From his camp on the Portneuf River, Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville set out on Christmas day, 1833, with three companions "to penetrate to the Columbia River, visit the Hudson's Bay establishments, acquaint himself with the wild Indian tribes of the Pacific, and build a trading post to supply the place of our lost Astoria." In piercing cold weather, the foursome led by the good-natured Captain followed the canyon of the Snake River, "scarfed with basaltic precipices"; wended their way through the valley of the "Grande Ronde"; and crossed the Blue Mountains. The perils of winter travel in the mountains with deep snowdrifts and avalanches were sufficiently great without the hazard of falling from steep crags, or slipping from narrow ice‑covered ledges. Frozen and starved, they came finally to Pisgah Mount, and "in a frenzy of delight beheld the lovely valley of the Immahah, like a promised land, smiling with verdure." The trail led more favorably to where it again met the Snake River. Bonneville with his effusive French nature wrote: "The grandeur and originality of the views beggar both the pencil and the pen. Nothing we have ever gazed upon in any other region could for a moment compare in wild majesty and impressive sternness with the series of scenes which here at every turn astonished our senses, and filled us with awe and delight." By March 4, 1834, the party struck the Columbia River at Fort Walla Walla.
Strangely out of character with the American trappers and explorers who entered the great Oregon territory, Bonneville communicated to his followers the bonhomie of his like-nationals — the voyageurs, but added to it the impress of character, p2"kindliness of spirit," and "susceptibility to the grand and beautiful," according to Washington Irving. The author learned of Bonneville's adventures in the Far West upon meeting him at the home of John Jacob Astor, the fur king, in New York City.
Captain Bonneville, on leave from the United States Army, looked down upon the country which sloped away from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean with certain pride of accomplishment. His two‑fold expedition to the West for trapping and exploration, though it had meant hardships, was bringing to his spirit the adventure and wild outpouring of his romantic nature which monotonous garrison life on the military frontier had failed to satisfy.
According to Irving, the Captain was of middle size, "well made and well set. . . . His countenance was frank, open, and engaging; well browned by the sun, and had something of a French expression. He had a pleasant black eye, a high forehead, and, while he kept his hat on, the look of a man in the jocund prime of his days; but the moment his head was uncovered, a bald crown gained him credit for a few more years than he was really entitled to."
Quite rightly, Bonneville felt at this moment when he looked down from Pisgah Mount that he was following in the footsteps of his illustrious Army predecessors who had explored so much of the Rocky Mountain Country. Lieutenants Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had penetrated deep into the country which he now traversed; while Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and Captain Stephen Long had clambered up the mountains of what is now Colorado, leaving their names to jagged peaks in commemoration of their deeds. Like these other names imprinted on the West, Bonneville's marks a mountain peak and the great Salt Flats of Utah, and to these has lately been added the great Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. On his maps he had the effrontery to place his name upon the body of water known as Great Salt Lake, but Washington Irving chose to ignore it. Controversy centers around Bonneville and p3some have asked: Was Bonneville a history-made man? Did he add to the knowledge of the West in his exploratory quests which mark an interlude of four years in his long Army career from 1813 to 1866?
Born in France sometime during the 1790's — no one seems to know when —; reared a child of revolution; carried as a refugee to America in 1803; and living as a "ward" of Thomas Paine at New Rochelle, New York, until the death in 1808 of that famous exponent of Liberty — that was the childhood of Bonneville.
Cullum's Register of West Point graduates gave the date of Bonneville's birth as 1793, in France, during the Reign of Terror. Chittenden perhaps reported the date more accurately as April 14, 1796 — the only complete date recorded. Records of Bonneville's cadetship were burned in a headquarters fire. His army retirement order failed to mention Bonneville's age, nor was there at that time a definite age for retirement.
Nicholas Bonneville, father of the explorer, was a close friend of Thomas Paine. It has been established that a Republican Club, more radical than the Jacobins, contained among its members, "Paine, Duchatelet, and Condorcet; probably also Brissout, and Nicholas Bonneville." Moncure Conway in his life of Thomas Paine reported that this Republican Club placarded Paris after the King's flight in 1791, with its manifesto that "the Law alone shall be sovereign." In 1797, Paine, who had been living with the American Minister, James Monroe, sought another home because of the departure of the latter from France.
Nicholas Bonneville, thirty-eight years of age, an enthusiastic devotee of Paine's principles and publisher of Bien Informé, was the ideal companion for the great writer because in addition to his other qualifications, he could converse in English. Thomas Paine had intended to stay with the Bonnevilles for a fortnight, but the visit lasted until 1802. Meanwhile the Bonnevilles, who had been married in 1794 and had two sons, Benjamin and Thomas Paine (a godson of the author) were p4crowded into less space, as the publisher gladly gave up his study and a bed chamber to Paine. Never idle, Paine was either writing or tinkering with inventions, several of which were accepted, or receiving Robert Fulton and Sir Robert Smith as visitors. Invariably Thomas Paine read the newspapers early in the day. When Bonneville came in at meal time from his work in his printing shop on the first floor, they would discuss the topics of the day.
When Napoleon executed his coup d'état late in 1799, Nicholas Bonneville fearlessly and somewhat foolishly called him the "Cromwell of France" in his Bien Informé. For this his home was broken up and he was promptly imprisoned. Soon afterwards he was released but under strict surveillance and his journal suppressed. Paine stood by the family as it was reduced to "penury and anxiety," and continued to live with them though now he was the family support due no doubt to "drafts on his resources in America."
In 1802 Paine left the Bonneville home for America. According to Conway, he boarded a stout ship belonging to Mr. Patterson,a as the only passenger. Since Paine was in constant correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, it is assumed that the President arranged for the voyage, though Jefferson, because of diplomatic expediency, was forced to disclaim any interest in the proceedings. Landing at Baltimore, the great revolutionary thinker went at once to Washington, where "he published his Letters to the Americans." From the capital, Paine repaired to the home of Colonel Kirkbride in Bordentown, New Jersey.
In August, 1803, the "jolly-looking" Madame Bonneville gathered up her children and at the instance of Paine sailed for the United States. The publisher remained behind saying that "some affairs of great consequence made it impracticable for (him) to quit France." In Bordentown, the Bonnevilles settled with Paine and he found their living costs a burden. Madame Bonneville, it is true, taught French in the town, but there was the added expense of young Thomas at school in Stonington, p5Connecticut. Upon the death of Colonel Kirkbride, Paine removed to New York.
Madame Bonneville, as yet unable to speak English, "found Bordentown dull, and soon turned up in New York." Paine of course was annoyed by their coming because he had left them in a comfortable home at Bordentown. In addition, "the author found the situation rather complicated." It had been understood that Nicholas Bonneville would follow the family to America soon after their voyage and because of his failure, and lack of intention, Paine finally thought it necessary to "let it be known that he was not responsible for her debts." Madame Bonneville's lack of economy probably induced Paine to make this move, thinking it good for her. The boardinghouse keeper sued Paine for Madame Bonneville's board; Paine pleaded "non‑assumpsit, and, after gaining the case, paid . . . the money."
Life for young Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville, or Bebia, as Paine called him, was a pleasant one. His guardian loved to play with children. He patted them and distributed from his pockets the store of cakes, biscuits, and sugar plums which he carried. The picture of him as the "comic actor" in play is in sharp contrast to that of the writer of the "Age of Reason." His theistic philosophy brought not only censure but even physical assaults upon him in America. That enmity, described by Conway as the "Protestant Inquisition," caused Paine to move to New Rochelle, New York, where the attacks continued but the scarcity of neighbors gave him more freedom. Furthermore the great writer of "Common Sense" was refused permission to vote, it being said that he was not a citizen. Nevertheless no one criticized Paine in his care of the Bonneville boys, and they seemed not to have been adversely affected by his philosophy. On one occasion, Paine wrote to an auctioneer friend, "Citizen: I send this by the New Rochelle boat and have desired the boatman to call on you with it. He is to bring up Bebia and Thomas . . . I wish you to give the boys p6some good advice when you go with them, and tell them that the better they behave the better it will be for them. I am now their only dependence, and they ought to know it."
About this time an attempt was made on Paine's life, and Madame Bonneville's fear and hatred of country life determined her in moving her to the city. Conway reported that Paine "was not sorry to have her leave, as she could not yet talk English, and did not appreciate Paine's idea of plain living and high thinking." Again in a letter to his auctioneer friend, Mr. John Fellows, Paine noted her leaving with satisfaction and said, "She may send Bebia up to me. I will take care of him for his own sake and his father's but that is all I have to say . . . Mrs. Bonneville was an incumbrance upon me all the while she was here, for she would not do anything, not even make an apple dumpling for her own children." The relations between Paine and Mrs. Bonneville had not been acrimonious. Thirty years younger than he, attractive, and fond of pleasure, she found little companionship, as Paine wrote all day. He indulged her whims and generously gave her money for the upkeep of her family. In New York she taught French in several families and managed to get along fairly well during the next few years. Paine, meanwhile, had "put the two Bonnevilles at a school in New Rochelle, where they also boarded."
Paine steadily grew sicker in his old age and found only Madame Bonneville to care for him. He had toward the last "suffered from want of income, and had to sell the farm he meant for the Bonnevilles for $10,000, but the purchaser died, and at his widow's appeal, the contract was cancelled." Mrs. Bonneville nursed Paine carefully all through his last illness of dropsy. He died June 8, 1809. His last words in answer to her question as to whether or not she had treated him kindly were, "Oh, yes." At his grave none of the grand people of America were present, only a Quaker, two Negroes, Madame Bonneville and her sons. She saw that Paine was buried on a spot on his farm which he had designated.b At the grave she p7stood at one end and placed Benjamin at the other. As the earth fell on the coffin she cried: "Oh, Mr. Paine, my son stands here as testimony of the gratitude of America, and I for France."
In his will Paine was exceedingly generous to the Bonneville family. He bequeathed thirty shares of New York Phoenix Insurance Company, all movable effects and the money in his trunk to Margaret Brazier Bonneville. From the proceeds of the sale of his farm he gave a portion to Nicholas Bonneville, other land was to be rented and the profits were to accrue in trust for the education and maintenance of Benjamin and Thomas Bonneville "until they come to the age of 21 years, in order that she may bring them well up, give them good and useful learning, and instruct them in their duty to God, and the practice of morality . . ." One of the executors of the will was Thomas Addis Emmet, older brother of Robert Emmet, who led the United Irishmen in their crusade for freedom from England. Thomas Emmet, arriving in New York in 1803, became, through his great ability as a lawyer, Attorney General of New York in 1812. In Paine's will the executors were charged to "give what assistance they conveniently can to Mrs. Bonneville, and see that the children be well brought up."
