Jerry Enzler: Author & Historian of Jim Bridger: Trailblazer of the American West

Jerry Enzler might just be the best living expert on the famous mountain man, Jim Bridger, and his exploits as a trapper and explorer. Today, we become experts of the expert, as Jerry takes us through his early life and onward to the eventual obsession with the famed adventurer. Thank you for your time, Jerry!

Jerry also served as founding director of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium for thirty-seven years. He has written and curated national exhibitions and films and has published historical articles on Jim Bridger, river history, and other topics.


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Jerry Enzler (00:00):

My father was a speech writer for the Department of Agriculture, and he wrote for eight different secretaries. It's unusual, because he had a stutter, which kept him from many jobs, and therefore he was able to get a job as putting the words into someone else's mouth, and he did very, very well at that.

Emy Digrappa (00:20):

Hello. My name is Emy Digrappa. Each week we bring you stories asking our guests the question, why? We learned about passion, purpose, and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation, this is What's Your Why?

                 Today we are talking to Jerry Enzler, author and historian of Jim Bridger, trailblazer of the American West. Welcome, Jerry.

Jerry Enzler (01:07):

Well, it's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Emy Digrappa (01:10):

It's been such an honor just to read all the journey that you've been on through your life, and so I just want to start there and ask you where you were born.

Jerry Enzler (01:19):

I was born in Washington, DC, and I was raised in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb just outside DC.

Emy Digrappa (01:27):

And what was your family life like?

Jerry Enzler (01:30):

Oh, it was wonderfully blessed and chaotic. There were 15 members in our household, my parents and 13 children. I'm the ninth of 13. And we had a house with only five bedrooms for a while, and we expanded it to eight, so the 15 of us lived in eight bedrooms, which is plenty of room. And we just had a wonderful time growing up. We lived in a very nice neighborhood where we had a community pool, or we could play tennis occasionally, but we could also [inaudible 00:02:01] to see the Smithsonian and some of the Washington, DC sites whenever we wanted to.

Emy Digrappa (02:05):

Well, I thought it was amazing that you came from a family with 13 children. And so I guess if you got a fight with one brother or sister, then you had another friend.

Jerry Enzler (02:20):

[inaudible 00:02:20]. and we didn't always get new clothes, but we always had really good hand-me-downs.

Emy Digrappa (02:27):

Oh yeah, especially because you were number nine.

Jerry Enzler (02:29):


Emy Digrappa (02:31):

So you got all the hand-me-downs.

Jerry Enzler (02:33):


Emy Digrappa (02:34):

So were you considered spoiled because you were one of the younger children?

Jerry Enzler (02:40):

No, actually. There were five girls and then the oldest boy, he didn't get into doing the dishwasher rotation, but suddenly then the rest of the boys and girls did. And so we had the same chores that my older sisters had, and brothers. Because there was four below me too. And I think maybe the youngest one, she might have been spoiled and had a lot of benefits that maybe the others didn't have. But we all went to very nice schools, and we all participated in all kinds of extracurricular activities and sports and games and sorts.

Emy Digrappa (03:17):

Well, what did your mom and dad do for a living?

Jerry Enzler (03:20):

Well, my mom was... Basically, she stayed at home and raise the children, but she also was a freelance writer, and she would write for various media. Sometimes she was doing book reviews, and later she was writing towards a local newspaper. Actually, it was something called the Catholic Standard. It was part of the Archdiocese of Washington, and she was writing a weekly column there. My father was a speech writer for the Department of Agriculture, and he wrote for eight different secretaries. It's unusual, because he had a stutter, which kept him from many jobs, and therefore he was able to get a job as putting the words into someone else's mouth, and he did very, very well at that.

Emy Digrappa (04:09):

That's really interesting. And so he compensated having a stutter and creating a place for himself.

