The Wild West: tall tale stories of cowboys, Native Americans, fur trappers and traders. Men who swapped the bustling east for the barren west. Uncharted territory- the want and need to establish something- to find something…To change their destiny.
When I think of the West of the 1800s, frankly, I am terrified. If my main squeeze back in the “olden days” would have said, “Let’s head out west! I can get me some land, build us a home…” I would have said NO. Even if I would have started the journey I would have most likely been the first to die of dysentery or something else unpleasant.
Maybe I played too much "Oregon Trail" in the 1980s.
Other men and women did not hesitate to take the road, in Robert Frost’s words, "less traveled by.” Two of these men, Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez, did just that- opted for the unknown.
I could outline the full history of these trailblazers, but this blog is truly aimed at telling the stories that you may not often hear around the water cooler of history books. This is intended to shed some light on specific information that I have uncovered in mountains of documents. Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez didn’t just travel, literally, over mountains.
Alas, I need to give a little background information on their histories so that you can see how cool it is they chose Washington Township as their final home – and how really, really cool it is that they did business in New Santa Fe.
James Felix Bridger, nicknamed “Old Gabe” by his closest companions, was born in 1804 in Virginia. When he was a young child, he and his family moved to St. Louis. Unfortunately when he was 13, he had lost his entire family, leaving him out to fight on his own. He was uneducated in a formal setting and illiterate. He started to go on expeditions to the west when he was a teenager. He fur trapped, traded with the Native Americans and was fluent in several Native American languages, conversational French, and Spanish.
|Pierre Louis Vasquez oil painting|
Pierre Louis Vasquez (born 1798 in St. Louis), our lesser known of the two profiles, is, on paper, the one from a prominent upbringing. His father, Benito, born in Spain, was one of the “first families” of St. Louis. His mother was of French Creole origin. Louis’ native tongue was French, although he, too, was fluent in multiple languages. Bernard DeVoto in “Across the Wide Missouri” refers to Vasquez as “of aristocratic birth. . . And bits of aristocratic elegance clung onto him in the mountains like cottonwood fluff.”
This is a striking contrast to the accounts of Old Gabe.
Hollywood royalty has reignited one of the oldest and saddest sagas of the Wild West. Leonardo DiCaprio brilliantly gave his Academy Award winning performance as Hugh Glass in “The Revenant.” The Revenant is a movie for the ages - a gruesome and shockingly raw portrayal of a man who was thought to be knocking on death’s door after a terrible attack by a grizzly bear. Two men, one being a nineteen year-old naive Jim Bridger, were left to tend to the dying Glass. Thinking Glass wouldn't survive much longer, they dug a shallow grave and left him behind. Whoops....
...Hugh may have been pretty angry when he survived the 200 mile journey after being deserted.
Hugh Glass did, indeed, face Bridger. One account of the confrontation states, “(Bridger) kept entirely to himself, unapproachable as a wild animal crawling off to lick its wounds. . . he knew only that he had done a cowardly thing.”
I would like to believe that this was one of the speed bumps in the life of Bridger and his triumphs supersede his teenage lapse in judgement.
By 1824, Jim Bridger was credited with “founding” the Great Salt Lake. In that same year, the South Pass was founded by a small group of men, including none other than Vasquez and Bridger.
Bridger went on to marry three Native American women and have six known children, one dying in an Indian attack in the Oregon Territory.
|Replica quarters at Fort Bridger, Wyoming|
From Wyoming State Parks
In 1843, Bridger and Vasquez established Fort Bridger in Wyoming, designed to be a stop for supplies and provisionals for those traveling on the Oregon Trail.
This is when the true partnership of Bridger and Vasquez blossomed.
In striking contrast to Bridger’s three marriages to Native American women (first to a woman named Cora, the second to a Ute Indian and the third to Mary Washakie), Vasquez remained single until the ripe old age of 49. In 1847, he wed the widow Narcissa Burdette Land in St. Louis. Narcissa was not a fan of Bridger’s new wife, the Ute Indian “squaw,” and they fought constantly. At this time, the men would have cohabitated a single residence at Fort Bridger, living under close quarters with growing children and two women from very different backgrounds.
One. House. One very, very small house.
Narcissa and Bridger’s wife did get along in later years, and Narcissa was even present when she died in childbirth in 1849.
|Current view of the Bridger Mountains, Bridger Pass|
By the 1850s, the relationship with the Mormons was questionable and the men opted to sell the fort in Wyoming to them, although some accounts say they were never paid. Raising young children on the frontier was not an ideal situation, so by this time the men decided to move to the Jackson County, Missouri area and settle into a much more stable life- with separate homes.
Around 1855, both Bridger and Vasquez traveled to the Kansas City area. Bridger continued to whet his appetite of the west by traveling as a scout. According to his daughter, he was sometimes gone as long as three years.
