jim Bridger

Captain H. E. Palmer, Eleventh Kansas Cavalry, Acting Asst. Adjt. Genl. to General P. E. Conner, gives this description of the Indian Camp on Tongue River, August 26, 1865.

“Left Piney Fork at 6.45 a. m. Traveled north over a beautiful country until about 8 a.m., when our advance reached the top of the ridge dividing the waters of the Powder from that of the Tongue River. I was riding in the extreme advance in company with Major Bridger. We were 2,000 yards at least ahead of the General and his staff; our Pawnee scouts were on each flank and a little in advance; at that time there was no advance guard immediately in front. As the Major and myself reached the top of the hill we voluntarily halted our steeds. I raised my field glass to my eyes and took in the grandest view that I had ever seen. I could see the north end of the Big Horn range, and away beyond the faint outline of the mountains beyond the Yellowstone. Away to the northeast the Wolf Mountain range was distinctly visible. Immediately before us lay the valley of Peneau creek, now called Prairie Dog creek, and beyond the Little Goose, Big Goose and Tongue River valleys, and many other tributary streams. The morning was clear and bright, with not a breath of air stirring. The old Major, sitting upon his horse with his eyes shaded with his hands, had been telling me for an hour or more about his Indian life—his forty years’ experience on the plains, telling me how to trail Indians and distinguish the tracks of different tribes; how every spear of grass, every tree and shrub and stone was a compass to the experienced trapper and hunter — a subject that I had discussed with him nearly every day. During the winter of 1863 I had contributed to help Mrs. Bridger and the rest of the family, all of which fact’s the Major had been acquainted with, which induced him to treat me as an old-time friend.

As I lowered my glass the Major said: ‘Do you see those ere columns of smoke over yonder?’ I replied: ‘Where, Major?’ to which he answered: ‘Over there by that ere saddle,’ meaning a depression in the hills not unlike the shape of a saddle, pointing at the same time to a point nearly fifty miles away. I again raised my glasses to my eyes and took a long, earnest look, and for the life of me could not see any column of smoke, even with a strong field glass. The Major was looking without any artificial help. The atmosphere seemed to be slightly hazy in the long distance like smoke, but there was no distinct columns of smoke in sight. As soon as the General and his staff arrived I called his attention to Major Bridger’s discovery. The General raised his field glass and scanned the horizon closely. After a long look, he remarked that there were no columns of smoke to be seen. The Major quietly mounted his horse and rode on. I asked the General to look again as the Major was very confident that he could see columns of smoke, which of course indicated an Indian village. The General made another examination and again asserted that there was no column of smoke. However, to satisfy curiosity and to give our guides no chance to claim that they had shown us an Indian village and we would not attack it, he suggested to Captain Frank North, who was riding with his staff, that he go with seven of his Indians in the direction indicated to reconnoitre and report to us at Peneau Creek or Tongue River, down which we were to march. I galloped on and overtook the Major, and as I came up to him overheard him remark about ‘these damn paper collar soldiers telling him there was no columns of smoke. The old man was very indignant at our doubting his ability to outsee us, with the aid of field glasses even. Just after sunset on August 27 two of the Pawnees who went out with Captain North towards Bridger’s column of smoke two days previous came into camp with the information that confirmed the observation.”

This is General Dodge himself on other aspects of Mr. Bridger.

General Dodge

“While engaged in this thorough system of trapping, no object of interest escaped his scrutiny, and when once known it was ever after remembered. He could describe with the minutest accuracy places that perhaps he had visited but once, and that many years before, and he could travel in almost a direct line from one point to another in the greatest distances, with certainty of always making his goal. He pursued his trapping expeditions north to the British possessions, south far into New Mexico and west to the Pacific Ocean, and in this way became acquainted with all the Indian tribes in the country, and by long intercourse with them learned their languages, and became familiar with all their signs. He adopted their habits, conformed to their customs, became imbued with all their superstitions, and at length excelled them in strategy.

Bridger was also a great Indian fighter, and I have heard two things said of him by the best plainsmen of this time; that he did not know what fear was, and that he never once lost his bearings, either on the plains or in the mountains.

