People often come to Prints & Photographs Division collections seeking pictorial reference points for aspects of their family history. Until fairly recently, to the degree that I had considered my ancestry at all, I’d assumed the earliest Bridgers to settle in the New World had been “encouraged” to emigrate from the British Isles as an attractive alternative to prisons, asylums, poorhouses, almshouses, or other storehouses for ne’er-do-wells! By setting the ancestral bar low, I figured I might shine in contrast by simple measures of success such as maintaining employment, paying taxes, home ownership and the like. Imagine my comedown when I learned otherwise!
My cousin engaged in tracing our genealogy a decade or so ago. A key point is that four or five centuries back license and leeway was granted regarding spelling “consistency,” so the surnames Bridges, Bridger, and Bridgers are variants of the same lineage. Cousin Don learned that Col. Joseph Bridger was the our earliest ancestor from England to settle in Virginia in the town Smithfield in the maritime Warrescoyack Parish (now Isle of Wight County) in the 1650s. The Historic American Buildings Survey for the parish church there credits Col. Bridger with overseeing the completion of what was originally called the “Old Brick Church.” Inside the sanctuary, the survey’s catalog record notes that the woodwork is considered “particularly fine, such as the exposed timber roof structure, the turned balusters at the kneeling rail and the rood screen.” Some four hundred years after his death, Col. Bridger’s skeletal remains were scrutinized by forensic anthropologists associated with the Smithsonian Institution as contemporary technology enables historians to learn much about the lives and lifestyles of people from the Colonial Era in America. From long use of pewter dinnerware, the Colonel had absorbed enough leached lead to choke a horse!
Mountain man Jim Bridger was a notable exception to my genealogical indifference as I longed to be related to him after reading his biography at age ten or eleven. I consumed numerous volumes in the orange-bound series of biographies for “young readers” on the shelves of my school’s library. I was taken by early explorers (Magellan, Balboa, Hudson), Indian chiefs (Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Crazy Horse), and especially pioneers (Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson) and Jim Bridger. The details have faded from memory now but the sense of Bridger’s free-spirited life as expedition guide, pathfinder, army scout, fur trapper and trading post owner in the rugged western expanse of the Wyoming and Montana territories lit fire to my boyhood imagination! Below are two photos taken a century apart of the area near Fort Bridger, the strategically situated outpost in western Wyoming built and owned by Bridger and his business partner Louis Vasquez:
The biography I read glossed over some events and aspects of Bridger’s character such as selling liquor to American Indians and a real estate dispute with Brigham Young and the Church of Latter Day Saints. His adventures traipsing around mountains, canyons, and passes named for him was enough for me. The stereograph below is of Bridger Can[y]on in the Montana Territory by photographer William Henry Jackson in his role as member of F.V. Hayden’s 1871 U.S. Geological Survey of the Territories:
Photographer Arthur Rothstein documented “Bridger country” for the Farm Security Administration: below left, in Montana in June 1939, grazing sheep are pictured with the Bridger Mountains as backdrop; in the center, in Wyoming in June 1940 he documents Fort Bridger’s stables for the Pony Express; and, on the right, a metal sculpture that clearly presages works by Mark di Suvero:
Just as my ancestors made their mark on the nation, P&P collections mark my family’s experience visually for me.
- Apprise yourself of the Historic American Buildings Survey of St. Luke’s Church, State Route 10 vicinity, Smithfield, Isle of Wight County, VA . According to the survey’s Historical Data, ”The church is remarkable as the only remaining example of a buttressed Gothic Church of the seventeenth century America.”
- Launch your investigation into the Written in Bone site from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The forensic investigation of human skeletons, such as that of Col. Joseph Bridger, provides intriguing information on people and events of America’s past. The site examines history through 17th-century bone biographies, including those of colonists in Maryland and Virginia.
- View photographs as well as historic building and engineering surveys related to these two Bridgers, Joseph and Jim, in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
- Explore the site of Local History & Genealogy Reference Services. The Library of Congress has one of the world’s premier collections of U.S. and foreign genealogical and local historical publications. The Library’s genealogy collection began as early as 1815 with the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s library.