Bridger and Vasquez both had residences in Westport, and a lot of the history books highlight this; however, both men purchased farms not too far away from one another. Bridger’s farm, now partially marked across from St. Joseph’s Hospital on Carondelet Drive, went as far north as Watts Mill and as far south as Glen Arbor Road, just past Red Bridge Road. Vasquez’s farm shared a property line with the great-great grandson of Daniel Boone and is bordered by Bannister Road on the south and 91st street on the North.
Ironically, I live blocks away from this farm now… in Boone Manor.
|Location of the Bridger Farm from City Title Insurance, 1970|
Missouri Valley Special Collections
By this time, the town of New Santa Fe had burst out of the very seams of the Missouri-Kansas border and was outfitting travelers on the trails to the west. It was no “true” secret that Jim Bridger helped erect a building with the help of George Kemper in the town of New Santa Fe. In a taped interview from the 1990s, which now resides at the Historical Society of Missouri, Kenneth Klapmeyer (1907-2005) recounted his deep-rooted memories. He mentioned that an old foundation existed near the current “mortuary” (McGilley Funeral Home), and he stated, “The house burned down. There was a store in there some place long before us. Jim Bridger was involved.”
This peaked my interest and had me patiently perusing old land records to see if maybe, just maybe, Bridger didn’t just build a business in the town. Maybe he was more involved than I originally anticipated?
In January of 1853, a deed indicates that none other than Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez bought, $50 cash in hand, lots 7 and 8 in New Santa Fe. This was even BEFORE they "sold" Fort Bridger to the Mormons!
Okay, so back in these days, there was no such thing as building permits or business licensing. Trying to decipher what happened on a stretch of land is near impossible. In order to appreciate this story, we have to use a little known power called “preponderance of the evidence.” Any historian or genealogist knows that sometimes, whether you like it or not, you have to fill in the blanks. You’re always looking for more information to support your claim, and your research is never, ever completed.
We have to presume where and when things happened when there is only a sprinkling of written accounts. We know, due to written documentation, that Bridger helped build a store in New Santa Fe. But, no written record ever stated he was involved in a store.
But, I beg to differ. The preponderance of the evidence tells me otherwise. Bridger and Vasquez bought land in 1853 for $50.00. FIFTY. DOLLARS. That’s equivalent to about $1,400 in today’s money.
That’s still pretty cheap- and the lots in New Santa Fe were selling for $50 a lot at that time- with nothing on them.
By 1854, only a year later, they sold half of the lots for $170.16- an obvious improvement to the amount paid a year later. That’s about $4,500 in today’s moolah. They sold it to Josiah Watts.
Recognize the last name?
Josiah Watts was none other than the older brother of Stubbins Watts, the infamous miller of Dallas, Missouri- also known today as Watts Mill. And Stubbins was a known pal of Jim Bridger.
I love how sometimes the dots just connect.
Of course, you may be thinking that the two mountain men SOLD the land to Josiah and the story ends there. At first, I thought so, too. When I thought I had run out of options, I ran across a newspaper article that had me doing the happy dance in my living room.
|Summons from the Olathe Mirror|
Published August 1, 1861
Bridger, without a shadow of a doubt, DID have a store in New Santa Fe.
In August of 1861, the Olathe Mirror published a summons because a business was suing for unpaid debts. “Lewis Vasques, Joseph Bridger, and Josiah Watts, doing business as Vasques, Bridger & Watts, Plaintiffs, vs. T.S. Edwards, Defendant.”
There it is, plain as day- in print. One of the only ways to really find out what was going on with businesses at the time is from surviving newspapers and surviving court records. So, it’s no surprise my next stop was to the Johnson County Archives. And yes, the name on this document is incorrect- as they list Bridger as “Joseph” – but I promise you it's him!
This is one of those moments as a historian and genealogist that I love. After a long day of teaching, I couldn’t resist running out to the archives to see what these cases involved. Although a lot of good stuff can be found online, the really, really good stuff requires time and visits to archival holdings buried in buildings. I was convinced the only way to make this claim of a legitimate business being run was to investigate the court cases myself.
I walked into a large warehouse-style building in southern Olathe, greeted by two lovely ladies anxious to help in any way. I had called ahead to the Johnson County Archives, and they were ready with the information I had been seeking. To my surprise, they carried out folders and gingerly laid them in front of me. “Here you go,” one lady smiled.
|Summons dated April 6, 1860|
Vasques, Bridger & Watts vs. John Taylor & Sarah Taylor
Courtesy of the Johnson County Archives
“These are the originals? From 1861?”
“Yes. Be careful.” She walked away and planted herself behind her desk.
I adore when things like this happen – and they are quite rare these days. Most things are microfilmed. Occasionally while at the National Archives there may be an original book you thumb through, but somehow this felt different.
I stared down at the creamy white pages, the ink dried in perfect scrolls of cursive handwriting. These pages in my hands (no white gloves!) were transcribed over 150 years ago.
... Before the Civil War.
The information involved in the court case is really irrelevant, except it shed a little bit of light on some of the operations of a “trading” post. It became clear that one part of this business was to loan out money.