No sooner had Paine died than all sorts of libels began to appear. Madame Bonneville subsequently brought suit against a Mr. Cheetham because he said that Paine had brought with him from Paris, and from her husband in whose house he had lived, Margaret Bonneville and her three sons and that Thomas had the features, countenance and temper of Paine. Cheetham in court later, admitted that he had been deceived. Madame Bonneville had such eminent character witnesses as the afore-mentioned Thomas Addis Emmet and J. W. Jarvis, the painter, and Robert E. Fulton, the steamboat builder. The fact was brought out that Americans could little realize the difficulties undergone by a radical in Paris in the ten most tempestuous years of any nation's life. Conway said, "The Bonnevilles never escaped from scandal. Long years afterward, when the late General Bonneville was residing in St. Louis, it was whispered that he was p8the natural son of Thomas Paine, though he was born before Paine ever met Madame Bonneville." After the fall of Napoleon, Nicholas Bonneville was relieved of his parole. He hastened to New York to a reunion with his family and the enjoyment of Thomas Paine's self-sacrificing economy. Later writers stated that Nicholas Bonneville often walked about Battery Park, New York, his bald head shining in the sun while he read his beloved Voltaire and Rousseau.
About 1819 the Bonnevilles returned to Paris, leaving one son, Benjamin, in the American Army, another in the Navy — the latter being killed on the American ship Wasp. In Paris, Conway stated, the elder Bonneville kept a small bookshop, and there he died in 1828. His widow moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where she died in 1846.
After Paine's death, his manuscripts passed by bequest to Madame Bonneville. In time she published a fragment of the third part of the "Age of Reason," but it was afterward found, as reported by Conway, "that she had erased passages that might offend the orthodox." The French "Biographical Dictionary" reported that she had begun "editing" Paine's life. By this time she had become a Roman Catholic, and had added religious reasons to her own personal ones for suppressing the memoirs. "The same motives may have prevented her son from publishing" the manuscripts which were in his home in St. Louis. Unfortunately, while on his exploratory tour of the West, his "library and valuable papers" were destroyed in a fire. This was the report of General Bonneville's widow fifty years later.
Nothing is known of Benjamin Bonneville from 1809 to 1813, when he entered West Point as a cadet. Mr. William Fayel said: "An ex‑senator of the United States recently asserted that General Bonneville was brought over by Jefferson and a French lady; and a French lady who was intimate with the Bonnevilles, assured me that General Bonneville was sent to West Point by Lafayette." The Lafayette legend is rather doubtful and there was evidence that Bonneville, who was cared p9for by Thomas Addis Emmet, may have found in him a strong partisan who urged army training. Then too Jefferson and Monroe through correspondence with Paine must have known the entire Bonneville story and may have helped secure his Military Academy appointment. General Joseph Gardner Swift related in his memoirs in 1817 at the military post in Penobscot Bay: "Also met my protege, Lieutenant Bonneville, on duty at the fort, to whom the celebrated Thomas Paine had bequeathed some estate. . . . Of the Lieutenant Bonneville above mentioned, I had, in 1814 [should be 1813 — author's note], procured for him a cadet's warrant, and sent him to the Military Academy at West Point." General Swift was the first graduate of the Military Academy, in 1802, and in this period was one of the foremost engineers in America, friend and confidant of Presidents.
At any rate, Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville arrived at West Point. As a youth of French birth he was no novelty, for there had been a number who had preceded him — men like Auguste Chouteau who served in the Southwest under General Wilkinson, and later became a famous fur trader and Indian commissioner; Charles Gratiot, later Chief of Engineers of the Army; Joseph Proveaux who died during the war of 1812; René E. De Russy, later Superintendent of the Academy. In the year of his entrance, the Military Academy, due to the paring of William Eustis, Secretary of War, had almost passed out of existence. Only one cadet graduated in 1813 and he had remained at the Academy for a mere eight months. Alden Partridge, Captain of Engineers, was professor of mathematics, and acting head of the school during this period. The nominal head of the Academy was the Chief of Engineers of the U. S. Army. General Joseph Gardner Swift, who held that position, was fighting on the northern border. In his absence, Partridge ruled West Point as a dictator,c evincing little of the ability at organization and development which he later exhibited in the causation and headship of Norwich University. He took arbitrary p10power into his weak hands until the Academy's reputation was tottering.
In July 1812, there had been a lone cadet at West Point and only one officer, Captain Partridge. Five more students arrived in December. In the spring of 1813, President Madison took an interest in West Point, due to the abilities exhibited by its several score graduates in subordinate positions in the War against Great Britain. Under his urging, cadets of all ages with their warrants, and without benefit of entrance examinations, dribbled into the Academy. Bonneville was one of these. The school buildings were of poor character and it was not until after Bonneville had graduated that a mess hall, academic buildings and two barracks were erected. Living with Thomas Paine in the simple style had probably prepared Bonneville better than most for cadet life. For two years and a half, the young French refugee experienced life under Alden Partridge. The degrading punishment of wearing placards on his back telling of his derelictions, sitting astride a cannon in front of the Superintendent's home for hours for punishment — all these must have been the share of Benjamin Bonneville. Evidently he was not one of Partridge's favorites because some of them were graduated within a year after their entrance; Bonneville stayed longer than most. Since there were no regular examinations, the school year was broken up into furlough periods of odd length, and when in attendance the cadets were followed to petition the Superintendent for even the privilege of having a part of Sunday to walk about the reservation. There is no record of Bonneville striking up any favorable companionships. Most of his classmates, if they can be called that, with the imperfect system of arrangement, left the Army shortly after graduation. Those who remained found life short and not too sweet, fighting the Indians on the frontiers. One fellow graduate, Simon Willard, became a well-known watchmaker in Boston; another, Alonzo Brewer, was killed at an early age in the Argentine fight for independence. William W. Gordon lived long and became President of the Central Railroad of Georgia; Jamesp11 Monroe, a nephew of the ex‑President, resigned from the army after the Black Hawk War and later became a New York alderman, and member of the House of Representatives; William S. Eveleth died in a shipwreck on Lake Michigan within a few years of graduation. Only a handful lived to see the Civil War.
After obtaining his Brevet Second Lieutenancy in December of 1815, Bonneville served in the rather quiet garrison life of New England posts until 1820. The sole mention of him was that of General Joseph G. Swift, who saw and talked to "his protege" at Penobscot Bay in 1817. Bonneville first saw the great forested areas of the frontier in 1820, when he built a military road through Mississippi and then removed to a garrison at Bay St. Louis, in that territory. Having left the light artillery with its 6 and 12 pounders, Bonneville was transferred to the 8th Infantry as a First Lieutenant, and sent to the new Fort Smith in the recently recognized Arkansas Territory. By a treaty with the Cherokees, permission had been obtained to build a fort •450 miles above the mouth of the Arkansas River. At the junction with the Poteau River a site was chosen by Major Stephen Long of exploratory fame, and plans were submitted to Major William Bradford. "By the spring of 1819 two blockhouses and barracks occupied a sandstone elevation," but in 1821 when Bonneville arrived "the fort was still unfinished, for much farming and stock raising interfered with construction," according to Henry Putney Beers.
In 1821, the Army was reorganized and its strength decreased. The eight infantry regiments were stretched thin across the great frontier from Fort Snelling (near the present site of Minneapolis) to the forts of the Arkansas and Red Rivers. During that year and the following, Bonneville was on an expedition to Texas to police the frontier. Andrew Jackson, then in command of the Southwest troops, planned to stretch a chain of forts from the Mandan villages to the Rio Grande, if the Florida Treaty were not ratified, and if Texas were taken. The Florida treaty however was ratified, and the doughty warrior p12was faced with the new boundary between the United States and Mexico along the Arkansas River. The forts of the Southwest were laid out accordingly.
Bonneville as a member of the 7th Infantry had the mission of protecting white settlers against the marauding bands of Cherokees and Osage who were warring against one another. Colonel Matthew Arbuckle, commander of the regiment, and one with whom Bonneville was later to come to cross purposes, had brought 250 men up the Arkansas River to Fort Smith in the first steamboat seen on those waters. His next senior was Lieutenant Colonel Zachary Taylor, who commanded six companies of the 7th Infantry farther to the Southwest. Between the Sabine and Red Rivers, this detachment had constructed an outpost, named Natchitoches.º
The tide of westward immigration continued and by 1824, new settlers petitioned the government to move the boundary of Arkansas Territory westward above the point where the Verdigris River empties into the Arkansas, a few miles from the present Muskogee, Oklahoma. "But while the war was over, the turbulent Osage continued to make trouble, and the troops . . . operating out of Fort Smith, were constantly employed in policing the country." One officer was killed late in 1823 and the report that the various Indian tribes, Osage, Cherokee, Kickapoo, and Delaware, had met at the mouth of Verdigris to indulge in a war dance brought action.
The Senate discussed proposed changes in the location of Army forts, and considered "that the new post would afford protection to traders between Missouri and Santa Fe" if it were located at the mouth of the Verdigris and at the western boundary of the territory. Accordingly, Colonel Arbuckle moved troops, of which Lieutenant Bonneville was one of the officers, to Fort Gibson •3 miles east of the Verdigris along the banks of the Grand River, •about eighty miles up the Arkansas River. Additional troops arrived from New Orleans, and Cantonment Gibson during the following two years emerged from a tent encampment to a log cabin fort. When it was completed, p13Lieutenant Bonneville asked for a leave of absence. Journeying to New York, he saw Lafayette, who was on the last lap of his triumphal tour of the United States.
Bonneville attached himself to Lafayette. Naturally, during the meeting with his father's good friend, there was the expressed wish to return to France, where the young Army officer might visit his family, who had returned to their native land in 1818. In that grand spirit which characterized the American attitude for their delivering warrior, they showered upon Lafayette citizenship and •200,000 acres of land. As a final gesture before sailing, that fine old gentleman probably hinted that he would like to take Captain Bonneville along. In a grandiose gesture the War Department placed Captain Bonneville on leave of absence to accompany the aged Marquis to France. Bonneville served as aide-de‑camp and secretary, when they sailed on the frigate Brandywine. For a year, the aide remained with Lafayette at the latter's home in La Grange, undoubtedly being free to visit his family in Paris. Altogether it was a welcome respite for Bonneville and gave him the opportunity to mix business and pleasure. He was always rubbing the lamp of good fortune and through Fate's auspices, his life was adventurous, though not always pleasant.