Jerry Enzler (04:17):

He did, he did. And then he went on to join Toastmasters, and he... At the beginning it was quite precarious. He was supposed to get up and give a six-minute talk, and that was mandatory, and he was only able to say eight words in six minutes. And so the audience had to say something positive, so one person said, "Well, I thought your posture was excellent." Another one said, "I think you had good eye contact." And so they made positive reinforcement. He eventually went on to become a extremely talented speaker, and won Mid-Atlantic contest for the central states on the Atlantic Coast, and got second place in an international Toastmasters contest. So it's a remarkable... For me, it was a remarkable experience of seeing someone, one, who could live with a disability and accept it, and then, two, someone who could overcome that disability by a lot of hard work.

Emy Digrappa (05:16):

And has he been a great inspiration in your life as a writer?

Jerry Enzler (05:19):

Very much so. Very, very much so, yes.

Emy Digrappa (05:22):

And who else has inspired you in your writing? How did you begin that journey of desiring to be a full-time writer?

Jerry Enzler (05:32):

Well, I never really thought I could be a full-time writer until I was in Clarksdale, Mississippi. My father made it clear that you're not going to make it, perhaps, as a writer. You won't be able to support, necessarily, a family. But if you get a job where you write... And so I did get a job. I worked for the Dubuque County Historical Society, and I was the first full-time employee. And so I started writing grants, and all my first grants were rejected. So I asked a person if they could give me some help, and they gave me some very strong tips, and pretty soon we were starting to get the grants. And so over 40 years I probably wrote 600 successful grants for our organization, but that was a learning process. So I just learned, always ask questions. How could I do this better? When I was rejected by Institute of Museum and Library Services, I went there and I said, "Well, tell me what I did wrong." And they told me all the things I did wrong, and how I could do it better. And the next time I did better, and we did get a grant that year.

Emy Digrappa (06:33):

That's another inspiring story, because it sounds like your dad, who was an overcomer, also made you an overcomer. Figure it out, how to do it, and how to do what you want to do in life and get there.

Jerry Enzler (06:47):

Yes, very much so. And my mother, too. She would say, "You got to tongue in your head. Start using it." Whether it's directions, or, "How do I do this?" Or, "I'm confused. What should I do next?" She said, "Just speak up." And so I'm somewhat bold now in that regard, but initially I was shy about all that. But I saw how both my mother and father did it, and it gave me the, the ability to step up to Bob Utley, for example, after he gave a talk, and tell him that I'm interested in writing a book about Jim Bridger. And Bob Utley is a former historian for the National Park Service, and he's one of the foremost historians of Western history. And he said, "Oh good, because there's not a good biography of Jim Bridger, and you can wipe out the old ones, and I'm all behind you." And so he became somewhat of a mentor to me, and other people as well.

Emy Digrappa (07:41):

Tell me about that story, because... Go back a little further, when the life of Jim Bridger... How did that become an interest of yours, especially since you weren't born and raised in the West?

Jerry Enzler (07:56):

No, I wasn't, and I had no idea who Jim Bridger was. I spent two years as an accountant, and I was good at numbers, and I like accounting as a puzzle, but I didn't necessarily like it as a profession. So after two years working for Arthur Andersen in Milwaukee, I wanted to do something else.

                 My wife and I went to be volunteer teachers in Clarksdale, Mississippi. And this was in the mid '70s, at a time when schools could no longer be segregated, and so there were a number of private schools, and so the advantages or the opportunities were not there for many black students. And so we were there as volunteers to help and teach in our various subject matters. We did that for a year, but we realized, well, we won't be able to keep racking up debt on her credit card, because neither one of us have any income, because we were basically volunteering our time. My wife said, "Well, I want to teach. I've got a teaching degree. And I said, "Well..." I'll segue a little bit. I was wondering what I would do.

                 And one night we watched the movie Jeremiah Johnson with Robert Redford and a number of other people, and I was just smitten with the whole concept of the American West and the life that Robert Redford was portraying as Jeremiah Johnson. So the next morning in Clarksdale, Saturday morning, I went to the library. It was a small library. I couldn't find anything about Jeremiah Johnson. I should have been looking for Liver-Eating Johnson. That's what it's based on. But I couldn't find Jeremiah Johnson. But I kept finding this name, Jim Bridger, and with all kinds of kudos and plaudits and statements of admiration. And it just [inaudible 00:09:39] well, why? Why, why? And I kept looking more. And I realized, once I got into the story, it's a magnificent story. And I realized it hadn't been told.

