Bridger's Trail by L.D. Edgar Map drawn by William Atchinson Bridger's Trail by L.D. Edgar Map drawn by William Atchinson Bridger's Trail by L.D. Edgar Map drawn by William Atchinson Bridger's Trail by L.D. Edgar Map drawn by William Atchinson Photograph of Jim Bridger, American Heritage Center-William Henry Jackson scbl#160 Photograph of Jim Bridger, American Heritage Center-William Henry Jackson scbl#160
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Water, forage and food

To the emigrants along the trail the availability of water and feed for their stock was of paramount importance. This factor and the physical condition of the road influenced their decision as much or more than the threat of Indian hostilities. More than a few emigrants chose to return to the main Oregon-California trail after a few miles or days on the Bridger Trail. The majority of travelers in 1864 chose to take the longer and safer route that was less arduous for themselves and their livestock. Without livestock, their very means of transportation was threatened. The only solutions to lost livestock were to acquire replacements at one of the forts or posts along the trail or to get substitutes from others in the train who had a surplus of animals. In general, water and grass were less available along the Bridger Trail than along the Bozeman Trail. The loss of livestock was the norm on the Bridger Trail, not the exception, as the Bridger Trail diaries make clear.

Food supplies were equally essential for travelers along the distant trails. Bulk commodities such as flour, beans, rice, cornmeal, sugar, bacon, salt, dried fruit, and coffee were initially brought along. These supplies could be replaced or augmented at the established forts along the trail. Some emigrants, like Howard Stanfield, departed home overloaded with too many supplies, and early on had to ship surplus goods home or sell them along the trail to lighten their loads. An abundance of game in some regions provided supplies of fresh meat that were a welcome addition to the otherwise monotonous trail fare.

The first 75 miles: bad water and poor pasture
The most prevalent observation by emigrants in 1864 along the first 75 miles of trail was the lack of good water, or any water at all, and limited pasture for their animals. Howard Stanfield recalled during the first week in June that "the first three or four days on the new road feed and water were most fearfully scarce that we crossed what was almost a desert 70 miles in width on which we had a tight pinch to get grass for our stock." Albert Brubaker found "nothing but alkali water to drink" and several trains were forced to dig wells in dry stream beds in to get water for their stock. Frank Kirkaldie was with one of the last trains to travel the trail that summer. He noted that "The first 60 or 70 miles of the new road passes over a country which is as near a desert as anything I ever wish to see….There was absolutely no grass or water, except at a few points where we camped and we were obliged to make some long drives without feed or water, 20 and 25 miles…."

These harsh conditions forced some emigrants from at least three trains to quit the Bridger Trail and return to the main Oregon-California Trail. Albert Brubaker traveled only 9 miles along the Bridger trail before turning back. His reasons for turning back were the bad water and the poor condition of the road. He wrote, "the cut-off was just like a new road through sage brush….it was too hard on the mules." Those that did press on risked losing their stock. Major Owen on September 24th mentioned seeing "the remains of quite a number of dead oxen strewn along the road."

Over the Bridger Mountains to the Bighorn River
Water and feed ceased to be such a serious problem once the emigrants reached Badwater Creek at the base of the Bridger Mountains. Most emigrants found their first good supply of water and grass on Bridger Creek (originally known as Willow Creek) just north of Badwater Creek. Most of the trains stopped at this location to rest their tired stock and recuperate. William Haskell reached Bridger Creek on June 30th. He "drove six miles and camped on a nice creek with an abundance of grass." This should have been a welcome relief after losing "the best animal in the outfit" the day before. A day later he chose to stay behind a day and rest his stock before continuing on.

Bridger Creek provided a practical and well-watered, but rough uphill, route over the mountain range. Cornelius Hedges described the trail on June 9th as "hard and hilly." Major Owen "Traveled 11 miles over a very rough country road generally good but found some Very steep grades obliged to double team in two instances…. Camped in a small Vally [sic] on willow creek finding a plentiful supply of good grass and water."

Near the summit the road became more rough and narrow as described by William Haskell on July 3rd. "Traveled till about 10 o'clock tonight to find water for the cattle. The road run over Mountain peaks where there was just room enough for the wagons to pass; two feet off either side would have sent us down hundreds of feet below; in some places it took us all to keep the teams in the road and the wagon right side up; we made but a short drive today, there was so much doubling of teams…." Major Owen also had trouble with the pass. On October 1st he described "hard pulling up the Hill. Turned over one of Col Vaughns Wagons on the Hill & another close to our camp …."

After crossing the summit the travelers went down the Kirby Creek drainage to the Bighorn River. Several emigrants mentioned running out of water on this stretch later in the summer and had to send riders ahead to bring back water. On July 4th William Haskell wrote "…. we traveled on eight miles, but could find no water. We drank vinegar …. we had emptied our water kegs completely. Abe took the pony and went to find water; luckily after riding six miles he came to the Wind [Bighorn] River, borrowed a keg of some emigrants camped there and brought it back full of water…"

Along the Bighorn River
The drive north along the west side of the Bighorn River provided ample water during Roads are sandy and tough on teams, Acknowledgements #31 the next few days of the trip, but the trail was tough going. On July 1, Baker "drove 14 mi. & camped….Roads very rough tho not hilly…" The rough going was due to the sandy soil along the river. Haskell came along a few days later on July 6th and "(t)raveled fifteen miles over awfully hilly, sandy roads, hard on the teams; another ox pegged out today which has sadly reduced our team."