Bonneville upon his return from the enjoyable journey reported to the 7th Infantry at Fort Gibson. According to the custom of the century, an officer was a member of the organization, to move with it, live with it, and be promoted within its ranks unless the War Department intervened for a special reason. The life at Fort Gibson, though, was far from peaceful. The 7th Infantry with probably not more than 500 men attempted unsuccessfully to garrison the entire Southwest. The Cherokees joined by the Delawares, Shawnees, Kickapoos, and other Indians from Missouri and territories to the north banded together in the Arkansas Territory to war on the Osage tribes. Colonel Arbuckle was hard put to bring about armistices in these intermittent wars. Transfers of Indian tribes to new lands also engaged the efforts of the troops in these Southwestern p14stations. There is record in 1829 of 1200 Creeks being shepherded to the land near Fort Gibson to be "under the protection" of that Fort. Indians continued to arrive and in the Fall of 1830, Captain Bonneville journeyed up the Arkansas River to inspect the land upon which the Indians were to be settled. Beers in The Western Military Frontier stated that he "submitted an unfavorable report on the character of the country . . ."
Not far from Fort Gibson was the trading post of Auguste Chouteau, West Point graduate of 1806, and successful fur trader. In the home of his congenial fellow national, Captain Bonneville, thirty-year old frontier Army officer, dreamed of becoming a famous personage. Chouteau was renowned for his exploits in the Far West, and could "discourse instructively and entertainingly on all subjects" related to that region. Foreman in Pioneer Days of the Southwest related how the humdrum existence of Fort Gibson was enlivened by traders who stopped off at the post, and paid for their hospitality with adventurous tales of the country to the west. Gradually the land beyond the mountains became a living part of Bonneville's imagination. Among the visitors were: Captain Pryor who had accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition; Colonel Hugh Glenn who had accompanied Chouteau to the Southwest and Santa Fe; and Pierre Manard who trapped furs over much of the western country. This colorful aura of western life made Bonneville's frontier army life, by comparison, singularly drab. Perhaps he too as he peered into the future could become a figure in the West.
On November 8, 1830, Captain Bonneville in routine fashion sent a letter to Colonel Arbuckle asking for an eight months' leave of absence. In the original letter addressed from Cantonment Gibson, Bonneville gave as his reason for his request for leave that "family concerns of the utmost importance demand my presence at New York, where late advices from my parents assure me that I shall be able to meet them next spring." Perhaps then his father had not died in France in 1828 as reported p15by Moncure Conway. Further the Captain stated: "For the last four years I have been on constant duty with my company. My two subalterns are with me. Also the fact that all the officers of the post are present, besides the five brevet lieutenants who are attached to the companies here, whose furloughs expired on the first of the month makes me more sanguine in the belief that you will advance no objection to the indulgence I request." Bonneville was very careful in this request for leave not to divulge his true intentions of going to the War Department in Washington to seek bigger game.
The furlough was granted and the following spring Bonneville was in New York. What plans he had and what program he laid out for himself can only be surmised. Evidently, when in New York, Bonneville stirred the interest of a group of capitalists, including Alfred Seton, to the point where they were willing to advance the considerable amount of money needed for a fur trading enterprise. With necessary funds subscribed, the expedition depended upon the acquiescence of the War Department. Bonneville's letter to Major General Alexander Macomb, Chief of the Army, stated his intentions of an exploratory program so that the Army would feel justified in releasing him. Heretofore, the expeditions of Lewis and Clark, of Long, and of Pike had been official ones with the government finding it necessary to give presents to all the Indian tribes and to give the expeditions the necessary powers to act as government emissaries. Bonneville, on the other hand, in order to carry through his fur trading plans, agreed to give up the official character of his party, and yet offered to collect information which would make a contribution to the geographical, geological, and mineralogical knowledge of the Western country. In this way he could, as it were, pay for his extended leave of absence of several years in which his expedition would remain in the West. Diplomatically, Bonneville addressed Macomb: "Observing that our countrymen are becoming more desirous of understanding the true situation and resources of that portion of our territories, lying to the north of Mexico and p16west of the Rocky Mountains, has determined me to offer my services for the advancement of that object." Surprisingly, the Captain asked for "no outfit, no presents for the Indians, no command" and furthermore said that he would "want no protection, save passports from our and the Mexican authorities . . . and leave of absence . . ." For his qualifications, Bonneville stated: "Eleven years residence among the Indians west of Arkansas Territory, has afforded me a good opportunity of becoming acquainted with the Indian character . . ." In his proposed enterprise, the captain assured the Army Chief that he would "by observations, establish prominent points of that country, ascertain the general courses of the principal rivers, the location of the Indian tribes and their habits, visit the American and British establishments, make myself acquainted with their manner of trade and intercourse with the Indians, finally, endeavor to develop any advantages the country affords and by what means they may most readily be (opened) to the enterprise of our citizens." In the following spring Bonneville proposed to "leave the United States with some of the companies (Fur Companies) trading there, and on my arrival, immediately begin my labours." A few days later, Bonneville was on his way to New York "for the purpose of settling some private business . . ."
That Bonneville was not only completing his fur trading plans but also was preparing himself for the project of determining "the quality of the soil; the production, minerals, the natural history, climate; the geography and topography as well as the geology . . ." was shown by his letter of mid‑July to General Macomb. Bonneville reported that he had furnished himself with "a telescope, sextant, horizon, compass, case of instruments" and other aids to observation. In addition he had perused all works which yield information of the country, notably "Humboldt's, Mackenzie's and Clark's journals." Also he reported that he was going to West Point "in order to practice the taking p17of a few astronomical observations . . ." Finally Bonneville penned his hope of returning in October, 1833.
Much criticism has been leveled at Bonneville for starting on a fur trading expedition for personal gain while making reports, as called for by the War Department, only incidentally. There is no evidence to support the conclusion that Bonneville fooled the authorities at the War Department. After his return from the West, the inquiry on his expedition brought out the information that Bonneville went as a trader. There was no government money to support such an expedition, and the stratagem concocted by Captain Bonneville to make the expedition possible — that is, to pay the expenses from fur trading — was recognized by "General Scott, Eustis and even General Macomb," all of whom assisted Bonneville to become a trader. Bonneville stated to Lewis Cass, the new Secretary of War: "The whole Army knew it. It was deemed more proper for me to go as such (a trader)."
With his plans completed Bonneville left New York for Fort Osage, Missouri, traveling by way of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. Arriving in St. Louis on September 10, 1831, he reported to the War Department that he would leave the next day for Liberty, Missouri, near the mouth of the Kansas River. Furthermore he stated that St. Louis would be his winter residence and that there he would organize his expedition. During the winter Captain Bonneville sought out fur traders to learn of the Far West; he secured a mixture of Americans, French, and Indians to act as trappers, guides and fellow explorers. Chittenden in his History of the Fur Trade spoke of Bonneville's efforts as a fur trading expedition, rather than one of exploration. He credited Bonneville's fame to his good fortune in finding Washington Irving interested in his expedition. Chittenden further stated that Bonneville was therefore "a history made man," who was rescued from the "wide-spread, insatiable maws of oblivion." Whatever may be the judgment of Captain Bonneville's expedition, his later experiences proved that he p18organized well during this winter preceding his move to the Far West. The final organization of the Bonneville expedition was completed at Fort Osage, •ten miles from Independence, Missouri, and from that point the start was made on May 1, 1832. The Captain followed the little-explored route which later became well known as the Oregon Trail. He reached the Platte River on June 3, and followed that river amid wild scenes to Polo Creek, and thence to the present site of Fort Laramie.
Before starting, Bonneville had become somewhat aware of the competition among the fur traders into whose country he was now headed. During the previous few years the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and the American Fur Company had dominated the Far Western trade. The former was an offspring of General Ashley's expedition with Captain William Sublette as the guiding spirit. Other members were the well known Thomas Fitzpatrick, James Bridger, Robert Campbell and Etienne Provost. The American Fur Company, originally founded by Jacob Astor, was then managed by Ramsey Crooks, aided by Fontenelle, Andrew Drips and Vanderburgh. In 1832 these two leading companies were therefore challenged in fur trapping by Captain Bonneville and Mr. N. J. Wyeth, both of whom led excellent parties financed by Eastern money.
Bonneville's objective was Pierre's Hole, a deep valley in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, also to be the place of rendezvous of the two rival associations. Once launched on his expedition, Bonneville's party represented a hardy group of mixed races. Many of his white men garbed in frontier dress, their horses "caparisoned in barbaric style, with fantastic trappings," looked more like Indians than the savages themselves. The expedition with its 110 men transported its baggage in twenty wagons. Bonneville, trying this new way of frontier travel, expected to save time ordinarily used in packing and unpacking the horses each day. Also with fewer horses in his expedition the encampments in the Indian country would be less of a prey for the many marauding tribes. The wagons too would p19form a defense, as later travelers learned from Bonneville's experience, as temporary fortification on the prairies. The train of twenty wagons, each drawn by four animals — horses, oxen, or mules — was placed in two columns in the center of the party. With military precision Bonneville formed a van with his scouts ahead, others placed on the flanks and in a rear guard. His Lieutenants were Mr. I. R. Walker, a brave Tennessean, who had been among the earliest adventurers in the Fe country and for a time imprisoned by the Spaniards; the other leader, Mr. M. S. Cerré, had also been to Santa Fe and was considered an experienced Indian trader though but 25 years of age. As this assembly moved through what is now Kansas and Nebraska, they presented a strange band of adventurers. They shouted and yelped like savages and with war whoops and feats of horsemanship announced their arrival at the hamlets and solitary cabins on the fringe of the frontier. Washington Irving presented an interesting picture of the group, detailing at some length the differences in character and quality between the American and the French fur trappers. "The French trapper is represented as a lighter, softer, more self-indulgent kind of man." Gay and thoughtless, he was easily perplexed on a trail, and in his lodge needed an Indian wife and small conveniences. The American trapper appeared practiced in scouting in the open country or in the forests. He wanted no Indian wife, and hardship was his expected lot.