                 And then it clicked in my mind. "Well, I always have wanted to be a writer. Why don't I write a biography about Jim Bridger?" I needed to stay home anyway, because my wife was going to teach, and so I would be the stay-at-home dad with our first two children. We have five children now. With our first two children, I was a stay-at-home dad, and I humorously thought I could write a book at the same time I was raising two children, and it's not that easy. But that's what really got me onto it, the fact that his life is so dramatic and engaging, and, two, so few people in the Midwest and on the East Coast know anything about Jim Bridger. So that made me think, "All right, I'll just write a book."

                 And after about a year, I thought, "Well, this book isn't coming along very fast. My children are growing up very good, but the book isn't really at a point where it needs to be." And so I started pestering a local historical society, and they finally said, "What do you want?" I said, "I want to work there." "Well, we don't have jobs." And I said, "But I come and talk to you." And the person said, "Well, what would be the point?" And I said, "I would like to know what it would be like to work there." "Well, we don't have a job." "Well, I could talk to you, and you could tell me what your job is like." Eventually they hired me, so I worked for 40 years at that historical society. But at the same time I worked diligently researching and finding out the story of Jim Bridger and becoming more and more excited every year about Jim Bridger, as well as about my job at the Dubuque County Historical Society.

Emy Digrappa (11:19):

What was so fascinating about Jim Bridger that just drew you to him? What are some of your favorite unique qualities and characteristics in his life that just stand out?

Jerry Enzler (11:31):

Well, he was orphaned when by the time he was 13. His mother died and his brother died when he was 12. His father died when he was 13. He went out to work on a flatboat. They were now in the American Bottom in Illinois, and he was helping move people across the Mississippi River. There weren't any bridges across the Mississippi river in 187. So Bridger was doing that on a ferry boat for a while, and then he apprenticed...

                 And this is where it starts to get really interesting. The biographies say he apprenticed to a St. Louis blacksmith. Well, the actual fact is, after research we found that he apprentice to an Illinois gunsmith, not a blacksmith. And not just an ordinary gunsmith. Philip Creamer the gunsmith was one of the most accomplished gunsmiths in the nation, and 13-year-old Jim Bridger was working for him. And then my further research, I found out that he went with Philip Creamer to the Illinois Indian Agency. And that's all we knew from previous biographies.

                 But I found out that he lived among the Potawatomis in Peoria. And the Potawatomis was one of the groups that sided with the British during the war of 1812, and the Bridger family and many other families in America were frightened of being attacked by the Potawatomis. Now the war is over for a few years, and Bridger is living in peaceful support of the families. At the age of 12 and 13, he was brought into the world of indigenous people and Potawatomis when he was 12 and 13. He met the Shoshone and the Crow when he was 19 years old. And he was with the Flathead or the Nez Perce, the Ute, a whole number of indigenous peoples that he came to work with and live and model his life after their life. He wasn't Indian by blood, but he was Indian by inclination.

Emy Digrappa (13:36):

That's an interesting way to put it. And when you read accolades about him, did they come from the Native Americans? Where do you read about the people that admired him the most?

Jerry Enzler (13:47):

They definitely come from the Native Americans, but they also come from people who are many years his senior, people who saw some amazing feats. I mean, he went up the Missouri River at the age of 18 under Mike Fink on a keel boat, 2000 miles on a keel boat, and then the plan was to go another 1000 miles by horse and on foot, and maybe some keel boating continuing.

                 By the time he was 21, he discovered Great Salt Lake. He discovered the fact that that huge lake was made of salt. He did that because he volunteered. Someone's, "Where does this Bear River go?" "I'll find out," he said. So he followed the path of Bear River and found that it went right into this huge lake. He tasted it, and he said, "Ah, it's salt."

