Jim Bridger… in a Suit of English Armor?

What comes to mind when you think of a mountain man’s attire? Maybe a hooded capote, a flat-brimmed felt hat, or a beaver or buffalo robe? These clothing items were commonly worn by mountain men at fur traders’ rendezvous of the 1830s. But… a suit of English armor?

It was surely a surprising sight when, in 1837, legendary mountain man Jim Bridger paraded on horseback around the Green River rendezvous grounds in a polished steel cuirass with matching helmet and greaves (shin armor). Where did Bridger get such a curious costume? Artist Alfred Jacob Miller noted that it was William Drummond Stewart, the artist’s Scottish patron, “who imported a full suit of English armor & presented it to Bridger, who donned it on all special occasions & rode so accoutered at the head of his men.” The Scotsman met Bridger at the 1833 rendezvous, and the pair became fast friends; the elaborate gift suggests their closeness.

Bridger cuts a heroic figure in Miller’s depictions of him proudly wearing his gifted get-up. One such depiction is a small pen and ink sketch (illustrated above) now in the collection of the Joslyn Art Museum. The bedecked Bridger sits tall in his saddle as his horse steps gingerly through shallow waters in front of a crowd of onlookers. With his plumed helmet, Bridger seems to have stepped straight out of a medieval pageant.
 
Just as the rendezvous represented an incredible confluence of cultures, so too did the attendees’ attire represent eclectic cultural influences. Rendezvous attendees’ clothing and accoutrements reflected European and indigenous roots, and many wardrobe items were traded for or purchased on the trail. Though a suit of English armor seems comically out of place in the 1830s American West, perhaps it wasn’t so odd after all?