Along the Kansas River, Bonneville's expedition came to an Indian agency superintended by General Clark, brother of the famous William Clark, who with Meriwether Lewis had made the first great expedition to the Western country. In the agency a great stir was caused by the sight of the wagon caravan. The Kansas Indian Chieftain was taken with the "courtesy of the Captain," so much so that he accompanied Bonneville for a day's journey on the march. At each night's encampment Bonneville scrupulously observed the practice of placing the wagons "in a square, at the distance of •thirty-three feet from each other." In that interval was a group of men with its own p20fire, mess, and guard station. The horses placed in the center of the square were fettered and a guard always placed over them.
As the expedition moved toward the Platte River, Captain Bonneville kept a running map of the terrain noting the appearances of game, of the various trees and shrubs and of the water courses. He took temperature readings and when possible determined the mineral deposits on the earth's surface. Near the Great Islands, or Grand Island, on the Platte River, Bonneville measured its width as •"2200 yards from bank to bank. Its depth was from •from three to six feet, the bottom full of quicksand." Though rations were short and the difficulties of moving the wagons were great, Bonneville with his own good humor appears to have buoyed up the spirit of the party. After a few days searching for a safe ford he finally gave up and ferried his wagons across the river. Irving stated that Bonneville "caused the bodies of the wagons to be dislodged from the wheels, covered with buffalo hides and besmeared with a compound of tallow and ashes . . . During a portion of the journey they were in great haste to reach the mountains before the great heat of the summer could cause them irksome discomfort." Eventually the expedition abandoned the Platte River and took its course up the Sweetwater and through the Black Hills, where they were in Indian country and also in the land of the buffalo. Along with the prospects of good food they suffered the discomfort of mosquitoes and buffalo gnats. Though the land was more beautiful and the trees and birds gladdened the men, they also found that they must be on the lookout for the predatory Crow Indians.
In one meeting with that tribe, Bonneville's party found them too friendly. The Indians were most attentive and upon their departure the expedition found that they had lost most of their hunting knives and their coat buttons. As Bonneville continued to take the temperature he noted its rise and also an excessive dryness in the atmosphere. The woodwork of the wagons shrunk and stout props were put against the spokes of the p21wheels to prevent them from falling apart. The continued rarity of the atmosphere finally caused the wheels to fall apart. At length Bonneville took off the tire of each wheel, heated it, and suddenly cooled it with water. Then with wood nailed "round the exterior of the felloes" he had a compact wheel again. As for the men themselves the increased elevation brought "cramps and colics, sore lips and mouths, and violent headaches." Further trouble with the wagons because of the deep ravines bordering the rivers was mentioned by Bonneville. At times as many as eighty men pulled each wagon up the side of a ravine and then held it with ropes from plunging down the other side.
It was on July 20 that Bonneville first saw the great region of his hope, the Rocky Mountains. Ahead of him were the Wind River Mountains and the Yellowstone, both very rugged and forming on the eastern side the watershed of the Missouri River, on the western slopes that of the Columbia, and to the South the Colorado of the West, which empties into the Gulf of California. A week later a great cloud of dust was noticed to the rear of the party and the alarm was given for defense. Scouts were sent out and soon came galloping back with the news that Fontenelle, an experienced leader of fur trapping expeditions, was headed toward them with fifty men. Fontenelle explained that he had been on Bonneville's trail for some time and that since the expedition had frightened off all game he was obliged to push on by forced marches to avoid famine. Furthermore, he explained, that the Green River was some distance away and that he hoped to reach it that evening by hard travel. Bonneville, with his wagons, which incidentally had been the first ever to go through South Pass, was of course slower. With thirst egging him on, he reached the river valley the next day at noon. Along the river Bonneville established his camp across from that of Fontenelle, the American Fur Company leader. "Both parties," according to Chittenden, "were much too late for the annual rendezvous in Pierre's Hole, which had already taken place some two weeks before. The p22Captain at this time proceeded to erect a trading post "with the evident purpose of making a permanent establishment." Though it was an ideal site and a good fort "with palisade wall and flanking bastions" it has been since known in history as "Bonneville's folly," or "Fort Nonsense," because no use was ever made of it.
Since Bonneville's fort was in a high altitude where the winter would be severe he planned to seek a likelier spot, and from such information as he could obtain he "fixed upon the head waters of Salmon River" as the most eligible. Since his stock had not yet recuperated, he detached a small party under one Mathieu to pasture them for a time on the banks of Bear River with instructions to join him at winter quarters before snow set in. Bonneville then moved the remainder of his group to Pierre's Hole. En route in Jackson Hole he found the bodies of two men who had been murdered by the Blackfeet Indians a month before. The two men had been members of Milton Sublette's party, who with Wyeth's party of Easterners, had fought a pitched battle with the Indians. This party of Blackfeet, angered by the loss of several warriors in the fight, next met Fontenelle. They did not attack, though, because he was strongly stationed and because he informed the Indians that Captain Bonneville was in the neighborhood. Fifteen of the Blackfeet visited Bonneville, who, having heard nothing of the conflict at Pierre's Hole, "treated the grim warriors with his usual urbanity." Evidently these warriors noted Bonneville's military skill and never-ending vigilance and returned with such word to their comrades. While moving westward, Bonneville met a band of free trappers and invited them to a "blow‑out," as he termed it. After a free allowance of grog these "braggart spirits . . . pronounced the Captain the finest fellow in the world . . ." Bonneville, meanwhile allowing them to regale themselves, collected much information about the character of the country and of the Indian tribes.
Before proceeding to the Salmon River, which is one of the upper branches of the Columbia, Bonneville thought it wise to p23cache his wagons. One night with a few men, he dug secret pits and buried them. Late in August he broke camp and set out on the last stage of the journey to the Salmon River. His baggage was loaded in packs, three to a mule, with one pack on each side and one on top, the entire load averaging 200 pounds. The next tribe which the party encountered was the Nez Perces, or Pierced Nose Indians. This friendly clan camped with Bonneville and even shared their scanty provisions of dried salmon with the half-starved expedition. The Army officer detached a few men under Cerré to accompany the Nez Perces on their hunting expedition with the injunction "to trade with them for meat for the winter's supply." •Five miles below the forks of the Salmon River, Bonneville established his winter quarters in the last week of September. Here in a grove of cottonwood the expedition threw up several log cabins while they prepared for the winter by sending out hunting parties. When such detached groups were gone Bonneville had only twenty men left. He settled down in his camp and soon found it crowded with numerous bands of Nez Perces, Flathead, and Pend d'Oreille Indians. Along with the Indians was a motley crew of trappers of all colors.
Among the Nez Perces, the expedition's leader found much to admit in the deep piety and devotional feeling of this tribe. He stated that this devotion pervaded their whole conduct, making them honest, pure, and close observers of the rites of their Roman Catholic religion. "Certainly," said Bonneville, they were "more like a nation of saints than a horde of savages." In addition to their rude calendar of fasts and festivals, they also had an anti-belligerent policy along the lines of Christian charity. The Captain was so deeply interested that he exercised himself in inculcating "the gentle and humanizing precepts of the Christian faith," and acquainting them "with the leading points of its history . . ." Irving remarked that this spoke highly "for the purity and benignity of his heart, that he derived unmixed happiness from the task." The Captain's lodge was often thronged with listeners whose ears sought p24"the wonders which the great spirit had revealed to the white man." Bonneville further stated: "No other subject gave them half the satisfaction, or commanded half the attention; and but a few scenes of my life remained so freshly on my memory, or so pleasurably replaced to my contemplation, as these hours of intercourse with a distant and benighted race in the midst of the desert." As a counter balance to their piety and lack of warlike spirit, the Nez Perces loved gambling and horse racing to a point of infatuation. During the encampment on the Salmon River, Bonneville's leadership qualities showed themselves at their best. He was able to keep all the diverse groups in perfect harmony; he bore good-humoredly the curiosity of the Indians; and in his transactions was an honorable man. But the fact that the Indians owned from 30 to 40 horses each accounted for the lack of pasturage. After importuning the Indians to break up their encampments and move on, Bonneville remained behind so that he might secretly prepare caches "in which to deposit everything not required for current use." Two weeks later Bonneville overtook the Indians in their new camping ground and remained with them through Christmas.
While camping with the Indians before Christmas, Bonneville brought himself the reputation of being a good physician. The Indians were dying after an illness (probably pneumonia) of three or four days. Strangely none of the white men contracted the disease, so that Bonneville was able easily to go among the Indians, "prescribing profuse sweatings and copious bleeding, uniformly with success . . ." Not confining his activities to healing their bodies he also turned to efforts of pacification of the difficulties between the Blackfeet on one side and the Nez Perces on the other. He proposed a huge peace conference, similar to those held by Colonel Arbuckle in the Southwest. The reaction was not what the Captain expected.
After much tobacco smoking the tribal sages in council rejected Bonneville's proposition with the amazingly realistic declaration that "War is . . . full of evil; but it keeps the eyes of p25the chiefs always open and makes the limbs of young men strong and supple . . . Peace, on the other hand, sounds no alarm; the eyes of the chiefs are closed in sleep, and the young men are asleep and lazy." Bonneville had to acquiesce in their reasoning but he asked them to exercise constant vigilance as he found them with a careless indifference in their encampments, in sharp contrast to his own picketed and guarded camps. Sometime later, the Nez Perces having been raided by the Blackfeet, he urged "the necessity of vigorous and retributive measures . . ." For a moment it appeared that the tribe would go out to strike a decisive blow at the Blackfeet but soon one of the tribe's orators rose and said it was bad "to go to war for mere revenge." Their lost horses, he assured them, could be easily replaced from their cousins, the Lower Nez Perces. Eventually one war party sallied out against the Blackfeet but came lagging back with only a few broken-down horses left. Thus satisfied, the Nez Perces relapsed into their usual passive indifference.
For a time Bonneville, as the central figure, enjoyed the activity of camp, but soon his forage was exhausted by the large herd of horses. Bonneville, after sending out hunting expeditions, found their return insufficient. Faced with this dual lack, he sought to rid himself of the ennui of camp by setting out the day after Christmas for the Bear River Valley in search of Mathieu and his horses. The Captain journeyed up the John Day (now Little Lost) River, and then up the Big Lost River. Then crossing lava plains near the base of the westernmost of the Three Buttes, he finally reached the Snake River, near the mouth of the Portneuf, in mid‑January. The cold was so intense that the horsemen had to dismount often to prevent freezing in their saddles.