                 Also when he was 21, they needed to carry $50,000 worth of pelts, Indian pelts, down the Bighorn River to the Yellowstone and the Yellowstone to the Missouri, where they could put all these pelts, these furs on a steamboat. Well, William Ashley needed someone to go down Bighorn Canyon to see whether it could be navigated. And it was a place called Bad Pass. Bridger either was told to do it or he volunteered, but he was 21 years old, and he became the first person known to have gone through Bad Pass on a raft. He made his own raft and went through, reported there's no way you're going to bring $50,000 worth of goods through these rapids. There'll be destroyed.

                 When he was 22, he was among a group of people, the first group of people who went into what is today's boundaries of Yellowstone Park, and by that I mean Anglo-Americans, Euro-Americans, to discover the geothermal regions at Yellowstone. And so it keeps on going, the things that he would do at such an early age. It was just phenomenal.

Emy Digrappa (15:47):

Did he journal? Did he journal all this? Who was telling his story while he was going on all these adventures?

Jerry Enzler (15:54):

No, he didn't journal. He could not read and he could not write. But the interesting thing is, he had this enormous capacity to understand and recount or relate what the terrain looked like, what stream flows into what creek flows into what river, and when is the best time of the year to be this part. Be careful of this particular pool of water, because it's poison. This river over here is quicksand. He became really probably the most knowledgeable person about the American West, maybe equaling someone like Jedediah Smith, who probably traveled more in exploration than anyone, far more than Lewis and Clark and others. He had this amazing ability to recount or to retell from his memory mile after mile and where you would go next if you want to get to this place. And by the way, I have a shortcut. I have a cutoff. I have a bypass. I know a different route. There's a place here. This would be safer on this particular year.

                 When someone was asking for advice, he would grab a stick, and he would draw a map in the sand. He did that for a father De Smet at the Great Indian Treaty of 1851. When someone came by his Fort at Fort Bridger and said, "Well, are there other ways I can get over towards California or towards Great Salt Lake?" he would grab a piece of charcoal and he would map it out right on his door. He would draw it and say, "Well, here's a route, but I see that you've got family, you've got wagons, and it probably wouldn't be appropriate. If you were on horseback, I would take this way. But if you're going to go by wagon, I would go this way." So he became one of the greatest scouts in American history with like an encyclopedic memory, even though he could neither read nor write.

Emy Digrappa (17:52):

That is incredibly. And what a great story. It makes me want to ask about 10 other questions, but one of the things... Because he couldn't read and write, he essentially became a great storyteller and recounter of historical things, so people must have been writing that down for him. And when did you travel to the West to follow his footsteps?

Jerry Enzler (18:17):

I started 1997. There was a fur trade conference that was held about every three years. It was rotating. And so in 1997, I heard that that Bob Utley was going to be the keynote speaker. And so I went to the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale. They were the host for this event. And it was just so exhilarating, one, to hear the different stories of different people in the West, and, two, to see so many historians who were passionate about telling the story.

                 And so then I started going to Pinedale every year, every other year, and I started participating in their Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Journal and have published three articles there about Jim Bridger. I just got back from the Museum of the Mountain Man in the second weekend of July, and it was a tremendous weekend. My book has just come out, and they sold about 50 books even before I arrived, but the weekend I was there, they sold 75 books, which is really a high number, because there's a lot of people... And they aren't buying the Jerry Enzler author. They're buying Jim Bridger the topic. He's just such a fascinating character.

Emy Digrappa (19:33):

It sounds like it. He really has captured so many people, because look at all the different names across the West that have his name on them.