From the Bighorn River to the Greybull River
This stretch of trail from the Bighorn River northwest to the Greybull River was the first of two long drives without water or feed. Baker's train experienced no real hardships, but mentions the lack of water and grass. On July 4, they "left the Big Horn River & traveled 20 mi. further over very desert country - no grass nor water till we came to Gray Bull [sic] Creek - plenty of wood & grass." Major Owen described this portion of the route on October 16. "Left the B.H. river Six miles through heavy Sand to divide some 9 Miles further through the Bad lands to Grey Bull Creek a pretty stream emptying into B.H."

On the Greybull
Once on the Greybull, natural resources increased significantly. This provided an opportunity for some trains to hunt, fish, and rest their stock. For example, Stanfield noted on June 12th that the hunters killed buffalo and Ethel Maynard recalled that "everyone had a good feast of fish. I caught about as many as I could carry and others did the same." Owen and Bridger spent 4 days on the Greybull River and on October 19th Owen wrote, "Lay over to rest the cattle Lyon asst W.M. [wagon master] Bagd (sic) a fine Deer George…caught a fine string of trout…."

The Devil's Backbone: The Greybull River to the Shoshone River
This was the second and more difficult drive without water and feed since leaving the Bighorn River. Several diaries describe the emigrants' parched drive north to the Stinking Water (Shoshone) River and the harsh passage over what came to be called the Devil's Backbone. Howard Stanfield's account is the earliest of the season and the most detailed. His train left the Greybull River on the morning of June 15th, for what Stanfield called a

"tug of war and some of them nearly tugged out …. left … camp…about seven oclock [sic] hoping to find water in about twelve miles we traveled of terribly dusty road …. we had one fearful ravine to cross but by using rope to let down the wagons and applying the whip briskly to the animals in coming up we all managed to get safely across but it was warm work and a very hot day….we found neither water nor grass …. about noon but we had no inducement to stop but we did have something to hurry us forwards and that was to find water for ourselves and stock beside something for animals to eat for we had almost run out of stock feed and relied solely upon the grass …. to keep our stock in running order so we hurried on giving the poor things no rest and when we arrived at the next creek four miles from the last it to [sic] was dry and our only hope lay in reaching Stinking Water and so we pushed on some of the stock giving out both men and animals nearly dying for water we had not counted upon such a long drive and consequently we had not made necessary provision by laying a supply of water as we should have done had we known what was before us….reached Stinking Water about seven in the evening after a long dustry [sic] thirsty drive of 28 miles….[if] the river had been much smaller it would have been drained by man and beast combined….We found no grass that evening the stock had to go hungry."

From the Shoshone River to the Clarks Fork
Once across the Shoshone River, each train stayed at least one night to rest the stock while water and grass were available. The emigrants themselves used the time to recuperate, hunt, fish, prospect, and make needed repairs before pushing north up Sage Creek into Montana for another long drive of approximately 27 miles to reach Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. The trail up Sage Creek was "sandy and hard" according to Hedges on June 21. On July 15, Haskell "drove 25 miles...roads very water until we camped." Once the trains reached the Clarks Fork, emigrants could look forward to an abundance of water, grass for their stock, and fish and game to supplement their diet.

Travel over the Bridger Trail appears to have been more difficult than the Bozeman or Oregon Trail-Montana Trail routes to Virginia City. Overall, water and grass were less abundant, and the landscape was more severe for the emigrants and their stock. The Bozeman and Bridger Trails were both shortcuts of similar mileage. The Bozeman provided the best water, grass and game, but it also had increased possibility of Indian attack. The Bridger Trail offered a safer route in terms of Indian hostilities, but at the expense of water, grass, game and a harsher landscape over the Bridger Mountains and the Devils Backbone. It also had two additional river crossings, the Greybull and the Shoshone, the latter especially could be difficult to cross. However, in 1864 far more emigrants chose the Bridger Trail than the Bozeman Trail. The reason may well have been the persona of Jim Bridger himself. As Frank Kirkaldie stated, "Bridger's [Trail], is much more popular, probably from the fact that Bridger is an old and well known mountaineer, having spent his whole life among the mountains and the Indians and having the reputation of being a reliable man. He holds a commission of Major in the U.S. Army and has been much in the employ of the Govt."

Animated .Gif, Horse and Wagon

Bridger's Trail by L.D. Edgar,refer to Acknowledgements #35 Map drawn by William Atchison, refer to Acknowledgements #35 Photograph of Jim Bridger,and William Henry Jackson painting scbl#160, refer to acknowledgements #35
Bridger's Trail by L.D. Edgar,refer to Acknowledgements #35 Bridger's Trail by L.D. Edgar,refer to Acknowledgements #35 Bridger's Trail by L.D. Edgar,refer to Acknowledgements #35