Before Bushnell: The Era of Mountain Men and Trappers

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The Era of Mountain Men and Trappers

Jim Bridger is well known for his work as an explorer, trapper, and scout in the Intermountain Region.

The region around Brigham City is rich in resources, including water and fur-bearing animals. These fur animals, such as beavers, attracted many fur trappers to the shores of the Bear River and the Great Salt Lake in the early 1800s. The first non-native trappers were French Canadians, but mountain men from the eastern United States and other nations soon joined them. They hunted beaver and other animals along the water’s edge and explored the mountains and waterways.

The explorer and guide Jim Bridger was one of the first non-natives to scout the Bear River region, and the area is sometimes called Bridgerland after him. When he reached the Great Salt Lake in 1824, he thought he had found an arm of the Pacific Ocean. Scientist John C. Fremont led an expedition through the region in 1843–1844, finally confirming that the lake was an inland water body with no outlet to the ocean. Peter Skene Ogden, Jedediah Smith, and Étienne Provost were other early mountain men to call the area home. They often held their yearly rendezvous to cash in their furs and get supplies in Cache Valley, just to the east of Brigham City.

Once settlers arrived in the northern Utah, herds of sheep (for the woolen mills) and cattle soon displaced the fur animals trapped by the mountain men. (USU Special Collections & Archives, Compton Photograph Collection, P0313 C Board 334)

Eventually, overtrapping led to a decline in fur-bearing animals in the Brigham City area, and settlers moved in with their livestock, ending the days of the mountain men. Overgrazing and excessive timber harvesting by the settlers eventually led to problems with mudslides. As a result, the U.S. government designated the mountain as a wilderness area to protect native trees and animals and provide for continued enjoyment of the area by visitors.

Alexander L. Baugh, “John C. Frémont’s 1843–44 Western Expedition and Its Influence on Mormon Settlement in Utah,” in Far Away in the West: Reflections on the Mormon Pioneer Trail, ed. by Scott C. Esplin, Richard E. Bennett, Susan Easton Black, and Craig K. Manscill (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 23–55, https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/far-away-west/john-c-fr-mont-s-1843-44-western-expedition-and-its-influence-mormon.
“Bear River Valley History,” Box Elder County, http://www.boxeldercounty.org/boxeldercounty/bear-river-history.htm.
Scott J. Eldredge and Fred R. Gowans, “The Fur Trade in Utah,” Utah History Encyclopedia, https://www.uen.org/utah_history_encyclopedia/f/FUR_TRADE.shtml.