Jerry Enzler (19:42):

Oh yeah, the Bridger-Teton National Forest and the Bridger Pass and the Bridger Peak, Bridger Mountain, Bridger Creek. There's a lot of towns called Bridger. There's a lot of schools called Bridger. There was a Liberty ship during World War II which was named the Jim Bridger. There's a postage stamp. There's a huge coal energy plant in Wyoming. And he was actually one of the original people proposed for Mount Rushmore. Mount Rushmore was proposed by the historian of the South Dakota Historical Society, and he wanted to depict Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea and John Colter and Jim Bridger and Buffalo Bill Cody and one or two more. Then they shifted to presidents, which is fine as well, but I think it's notable that he was considered among the first eight that would be depicted on Mount Rushmore.

Emy Digrappa (20:34):

So in your travels to the West, what do you find most intriguing?

Jerry Enzler (20:38):

The terrain. The beauty of the beauty of what you see in the West is just stunning. But then it's contrasted with... There's some areas where you don't see mountains, and it's somewhat flat, and you see a creek, and you don't know whether that's the Sandy or the Dry Sandy. It's amazing that someone could learn all of those, the names of all those creeks and rivers. There's a Creek I ran across once that was on a map that Bridger drew for Colonel Collins, and that map is actually in the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming and off the [inaudible 00:21:14]. I think it's called Bed Tick Spring or Bed Tick Creek. So there are all kinds of names which you can just imagine how that might've gotten that name. And so the view is fabulous.

                 But when I am in Wyoming, I see people from the 1820s and '30s and '40s. I see indigenous peoples who are living there quite peacefully. I see some of them getting along very well with some trappers and traders. And I see other conflicts rising up. I see California gold trail, or the gold rush. There used to be... Bridger built a fort, which is replicated in Southwest Wyoming. And I think the annual traffic was maybe something like 3, 4, 5000 people. Well, in 1850 and 1851, they kept a log, a register, and there was 50,000 people passing Fort Laramie in the year 1850 and 1851, heading to Oregon and also heading to California. It's really not just a Wyoming story. It's America's story.

Emy Digrappa (22:29):

That's very true. And I bet your children are great historians, because this whole time you were raising children and doing all your research, and so I bet they have a special love for history the way you do.

Jerry Enzler (22:45):

They do. And for a while they'd love to travel with me, but then I was wanting to stop and read every road sign, and they said, "No, not another, Dad." And I said, "Okay, just one museum a day." "Only one? Why can't we go to two?" they said.

Emy Digrappa (22:59):

Oh, that's great. That's great. So you did pass that on to them. I'm really happy about that. I'm surprised your path hasn't brought you West, that you're still in Illinois.

Jerry Enzler (23:10):

I am. I had a tremendous opportunity, because when I started with the Dubuque County Historical Society I was the first full-time employee, and they had a historic house museum. It was called the Mathias ham house. I enjoyed it so much, the director of the board said, "You should consider museum school." I said, "I didn't know there was such a thing." And they said, "Yeah, you can get a master's degree at several schools, including the State University of New York at Oneonta. It's called the Cooperstown Graduate Program." And so I applied for and received a Smithsonian Fellowship, which provided free tuition as well as support for room and board, because by this time it was my wife and I and two children.

                 So I got a master's degree in Museum Studies, and I came back, and they wanted to build a river museum. And the goal was a million dollars. We raised 1.1. But we only got halfway through the project, so we had another campaign, and we raised 1.2 million. And then about six years later, we raised three and a half. And then after that, we launched a huge campaign, $188 million. I shouldn't really be focusing on the money. I should be focusing on the exhibits and the buildings and the experiences that we were creating with that money.

                 So I was very, very excited because as the executive director, I was able to pick and choose what my specialty would be. And my specialty was being a storyteller for the museum in terms of what's the physical exhibit experience, as well as to be a grant writer, and to work on the exhibit text, and to work with film producers, to edit their texts for films. We had 31 different audiovisual units that were installed in our museum in 2003, and so my fingerprints were all over that as well, because I just love to be part of telling the story. And we shared it with a whole group of people, top-notch exhibit creators from across the country. So it was each of these. Writing the Jim Bridger story and helping build the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium into a $70 million campus were the two highlights of my professional life.