In the expedition up the John Day River, Bonneville showed his stubbornness of spirit. Faced by freezing weather and the possibility of famine in the wintry snow-covered mountains, and forced to toil incessantly in order to make any progress at all, Bonneville persevered as if the success of the expedition was a p26matter of pride. During this sortie his vigilance paid dividends, for on one or two occasions small Indian parties were found to have tried to intercept his party. Soon Mathieu's men were found in an encampment and it was said that Captain Bonneville felt "self gratulation that he had thus accomplished his dreary enterprise . . ." Bonneville had the feeling of a poet too, for even during the hardship of his daring enterprise he still could write in his journal an appreciation of the grandeur of nature. In one burst of enthusiasm while on this search he wrote: "Far away over the vast plains, and up the steep sides of the lofty mountains, the snow lay spread in dazzling whiteness; and whenever the sun emerged in the morning above the giant peaks, or burst forth from among the clouds in his midday course, mountain and dell, glazed rock, and frosted tree, glowed and sparkled with surpassing lustre. The tall pines seemed sprinkled with a silver dust, and the willows, studded with minute icicles, reflecting the prismatic rays, brought to mind the fairy trees conjured by the caliphs' story-teller to adorn his vale of diamonds."
Bonneville's joy at finding Mathieu with his animals was tempered somewhat by the report of the loss of two men by a lack of vigilance. Fortunately, since the Indians had captured them, there was hope that they might be set free. After several weekends in this wintry encampment, Bonneville set out in late February with 16 men for the caches on the Salmon River, leaving the same number on the Snake River. In mid‑March, while visiting at his old encampment, he found the caches secure, and from them selected necessary articles of equipment. Bonneville, in order to "compensate all hands for past sufferings, and to give a cheerful spur to further operations, gave the men a regular blow‑out." Up to this time Bonneville's expedition had been entirely unsuccessful in trapping pursuits, having used most of their effort in keeping themselves alive and ready for the spring effort. On the other part of his dual project he had gathered much useful information about the Indian tribes and had noted in his journal their habits, p27number of warriors and other data. No real exploration had been accomplished, though some of his maps were of territory which the fur traders had only spoken of and had never mapped.
In preparation for the spring hunt, Bonneville sent Cerré, and Hodgkiss, a clerk, with an assortment of goods to trade with the Indians and instructions to join him on the Salmon River on June 15. The purpose of the latter's excursion was to purchase horses and to buy or barter for any peltries which they might collect. Bonneville himself, with 28 hired and free trappers, set out along the right fork of the Salmon River toward the Malade River, where he expected to obtain muskrat furs. Early in April, as the party approached this hunting ground, they found it necessary to await the melting of some of the mountain snows. While so doing another party of hunters, led by Milton Sublette and J. V. Gervais, partners in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, arrived near by with the same hunting ground as their objective. Both groups sat on edge staring at each other like wild dogs while waiting to move into the Malade valley. Chittenden stated that "the month of May was spent by the rival parties on the headwaters of the Malade, and . . . it is evident that its results were not altogether satisfactory for Captain Bonneville." At this time the Captain journeyed to the Salmon River rendezvous and met his other parties by appointment on the 15 of June. With new equipment and supplies, Bonneville set out to meet Hodgkiss, who had been left to trade with the Nez Perces on the Snake River plain. The Captain met him shortly thereafter, in company with the Indians. Nathaniel J. Wyeth was also there, traveling at the time with a party of the Hudson's Bay Company, a British association. Since the British trader was short of supplies, Bonneville lost no time in attempting to seize the opportunity. Though he enticed the Indians with his selection of goods not one would touch them, for the Hudson's Bay Company's control was perfect. Understandably, Bonneville wrote of this incident with angry disappointment. In July the entire company moved p28on to Horse Creek in the Green River valley, arriving there on July 13. Since there is no trapping from the middle of June to the middle of September, when the beaver are shedding their furs, the trappers settled down to wassailing. Bonneville himself turned to other duties. First of all he took stock of his first year in the mountains. He found that his take of furs had amounted to only 22½ packs. Chouteau wrote to Astor: "It is conceded that Bonneville, out of all his grand expenditures, will have only enough to pay the wages of his men." The meager trapping results of Bonneville were partly accounted for by the faithlessness of some of his men who "were constantly stealing away to the Fort (Fort Cass, at the mouth of the Big Horn) with all the furs they could get hold of and trading them for liquor. The American Fur Company was undoubtedly back of this faithless behavior as well as of the previous conduct of the Crows . . ." Also Bonneville, during the spring, had found his trapping curbed by the fear of the Arricara Indians who were on the warpath in a large party. The 23 packs of beaver meant less than 20 skins for each man in the party and no profit could be expected. From Green River, Fontenelle wrote to Mackenzie: "Bonneville, seeing that he has nearly done, plays the devil with us. He offers to common hands $350 to $1,000 per annum, knowing that when the time is up, he will pay them with wind. Many of the men that I have brought out, having received so large an allowance in St. Louis, have left me. I will use every effort to get them back. . . . Bonneville is out of goods and can get no supply this year. I am in hopes we shall get clear of him. . . . If he continues as he has done, $80,000 will not save him." This same Fontenelle when first he had met Bonneville's expedition a year earlier had spirited away several of his Delaware Indian guides. How far one can trust Fontenelle's words is a matter of conjecture.
On the credit side of the ledger Bonneville found himself at the head of a well-seasoned trapping company with at least one year's experience in the mountains. They had learned his methods of eternal watchfulness and were capable of protecting p29themselves from the Indians. Also Bonneville had an excellent herd of horses so necessary to movement in the Far West. With that equipment Bonneville laid his plan for the ensuing months. According to his journal, his principal move was to be the exploration of the country around the Great Salt Lake. This he entrusted to I. R. Walker. Mr. Cerré was to return to the States with the furs, travel on to Washington with Bonneville's reports to the War Department, and stop in New York and St. Louis to report to his backers and to pick up supplies needed for the next year. Bonneville himself decided to inaugurate a fall hunt in the Crow country, even though his leave of absence from the Army was to expire in October.
Captain Bonneville sent his Lieutenant, Mr. Walker, on the most important undertaking of his exploration during the year 1833. Walker was given 40 men and "instructed to keep along the shores of the lake and trap in all the streams on his route; also to keep a journal, and minutely to record the events of his journey . . . making maps or charts of his route . . ." Supplied for a year, Bonneville commanded them to meet him in the valley of Bear River. As recorded in Irving, these were Bonneville's complete plans for the exploration of Great Salt Lake. Through the writings of Bonneville during the three years of his expedition appeared the desire to explore the California country. In a letter to General Macomb which Bonneville entrusted to Cerré, dated July 29, 1833, from Wind River, Bonneville explained his visit to the Far West and his accomplishments to that date. He stated: "This country I find much more extensive than I could have expected . . . I have actually visited only the heart of the Rocky Mountains, in other words, the headwaters of the Yellow Stone, the Platte, the Colorado of the West, and the Columbia. I have therefore remained . . . to explore the mouth of the Columbia . . . and am going to the Southwest towards California on my return, which will be certainly in the course of next fall." Bonneville's plans in relation to the Walker expedition are somewhat confused. It appeared that Walker was directed to explore Salt Lake and that a California p30expedition would be left to the Captain. Only two weeks before, Bonneville had planned with Wyeth a trapping expedition in California, where Bonneville felt that the trapping returns would be "immense," as he later expressed it to General Macomb. If Bonneville did not direct Walker to move through the unknown country to the Pacific, there is no doubt but that Walker must have known of Bonneville's plans for exploring and trapping in that area. George Nidiver and Zenas Leonard who went with Walker said that Walker "was ordered to steer . . . towards the Pacific, and if he did not find beaver he should return to the great Salt Lake in the following summer." Chittenden came to the conclusion from circumstantial evidence that Bonneville would never have supplied Walker's expedition for a full year if he intended only an exploration of Great Salt Lake, the remotest point being only •200 miles from their rendezvous. Bonneville himself during three years in the mountains never went to see the Lake, even though he passed within •a hundred miles of it. Furthermore, Chittenden asserted that Wyeth's talk of California had made the Captain desirous of recouping his losses by California trapping. Walker, it appeared, carried no instruments of any kind for observation. Irving said of the party when it returned a year later that its failure, "was a blow to his (Bonneville's) pride, and a still greater blow to his purse." As far as exploratory accomplishments, Walker's expedition made Bonneville's venture a success. Walker is today credited with the discovery of the Yosemite wonderland, and also some of the Californian mountain country between Salt Lake and Yosemite. On this fact alone Bonneville's expedition can be called a success.
Before returning to Captain Bonneville it is necessary to discuss the letter to the War Department which he entrusted to his subordinate, Cerré, who was taking the peltries to market. The letter to Macomb from Bonneville was a long one of 17 pages detailing the expedition's journey to the mountains. It related quite fully an account of the fur trapping accomplished by the American Fur Company, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, p31the British Hudson's Bay Company, and mentioned the Ashley and Wyeth expeditions. In the letter Bonneville intimated that he knew General Macomb to be very desirous of "collecting certain information respecting the country . . ." Bonneville said that he had made daily observations "of course, country, Indians, in fine of everything!" He stated further: "The information I have obtained authorizes me to say this much, that if our government ever intends taking possession of Oregon, the sooner it shall be done the better . . ." The communication gave intimate details of the Hudson's Bay's "many advantages over the Americans" in trading, and listed the numbers of warriors among the various Indian tribes. For some reason the Captain, who knew his leave would expire within a few months, never asked General Macomb directly, in military terminology, for an extension of his furlough. He was diffident in mentioning this little detail and at the start of the letter and at the close seemed to infer that he had been commanded to secure information concerning the West, and that the Commanding General would settle the minor problem of extending his furlough. In closing, Bonneville stated that he was moving to the lower Columbia, and "on my return about the last of June, I shall expect news from Mr. M. S. Cerré, and if you shall have any instructions for me, shall be glad to receive them . . . (and will be prepared) to join any party that might be sent, (or) to comply with any other commands in the country, or to return to the States." Having forced the hand of his Commanding General, as he thought, Bonneville now turned to further exploration.