In the two cases I was viewing, they traded a deed of land as security when a man, T.S. Edwards (who had fled and was nowhere to be found), needed a quick $212.45. Another case from 1860 correctly identifies the business owners as “Louis Vasques, James Bridger and Josiah Watts.” In 1858, the business had loaned them $347.12- owed in twelve months. When they hadn’t paid, the business sued them for the land they had used as collateral.
It’s like a title loan! I guess I was wrong- the swindlers on TV now aren't the innovative engineers of the "strapped for cash" mantra! These guys in the 1850s and 60s gave you a chance to pay your debt (with interest), and if you didn’t, they sued for the rights to the land. Brilliant.
Of course, I still couldn’t “prove” the business was even in New Santa Fe… especially being that these cases were in Johnson County, Kansas and not Jackson County, Missouri. But, the land they were suing for was in Kansas Territory.
Yeah, Kansas wasn't even a state at this point.
One of the other ways I have been able to document what was going on in the town of New Santa Fe is by reading hundreds of pages of probate cases prior to the Civil War. This may seem boring. Let me tell you.... It is…..
Until you hit the jackpot.
|Original promissory notes from 1859 for Vasquez, Bridger & Watts|
Courtesy of Johnson County Archives
Harrison S. Vivion, buried at Blue Ridge Cemetery, lived around New Santa Fe and died in August 1855. Unfortunately, his wife suffered another blow when their young daughter, Elizabeth, died in 1857.
Included in this probate is a bill dated “New Santa Fe, August 27, 1857” from none other than Vasquez, Bridger & Watts for funeral clothing for the young child.
She was nine years old when she passed away.
This is one of those moments where I simultaneously got extremely excited and tremendously sad. This was the reality of pioneer life- but it still makes my heart skip a beat. Your husband dies at the age of 42 and two short years later, you lose your daughter?
|Invoice from H.S. Vivion's will indicating clothing bought|
from Vasquez, Bridger & Watts in New Santa Fe
In that one probate case, my whole expedition on Bridger and his business in New Santa Fe seemed infinitely clear; I knew it was important to focus on the fact that he, indeed, did have a business in New Santa Fe, even though it really is unclear how involved he was.
These two men, with the spirit of a younger, vibrant businessman named Josiah Watts, ran a store in New Santa Fe. Josiah himself was a bit of a trailblazer, partaking in the Gold Rush in 1849 and returning to the area known as New Santa Fe after this failed attempt at getting rich quick. A biography on his son states Josiah did have a business with Jim Bridger, another indication of his involvement in this lost history of the town. He left New Santa Fe in the height of the Border Wars and settled on a farm in Johnson County, where he died in 1895.
Vasquez died in 1868, leaving his stamp on the American frontier.
Jim Bridger, even after his venture in New Santa Fe, opened a business at 504 Westport Road. It is a fact he bought this building in 1866 from Cyprian Chouteau, nestled right up to Boone’s Trading Post, A.K.A. Kelly’s in Westport. For many years, it was the home of Stanford and Son’s, a comedy venue, and was for a short time a business aptly named "Bridger's Bottle Shop." Some to this day argue whether or not this building is actually older than Kelly’s because they were built within months of each other.
|John McCoy, Alexander Majors & James Bridger|
Pioneer Park, Westport and Broadway St.
One cannot help but wonder if the literal foundation of the old “Vasquez, Bridger & Watts” business in New Santa Fe can be rediscovered. In April 1965, a publication in the Jackson County Historical Society magazine written by Mrs. Greenberry Ragan, states, “One of the old store buildings was built by James Bridger and George W. Kemper. The store keeper of this store was J.P. Smith.” It can be confirmed by land records that the west half of lots 7 and 10, the original lots bought by Bridger and Vasquez, were purchased by J.P. Smith from Henry Barager in 1856. But this is only half of the lots purchased in the original land deed.
And what happened to these buildings? ….The Border Wars and the Civil War! More on this in my next post! :)
By 1875, Jim Bridger was blind. According to a biographical sketch published in 1950 by the Kansas City Times, Bridger oftentimes said, “I wish I war back thar ‘mong the mountains agin. A man kin see so much farther in that country.”
In 1881, Jim Bridger died and was buried on a hill ½ mile north of Watts Mill in the Watts Burial Ground (currently 101st and Jefferson). He was later removed by an old friend and reinterred at Mount Washington Cemetery.
So much can be learned from these old mountain men and their dedication to the dreams they held. Those familiar with the area of Washington Township, Jackson County and New Santa Fe should be pleased to recount the expeditions of these men.
Gene Ceasar, author of “King of the Mountain Men: The Life of Jim Bridger” concluded, “(He) was the product of a young wild America, lost America, and there can never be another like him.”
I’m certainly glad that these trailblazers took the road less traveled.
|I shall be telling this with a sigh|
|Somewhere ages and ages hence:|
|Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—|
|I took the one less traveled by,|
|And that has made all the difference.|