Emy Digrappa (25:20):

I think that's excellent. And I'm sure when you look back, you probably think, "How did I do all that? How did I write a book? How did I run a museum and make it all work out?" So I admire that in you.

Jerry Enzler (25:34):

Thank you. I found after a while things got so busy that I found I was only researching maybe whenever I was taking a trip and I could get to another archive, because most of these are not found in regular information. I needed to go to actual, original documents. And too, I was so busy with the museum and working there. But then I would take time off and I would go travel, and then I would just be immersed again. I started like 25 different notebooks where I'm writing my notes about things I want to say. And finally I was able to say it, and the book was published in April of this year by Oklahoma Press.

Emy Digrappa (26:07):

Did anyone ever capture some of his stories in where they are maybe quoting him in his storytelling?

Jerry Enzler (26:16):

Yes, there's several sources. There's four or five that are particularly good. And actually, not just people who he happened to know, but he was also recorded by people that he was a guide to. He was a guide to G.K. Warren, who created one of the most significant maps in US history, maps of the West, in the 1850s. For a short time, he guided G.K. Warren and Ferdinand Hayden. And Ferdinand Hayden just two years earlier had discovered the first evidence of dinosaur fossils in North America. And so G.K. Warren and Ferdinand Hayden wrote down his descriptions of Yellowstone and published it in their books and their reports to Congress. He guided Howard Stansbury, who did a lot of exploration and helped locate the Bridger Pass. Bridger knew where it was, but Bridger showed Howard Stansbury that, and so he recorded it too. And so they record the actual information, and then they record the stories that he would tell. Captain William Raynolds went all through Wyoming and Montana, and Bridger was the chief guide for that expedition as well.

                 And in my research, I found some new ones. At the University of Wisconsin, there's a Professor Butler who was starting to write a book in the 1880s, and he didn't complete it, but he has letters from a man named James Stevenson. And Stevenson tells this interesting story. He said, "Well, I was working for the Smithsonian, and Bridger was a hunter, but we hunted and tented together, living in the same tent. One day Bridger had been telling people about the geysers and how Yellowstone was like Hell bubbling over." And then he said, "And then the next morning I woke up and I had a boil on my face." And Bridger said, "Jimmy..." It was Jimmy Stevenson. "Jimmy, you got a geyser on your face." And Stevenson laughed at that, because it was just a boil that needed to be fixed. So he would tell those kind of stories. He would just make them up. When he saw something interesting, he would say it in a clever way.

Emy Digrappa (28:33):

Well, before I leave you, because it's been such a pleasure talking to you, I want you to tell us, how do we find your book, Jim Bridger: Trailblazer of the American West? And in that book, you brought together all these stories in one place, is that right?

Jerry Enzler (28:51):

Absolutely. I did, yeah. The book is so much more complete than previous books which were written 59 years ago. It corrects a lot of errors that have crept into the Bridger of story, and there's lots of new information there. So I just got back from giving talks in Wyoming, and so I know, for example, that the Museum of the Mountain Man has these books, as well as the [inaudible 00:29:18] Museum in [inaudible 00:29:19], and the National Trails Museum and Casper, and in Fort Phil Kearny. And I also know that other places in Wyoming, like Fort Bridger, I'll be appearing there on September 4th and September 5th during the rendezvous days and signing books, and also being at the Sheridan Library on September 2nd at 5:30 PM, and I'll be talking about the book and signing them. And the book is available from Oklahoma Press. It's available online. It's available... Should be available at your local bookstore, and if they don't have it, they will order it for you.

Emy Digrappa (29:54):

Excellent. You've done a great job. I just wanted to make sure if you had a website you wanted to tell people what that was.

Jerry Enzler (30:02):

Yes, I do. And I'm just still working on it, but it's there. It's

Emy Digrappa (30:07):

Excellent. That's perfect, especially after what you've shared with us. Thank you so much for talking to us today, Jerry.

Jerry Enzler (30:15):

Thank you for listening.

Emy Digrappa (30:16):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why? Brought to you by Wyoming humanities with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to, subscribe, and never miss a show.