After dispatching Cerré to the States and secretly detaching a small trapping party which was to meet him later in the Medicine Lodge valley, the Captain set his foot toward the West. Another trapping party which the Captain had out at this time met with the warring Crow Indians, and when the Captain came to the rendezvous at Medicine Lodge he found both parties bereft of traps and other needed articles. Next he moved his company to the Wind River valley, commanding p32them to continue trapping while he and three men returned to the caches in the Green River valley for more traps. Here we see Bonneville again at indefatigable leader, not unnerved by failure and fate, but resolved by his own obstinacy and determination to recover lost advantage. Once again as in the search for Mathieu and the horses, Bonneville set out on a hazardous journey up the defiles of the Wind River mountains and thence up the Green River valley to his old encampment, but this time "undertook to ascend Wind River and cross the range directly into the Green River valley." Once in the mountains he found himself confronted with towering peaks, snowdrifts, and impassable chasms. Finally, completely baffled, he was forced to swing around to the Southwest through South Pass on the Oregon trail. Washington Irving gave a wonderful description of Bonneville clambering up mountains seeking a "practicable route through this stupendous labyrinth." Up rugged peaks they crawled on hands and knees, of dripping with perspiration and exhausted with fatigue. At length they attained the summit. There upon the dividing ridge which the Indians regarded "as the crest of the world," Bonneville looked down upon a scene of immeasurable beauty. He beheld vast plains "glimmering with reflected sunshine; mighty streams wandering on their shining course toward either ocean, and snowy mountains, chain beyond chain, and peak beyond peak, till they melted like clouds into the horizon." Forced to go the long way round to his rendezvous, Bonneville, even though he was in great hurry, stretched himself flat on the ground and for several hours watched a beaver building his dam, according to his chronicler, Irving.
On the day following the Captain's view of the beaver colony, September 17, 1833, he arrived at his former camp in the Green River valley. Working swiftly, he and his companions spent the entire day opening the cache and taking from it the necessary supplies. Early the next morning they retraced their path toward their trappers on the Wind River. During the return journey they discovered they were being followed by Indians. p33On one occasion they built huge fires and pretended to sleep in the circle near them. Then collecting their packs they noiselessly gathered their horses and marched on several hours away from the point of danger. In all his Western experience Bonneville was never surprised by any Indian group, and his eternal vigilance evinced in military defense more than once persuaded the Indians not to attack.
Winter camp was established near the Portneuf River but this time the Captain, though remaining friendly to the Bannock Indians, kept some distance from them in order to avoid the annoyances of their intimacy and intrusions. During the fall the idea of an exploration to the Columbia River had evidently been on Bonneville's mind. Though placid in his external appearance he was a man of inner nervous tension, only satisfied when he was outwitting even nature itself. Convinced that his company would be unmolested through the winter, Bonneville prepared to set out for the Columbia River and to contact the Hudson's Bay establishments on its banks. In addition, Irving stated that one part of his scheme was to retrieve the trade "lost to the United States by the capture of Astoria" (Astor's first American trading post in the Oregon territory). Somewhere along the lower part of the Columbia River Bonneville hoped to establish a trading post. Choosing three companions and selecting five horses, Bonneville set out with as small a stock of necessaries as could be easily carried. It was Christmas morning when he set out and perhaps many Indians and trappers called his adventurous spirit merely foolhardiness. It was on this journey that Bonneville penetrated deep snowdrifts and ice‑covered ledges to finally arrive at Pisgah Mount where he forgot his frozen and starved condition to delight in the view of the lovely valley of the Immahah.
At length Bonneville reached the banks of the Immahah and perceiving Indian track found himself near an encampment of the friendly Lower Nez Perces. A fine-looking warrior came out to meet them and invited them to his camp a few miles away. After 53 days, the travelers were exhausted and Captain p34Bonneville, never having relaxed his feeling of responsibility for the party during the entire journey, fell on the ground into a sound sleep. The assurance of safety was so great that he remained in unconsciousness until sunup the next day. The Indian tribe had learned of Bonneville through their cousins, the Upper Nez Perces, and they called him by his title of Captain, though they added an Indian name signifying "the bald chief." For as Bonneville sat among them chatting and smoking he would occasionally take off his cap. This created a sensation and the Indians would rise to gaze upon his uncovered head, exclaiming in astonishment about the phenomenon of a bald pate. They wondered if perhaps he had been scalped in battle. After some days with these root-eating Indians, Bonneville's group was hungry for meat. Being certain that the Indians had a winter store, Bonneville resorted to the trading of his many-colored plaid coat. This valued comforter which had kept him warm, retained sufficient color to make the Indians covetous. Bonneville very cleverly conceived the idea of cutting this coat into strips and then with acquired millinery ability "constructed turbans a la turque."
The Indians developed a great liking for Bonneville and gave him a fine horse, but characteristically expected Bonneville to reciprocate that friendship. As he was saddling the horse the old Chief plucked his sleeve and introduced a vinegary old squaw. After a long speech about her love of the horse, Bonneville reciprocated with a pair of ear bobs. But the chief was not done, and before Bonneville was ready to move off, he likewise was introduced to the Chief's son, who also liked the horse. Bonneville spared a hatchet from his slender store. Bonneville had previously given the Chief a rifle, and now the Chief told him how dumb a rifle was unless it could speak. Powder and ball were forthcoming from the jovial Frenchman. Thereafter, when Bonneville approached a new Indian tribe he put on a poverty act in order to counter-balance his nickname of "the big‑hearted Chief." In fact, as the party continued toward the Columbia River their supplies became so p35lean that they had to depend on the Indians not only for food, but for tobacco and pipes, both great comforts of the trapper. While among the Nez Perces they often asked him about the land of the eastern whites, as most of their trading was with the British. At great length Bonneville glorified "The Big Hearts of the East" so that the Indians would think of them as their friends. Then endeavoring to impress them, he related that the numbers of people in the United States were "as countless as the blades of grass in the prairies, and they would drink the Snake River dry in a single day."
The Captain's reputation as a healer among their cousins, the Upper Nez Perces, brought him more professional work among his hosts. As a Medicine Man he was asked to help on many illnesses. After successfully curing two or three ordinary cases, they brought him "an antiquated squaw with a churchyard cough, and one leg in the grave; it being shrunk and rendered useless by the a rheumatic affection." Bonneville admitted this case to be beyond his skill but said that he would bring something to relieve her from Fort Walla Walla. Among all the Nez Perces, Bonneville found great religious piety and devotion, and he came to feel a greater affection for that tribe than for any other. At length he was again en route and the Indians furnished him with a guide.
At the Hudson's Bay settlement in early March, 1834, the Captain found that the Hudson's Bay traders made a great distinction between a guest and a rival trader. The worthy superintendent "who had extended to him all the genial rights of hospitality, suddenly assumed a withered‑up aspect and demeanor . . ." when Bonneville applied to him for the purchase of needed supplies. Bonneville, half in anger, turned about to retrace his difficult steps through the Blue Mountains. The Factor assured him that it was extremely dangerous at that season of the year, and offered Bonneville the opportunity of accompanying one of his parties on a safer, more circuitous route. Still piqued, Bonneville refused, and began his return journey over his westward course which he varied slightly due p36to Indian information. On May 12, the party arrived at its rendezvous on the Portneuf. On the return journey Irving recounted how Bonneville had on several occasions attempted to make a track through the mountains. "Snow lying in vast drifts, often higher than the horses' heads" obliged him to give up his desire for short cuts. Two Indian guides, whom he had picked up on his return journey, told him that he could not cross any of the snow-covered mountains, but Bonneville was determined. His grave answer to the guides is indicative of his character. Bonneville said: "My friends, I have seen the pass and have listened to your words; you have little hearts. When troubles and dangers lie in your way, you turn your backs. That is not the way with my nation. When great obstacles present, and threaten to keep them back, their hearts swell, and they push forward. They love to conquer difficulties." But the Captain, though speaking of a nation, could not have more surely analyzed his own character. Strangely enough the snow, which appeared to the Indians to be "at least •a hundred feet deep," was crossed by Bonneville. A slight drizzling rain came on. The Captain made two light sleds and with packs on them dragged them by hand in the wet snow to the other side of the mountain. The road thus created froze and the horses found a path through the snow which was certainly many feet deep.
Returned to winter camp on the Portneuf the party gave itself up to general festivities and two days later set out for the rendezvous in Bear River Valley, near a point where the river crosses the present state line between Wyoming and Utah. Other than a harmless encounter with the Blackfeet the only incident was an hilarious dissipation at the Soda Springs. Walker's party was already there with the story of their California exploration. Walker had come back empty-handed and the accounts of unnecessary Indian killings by some members of the party saddened Bonneville greatly. Bonneville's patience in hearing the disgraceful account of the expedition gave p37out completely and his grief and indignation made him turn finally from the narrators "with disgust and horror."
Cerré reported from the States shortly after and his return was the signal for the customary carousal of several days' duration. Walker's men were the heroes with their stories of the glorious vacation on the sunny shores of the Pacific. Bonneville, though, was in seclusion, making the disheartening accounting of his second year in the mountains. Fewer furs had been taken in the second year than in the first. Fontenelle wrote once again to Chouteau: "I think by next year (Bonneville's company) will be at an end with the mountains. They have sent down from 12 to 14 packs of beaver, and admitting that it should sell at a high price, it is not enough to pay their returning hands." Wyeth also noted the return of Walker and Cerré to the States with the fur catch and said that there were "about 10 packs, and men going down (to the States) to whom there is due $10,000." Despite poor results, the Captain decided to try another year of fur trading in the mountains. A party was sent to the Crow country under Montero. They were directed to hunt toward the Black Hills, and during the winter move toward the Arkansas River. Bonneville, however, set his face toward the Columbia River for a second time.
With twenty-three men, Bonneville left Bear River valley on the third of July, traveling leisurely. On the tenth of July a small band of the Hudson's Bay Company under a veteran Canadian came upon them. The two groups stopped for the evening, and the Canadian veteran began to voice his bad fortune. Bonneville noted his condition and "regretted that he had no juice of the grape" to pacify his unfortunate friend. But the Captain was the first cocktail mixer. He took from his stores a half keg of honey, filled it with alcohol, and shook it fiercely. With its strength and sweetness the beverage proved excellent and a rosy glow came over the Canadian trapper's story. Bancroft, the historian, spoke slightingly of this humorous affair and said: "It is noticeable that whenever Irving sets p38two men drinking, his hero always acts the gentleman, while the other, especially if a foreigner, gets beastly drunk and disgraces himself." Nathaniel J. Wyeth could pass over his trading rivalry with Bonneville to state that he was "greatly struck with the Captain's urbanity and politeness of manner in the face of considerable provocation, and that the unmannerly behavior was exactly where Irving places it." Bancroft's treatment of Bonneville, whom he pictures as a coarse bon vivant with a new unmarried wife every fortnight, shooting men rather than buffalo, is rather far from the truth. Once again, when Bonneville arrived near Fort Walla Walla on the Columbia River, he ran into difficulties.