As a guide he was without an equal, and this is the testimony of everyone who ever employed him. He was a born topographer, the whole West was mapped out in his mind, and such was his instinctive sense of locality and direction that it used to be said of him that he could smell his way where he could not see it. He was a complete master of plains and woodcraft, equal to any emergency, full of resources to overcome any obstacle, and I came to learn gradually how it was that for months such men could live without food except what the country afforded in that wild region. In a few hours they would put together a bullboat and put us across any stream. Nothing escaped their vision, the dropping of a stick or breaking of a twig, the turning of the growing grass, all brought knowledge to them, and they could tell who or what had done it. A single horse or Indian could not cross the trail but that they discovered it and could tell how long since they passed. Their methods of hunting game were perfect, and we were never out of meat. Herbs, roots, berries, bark of trees and everything that was edible they knew. They could minister to the sick, dress wounds — in fact in all my experience I never saw Bridger or the other voyagers of the plains and mountains meet any obstacle they could not overcome.”

Now, I ask the following… how well does your own observational prowess, your own situational awareness, your own “in the world” cunning stack against Mr. Bridger?

Do you require GPS for your own journeys?

Are your own eyes lifted from the phone to see 50 yards in front of you let alone smoke two days ride away?

Are our ears stuffed with earbuds or saturated with an endless soundtrack of music and podcasts that prohibit us from hearing every little here and now, whether that be wind soughing in the trees, the scrape of a shoe behind you, or the distinct laugh of your child?

Are we truly rough and ready keen-eyed sharp-witted men and women or do we merely sport the apparel and use Facebook icons to falsely signal our prowess as “paper collar soldiers”?

May we all be educated to at least ⅕th of Mr. Bridger’s prowess and never need it for bad aim.

If our awareness steers us out of trouble — Hurrah!

If it makes us alive to what is around us and enjoy it all the more — well, that is also a win, perhaps an even better win at that.

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10 thoughts on “Profile in Situational Awareness: Jim Bridger”

  1. It is in reading the stories of days gone by that we realize how precarious our life is now. Cell phones will not save us in an emergency. In fact, they may be what exposes us to danger. Not only do they distract us from our immediate surroundings, but they also broadcast our location to others who are more technological than us. I have tried to learn a fraction of the skills of people like Bridger in my life. I have not sought out well-published “experts” but found people who really knew how to track and live and find medicine and survive in wild places. I have lived with them and learned from them. Now as I approach what some consider to be old, I am still learning. Many do not even know that I know these things. I do not publish it. Would that there were thousands of men like me who would still be able to survive by being aware of their surroundings and familiar with them enough to glean a living from the world where God planted us. It is rich and boundless, not a barren wilderness. It is more dangerous than any could imagine but will be even more so if we share it with thousands of desperate, untrained humans with no knowledge or limited knowledge of nature. I hope that we never degenerate into people who would rather steal the contents of a backpack instead of learning from the heart of the man or woman who carries it.

  2. All of our surroundings tell us things. We have to be open to listening and seeing them. At 12, I went deer hunting with my father in the southeastern Ohio mountains. Dad was an avid outdoorsman and hunter. He taught me to camp, shoot, hunt, and reload all types of ammunition. After still hunting for 4 hours Dad headed Northeast saying “lets go home”. I stopped him and explained where I knew the car to be – Southwest about 3 miles. The woods were thick and hilly and you could not see more than 50 yards in any direction. Dad agreed to go my way for 1 hour after which we would go his way. An hour later we came out on the forest service fire road about 25 yards from our car.

    Dad was shocked and asked how I knew where we were. My answer – I paid attention the entire time, and especially when we were moving.

    Bow hunting white tail deer in dense woods can also teach you loads about nature and reading sign. You just have to be willing to look, listen and learn.

  3. I rather enjoyed that story sir, it took me on a journey that I haven’t been on in years. My brother and I started tracking as youngsters and both of us used all our resources to do whatever it took to locate whatever we were looking for. Now I’m over 50 years and for the most part I still have my behrens about me in the good old outdoors.

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  6. …gd day b to you!!..after i read the story and unbanning ability of Mr,bridger,i was reminded of my youth growing in a rural area outside of our place is surrounded by rivers and fishñonds,vast tract of is there I developed my extra senses..I used to go hunting birds with slingshot..then fish hunting with speargun..later I acquired an airgun to hunt fish and fowl..I do use cover or shade..sometimes perched high up on trees..being alone most times,unmoving..I soon developed my extra hearing ability: I could hear the faintest movement of crawling snakes,creeping rats,bird wing flaps..I could even see fishes about to surface when even still deep in the water to be seen!!..I could say constant exposure to the environment/nature is one of the key to acquire such an ability…

  7. It is true that we have lost our way that man is a true legend I was a boy scout.but never was taught anything close to what his skills .it was great to read this article.thank you.