Rather than appear in person at the trading post, he sent others in quest of provisions. Their lack of success forced the party to move and as Bonneville continued downstream he found the British influence supreme. Being literally "starved out of the country" he turned eastward to the base of the Blue Mountains, which he reached October 1, 1834. Montero's party reported by messenger it would remain in the Crow country rather than in Arkansas during the winter. The Captain himself spent the winter as pleasantly as hunters and trappers could at the upper end of the Bear River valley. Buffalo was plenty and for once there was sufficient food.
When spring came Bonneville collected all his property in the Bear River valley and on April 1 proceeded to the Green River valley, where he parted with regret from his Indian friends, the Eutaws and Shoshones. During the remainder of the spring the expedition traveled toward the Wind River mountains, reaching its rendezvous there late in June. Montero joined the party with evidences of a fairly successful trapping expedition. After a celebration on July 4, Montero was again sent into the Crow country to continue his work.
The remainder of the expedition followed its leader down the Nebraska valley, where it reached the first frontier settlement on August 22, 1835. "The bold voyageur," according to Cullum, "with his wild tatterdemalion band, was once p39more out of the wilderness . . ." Though it had been a life of hardship Bonneville sighed for his nomadic life. He explained: "He who has roved almost from boyhood, among the children of the forest, and over the unfurrowed plains and rugged heights of the western wastes, will not be startled to learn that, notwithstanding all the fascinations of the world on this civilized side of the mountains, I would fain make my bow to the splendors and gayeties of the metropolis and plunge again amid the hardship and perils of the wilderness."
Bonneville's expedition had been for trade and exploration. On the former score he was not successful. In commercial ventures Bonneville soon found he was not trained to business and in the mountains was "invariably worsted." Due to his caution he was unwilling to take risks; he was too lavish in his hospitality and though the Indians liked him, too often sold their furs in the other camp. As for his exploratory gains the Captain's astronomical observations were in most cases incorrect. However, as he traversed the western terrain he acquired a fund of knowledge of the fauna and flora of the country, the habits and numbers of the Indian tribes. Two maps, valuable in the extreme, were completed; one showed the region about the sources of the Missouri, Yellowstone, Snake, Green, Wind, and Sweetwater Rivers; the other included the country to the west of the Pacific Ocean, and was the first map of that region. Though many of the main features appeared on Gallatin's map of the year previous, Bonneville added the first geographical knowledge, as well as the discovery, of the Humboldt River and Lakes and the location of the San Joaquin River in California. His sources of the Big Horn and Green Rivers were also found to be quite correct and this area should be included in his lists of explorations. Though Bonneville derived information for his maps "from Gallatin, Ashley, and Smith," his additional map work helped win his reinstatement in the army. Andrew Jackson was said to have remarked when Bonneville showed him his map, "By the Eternal, Sir! I'll see that you are reinstated to your command. For this valuable p40service to the War Department and the country you deserve high promotion." Bonneville received from the War Department only the credit for active service during the years of absence; the nation honors his name in a geographical sense. Irving, of course, added greatly to Bonneville's reputation — one which Chittenden believed to be undeserved.
As to the miscellaneous gains made by Bonneville, the popularity of his leadership and the management and conduct of his party through the West deserved credit. He remained "three years in the mountains without the loss of a single life, where the men were in any wise under his personal control" — this, while other trappers were annually losing considerable numbers of men. Bonneville was the first to take wagons through South Pass and to Green River. Upon his return to civilization Bonneville found that "he had been given up for lost, and his name had been dropped from the army rolls." Without railroads and telegraphs, and apparently with no desire to leave the mountains until he had stubbornly accomplished tangible results, Bonneville had not asked for an extension of his leave nor had he reported that he was still alive after the summer of 1834. He seemed little worried by his long absence from the army and confidently expected to be reinstated and restored to his rank when he told his story. Perhaps the numerous resignations of men like George Washington Whistler, Henry du Pont, Jefferson Davis and tens of others were having such an effect upon the army that Bonneville knew they would be willing, though not too pleased, to restore an old Indian fighter like himself. Bonneville too, must have felt that he had given value received by his maps and explorations, and that the army, realizing he had accomplished this without cost to it and yet with added glory, would reinstate him in the army on the frontier.
From St. Louis, Bonneville proceeded directly to New York to make his financial report to Seton and other backers of his enterprise. Before Bonneville had returned to Washington to state his case he was preceded by a request from Washington p41Irving to the War Department for duplicates of his maps. Irving, it seems, should have waited until Bonneville appeared at the War Department before making his request, but then perhaps Bonneville felt that if the well-known writer asked for his valuable information, it would place the Captain in a more desirable bargaining status with the Commanding General. Irving reported that he had met Bonneville in the autumn of 1835 "at the country seat of Mr. John Jacob Astor, at Hell Gate . . ." From what he could learn Irving was sure that the Captain "had gratified his curiosity and his love of adventure, (but) had not much benefited his fortune." The author gave a picture of Bonneville as the "frank, free-hearted soldier" who with his father's temperament could not make "a scheming trapper, or a thrifty bargainer." The Captain was of "middle size, well made and well set; and a military frock of foreign cut, that had seen service, gave him a look of compactness."
The explorer left New York for Washington, and on September 26 reported his return to Lewis Cass, the Secretary of War, explaining what he had done in the West and asking that his rank be restored. A few days later, evidently having asked for fuller details, Bonneville wrote the Secretary of War a resumé of his case. In this communication Bonneville did not explain why he had failed to ask General Macomb for an extension of his furlough when he sent Cerré with the letter of July, 1833. Bonneville remarked that almost a year later when he again met Mr. Cerré he had been informed that the letter had been delivered and "the General appeared perfectly satisfied with my report and also with my determination to persevere in the course I had adopted . . ." Cerré, due to a prolonged stay in New York, had not returned to Washington and "consequently had left . . . without bringing an extension of my furlough or any communication whatever from the Department of War . . ." Bonneville asserted that he was "highly gratified at the verbal report of Mr. Cerré . . . and was inspired with renovated ardor for the enterprise." He claimed that at p42that time, 1834, he gave other letters and reports to Mr. Cerré to forward to the General-in‑Chief, but that probably owing to Cerré's attachment to the American Fur Company, the communications had suffered the fate of many posted letters of the time. In the report to the Secretary, the Captain did not mention his own trapping and trading business. He closed his dispatch with the following paragraph: "Raised at the Military Academy I became as it were identified with the Army; 'twas my soul, my existence, my only happiness, and at a time, that I was exerting every nerve to win the approbation of my superiors — I find myself branded as a culprit — 'Tis mortifying indeed — my character as a soldier has been fair too long to believe my superiors will hesitate one moment to restore me my character and my rank."
General Macomb, when asked for a report of the case, stated the dual character of the expedition and mentioned the Cerré letter of 1833 but did not elaborate on its contents. The General mentioned the routine removal of Bonneville's name from the army rolls, and said: "If the report of Captain Bonneville's death were not well founded, it was thought that as he was engaged in mercantile concerns and as the officers of his regiment, the Colonel in particular, were complaining of the number of officers absent . . . his name was accordingly dropped . . ." Macomb left the door open for Bonneville's restoration with the statement that "if the information he brings and the reason for his delay are satisfactory . . ." then the case might well be considered on its merits. A routine investigation of the affair was made and in November the officers of Bonneville's Regiment, the 7th Infantry, claimed in a memorial that Bonneville had no right to his commission. After discussing the fact that Bonneville had acted for his own "pecuniary advancement in a private enterprise" they brought out how few were the inducements to remain in service. They declared: "Exiled to frontier stations, with but a pittance of pay, and but with remote prospects of promotion; a violation p43of the rules of the last (in Bonneville's case); must necessarily tend to create dissatisfaction . . ."
Captain Bonneville then sought Cerré to add strength to his plea for reinstatement, and after vexatious delay Cerré sent his account of the interchange of letters, though he added nothing new to the case. Bonneville cooled his heels by writing further letters to the Secretary of War complaining of the ungenerous act of his brother regimental officers. Three months passed. In March, 1836, Bonneville asked the Secretary of War, Lewis Cass, for a leave of absence so that he might publish his journal in New York. It was shortly after this that President Andrew Jackson furnished the influence necessary to reinstate Bonneville to his former commission. This was on April 22, and the Senate concurred. While waiting for action on his case, Bonneville had returned to the West to close his affairs, and did not learn of his reinstatement until August, when he announced his determination to return to Fort Gibson immediately. Alone he started on his long ride to that frontier fort. In October, 1836, he wrote to General Mathew Arbuckle — the Colonel who had complained of Bonneville's absence — stating that, according to orders, he was returning to duty. His reception could not have been too warm and one can imagine the surprise and displeasure of the officers at seeing Bonneville, whom they had tried to deprive of his commission.
In the Southwest, Bonneville took up where he had left off. The military frontier was still lightly guarded and the long string of posts with their maximum of 3000 soldiers in the late 1830's had a difficult time holding in check the 231,000 Indians living west of the Mississippi. This number of Indians was constantly being added to and during the period from 1835 to the Mexican War, Beers declared that over 50,000 Indians were moved west of the Mississippi River, some from as far as Florida. At Fort Gibson, Bonneville evidently was not p44received too kindly and was soon willing to take command of a detachment of troops sent to garrison Fort Coffee near by.
Though he was now master of a much more circumscribed endeavor, Bonneville, if not contented, made no show of displeasure to the authorities in Washington. In January of 1837, he wrote to the Adjutant General of the army offering to "head an expedition to the western Indians to reach an understanding with the Kiowa and other prairie tribes." Perhaps this idea had been fostered by Colonel Henry Dodge's expedition of two years before. Perhaps Bonneville had in mind the idea of extending the peace efforts of Dodge. Though Bonneville's services were not accepted, the War Department selected Colonel A. P. Chouteau, West Point graduate and fur trader, to go out among the Indians, as it was believed that he was "better acquainted with the situation of Indian tribes . . . than any man west of the Mississippi River." Incredibly, reported Foreman, the government could offer no remuneration, even for expenses, but let it be known that Chouteau could probably be indemnified upon the conclusion of his expedition. Bonneville kept up his travels and his efforts at Indian resettlement and pacification during the years 1837 and 1838, radiating his energies out from Fort Gibson to Fort Towson far south on the Red River. Through this entire period he shared in common with dozens of other able officers, like General Arbuckle, Colonel Zachary Taylor, and Major Stephen Watts Kearny, the difficult position in which they were placed. Despite their wind-seared features, most of them had a kindliness of feeling which calmed the Indians in this time of trial during movements westward. Often too they were called upon for sternness when they moved small bodies of troops through Indian country where thousands of warriors were restless and ready for the warpath.
The necessity for a great road to connect the forts on the military frontier became more and more apparent. There were no officers in the Topographical Engineers who could be spared from the canal, railroad, and road building in the East for road building in the West. Construction on a road from the southern p45boundary of Missouri to the Red River was started in 1835. Work by the army on such road building was slowed by the movements of Indians. Nevertheless, Bonneville found time for road surveying in 1837 at Fort Towson on the Red River. In September he surveyed a road from that fort to Fort Smith, but disagreed with Captain William Belknap, another officer-surveyor, as to its proper location.
Soon afterward, Captain Bonneville was ordered to rebuild old Fort Smith, abandoned since 1833. With one company of the 7th Infantry, he set about his allotted task far down the Arkansas River. From Fort Smith, the explorer wrote to the Adjutant General of the Army with a certain degree of resignation to the exigencies of frontier life. "After seven months I have at last met a Justice of the Peace, and have subscribed the enclosed oath of allegiance . . ."
At Fort Smith, Bonneville commanded 130 soldiers during the last half of the year 1838, and set to work building new cabins, and repairing the old ones. The new fort, erected under the joint direction of Bonneville and Major Charles Thomas — one of the signers of the memorial asking for Bonneville's removal from the Army, was •"four hundred and fifty by six hundred feet, with blockhouses at the corners and the whole . . . of stone and brick." The necessity for the fort was occasioned by the civil disturbances among the Cherokee Nation. Meanwhile changes were occurring at the 7th Infantry headquarters at Fort Gibson.
General Arbuckle had received orders to send a regiment to the Florida wars against the Seminoles. Early in 1839, the 7th Infantry moved out under Lieutenant Colonel William Whistler, another of the memorial signers and uncle of James McNeill Whistler. They picked up detachments like those under Bonneville at Fort Smith. After a trip down the Arkansas River in keel boats to Little Rock, they hitched their boats to a steamboat and were then towed to Tampa, Florida. Keel boats were not new to Bonneville as he had used them on the rivers on the Far West. With his experience he was probably a valuable p46asset on the journey. Also the good-natured Captain must have continued to endear himself to the soldiers because of his good spirit. When a project was completed, he probably gave them a blow‑out, similar to those for the trappers in the Oregon country. But there could not be honey and alcohol parties, at least not legally, because prohibition had come to the Armyd and its posts during the years when Bonneville was on his exploratory expedition.
The troops too must gladly have left Fort Gibson because all during the 1830's the fort had been riddled with sickness, death, and desertions. Six officers and nearly three hundred men had died of sickness at Gibson in one two‑year period during that decade. When the 4th Infantry checked its losses after one year at Fort Gibson — they had exchanged posts with the 7th Infantry — it had lost all its field officers "by death and resignation."
During the following three years, the 7th Infantry remained in Florida searching out the Seminoles from their homes "by rifle and bloodhound" so that they could be moved to the vicinity of Fort Gibson. Bonneville bore up remarkably well under this strained, uncomfortable, nomadic life. During the Florida service, he maintained his eternal vigilance in camp and field, his patience, and cheerful acceptance of what life brought. In 1843, he settled in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for his first taste of city life since his furloughs in the East before and after his expedition. During a three-year stay in Baton Rouge and Pass Christian, Bonneville took up family life. He had previously married Miss Anna Lewis at Fort Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1842 while on leave. The few months before the outbreak of the Mexican War were spent at Fort Gibson, to which the 7th Infantry had returned. With the coming of war, he was promoted to Major and transferred to the 6th Infantry.
War with Mexico had been declared in March, 1845, but it was autumn before the pitifully small American Army could be drawn from its many posts in the United States and concentrated under General Zachary Taylor at Corpus Christi. Only p47three regiments of Infantry and one of dragoons were left behind to keep check on Indian uprisings. One of these was the 6th Infantry. For a year, the 6th continued on its frontier duties at Fort Smith, Arkansas.
When General Winfield Scott was finally allowed by President Polk to enter the Mexican War, he started out with the plan of capturing Vera Cruz. To make up his army, Scott took from the victorious Zachary Taylor who had previously won the battle of Monterey, 4000 regulars, and 4000 volunteers. At this time too, the 6th Infantry was detailed with Scott's forces late in 1846 and assigned to General William Worth's division. Haste was necessary in the operation because Scott had to assemble his force at the selected spot of Tampico, equip and organize it, "move it to Vera Cruz, land it, reduce and occupy the fortified port, and get away from the coast and back into the mountains beyond the yellow fever belt . . ." before the spring of 1847.
From evidence, it appeared that the 6th Infantry, true to its designation as foot soldiers, marched through the Mexican province of Chihuahua late in 1846. Bonneville was now second-in‑command of the regiment. Through mountainous country, prairies covered with chaparral and cactus, the regiment continued its advance into Mexico. At Vera Cruz, the 6th Infantry engaged in the siege lasting from the 9th of March to the end of the month.
Scott's forces moved away from the yellow-fever-threatened coast of Mexico and started for the mountains and Mexico City. At Cerro Gordo they fought again, forcing their way further into the country until they were in the Valley of Mexico not more than •ten miles outside of the capital. Once in the mountains, Scott cut off his line of communications, forcing his men to go in and fight. Early in the campaign Colonel Newman Clark, in command of the 6th Infantry, was promoted acting Brigade Commander under General Worth. This elevated Bonneville, still a Major, to the active command of the regiment. Through history after history of the Mexican War p48there is no mention of Bonneville. It was a younger officer's war, led by the old timers, Scott and Taylor. Most histories of the Mexican adventure were written after the Civil War so that its recorded names were those made famous in the latter conflict, names such as Captain Lee, McClellan, Beauregard, and Lieutenants Grant, Pickett, Buell, Bragg, the two Johnstons, and dozens of others.
Bonneville was brevetted to Lieutenant Colonel on August 20, 1847, when Scott had won the notable battles of San Antonio, Contreras and Churubusco. Bonneville was injured in the last battle, though not seriously, and was also charged with "mismanagement of (his) regiment, but the veteran soldier who had faced so many dangers escaped with little loss to his reputation . . ." Wilcox in his History of the Mexican War stated that, when the 6th Infantry as part of Worth's division moved to the attack of the fortified Churubusco Convent outside Mexico City, there was one moment of awful indecision. The 6th Infantry "charged down a causeway as ordered, Lieutenant Lewis A. Armistead at the head of the leading platoon." Farther up the road, it was discovered that only a part of the regiment was following. From the severe fire in front and from the left, that portion of the 6th Infantry "was being annihilated." The men were then ordered to go across the road and through a cornfield against the enemy. They attacked with spirit but soon saw that they were not strong enough "to assist the enemy in the position occupied . . ." Lieutenant S. B. Buckner, upon being sent "to the commander of the regiment (Bonneville) requesting to be recalled or reinforced . . ." learned that the order for the attack had been revoked. Carefully the troops were withdrawn some distance until other troops could be brought up and the attack renewed in force. Wilcox said that "General Worth ordered a second attack" which was unsuccessful. Finally the combined attempts of the 6th, 3rd, and 4th Infantry Regiments, supported by artillery, carried the hill.
The charges brought against Bonneville for mismanagement were occasioned by the despair of one young soldier who saw p49his brother killed in one of these desperate assaults. Whether Bonneville was guilty of such an indictment is difficult to prove or to disprove. A court of inquiry was called and in view of the success of the 6th Infantry in the final assault of Churubusco, he was absolved and later brevetted for gallantry in the action. During the ensuing three weeks, Bonneville, with his new rank, remained in command of the regiment and was present at the battle of Molino del Rey, the storming of Chapultepec and the movement into Mexico City.
After the war, Bonneville reported again to Fort Smith. Here the news of gold in California had brought fortune-seekers from the East who must wait until caravans could be formed to take groups to the Santa Fe settlement. Bonneville expected that he would be placed in charge of the troop convoy of the first group of these emigrants, five hundred in number, "but greatly to his disappointment (General) Arbuckle selected Captain R. B. Marcy for this expedition."
From Fort Smith, Bonneville was transferred to Fort Kearny, Nebraska, for further frontier duty, though of a quieter nature than his previous experience. One assignment quickly followed another. From Kearny, he went to Sacketts Harbor, New York, thence to Fort Howard, Wisconsin, and in 1852 to Fort Columbus (Governors Island) in New York Harbor. His stay there was short, for in the same year he appeared at Camp Benicia, California, and at Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia River in Oregon. There he remained for three years for the most peaceful period of his army life. Sometime during these years Mrs. Bonneville and his daughter died of the fever in St. Louis. Bonneville remarried in 1870 when he was retired and living at Fort Smith, Arkansas.
In 1855, Bonneville was promoted to Colonel of the 3d Infantry and sent with that regiment into the New Mexico Territory. Most of his duty became desk work as the years began to creep up on his stocky frame which had weathered the Indian warfare, and been spared from what was far worse, the illnesses of Arkansas Territory and of Florida. He commanded p50the Department of New Mexico for most of the remaining years of his service, though he accomplished one achievement, that of the Gila Expedition in 1857.
Again in 1860 he marched Headquarters Company and three rifle companies, D, F, and H of the 3d Infantry from the mouth of the in New Mexico to Fort Clark, Texas via the Pecos River. The old exploratory characteristics were still alive for Bonneville submitted a running account of his expedition with maps of every foot of the journey, remarks as to weather, water supplies, distance, route, the flora and fauna. That record more than any other showed the natural inquisitive nature of Bonneville. He had the spirit of an explorer in his routine duties; he expected no commendation from his superiors for his extra effort.
"From age and exposure in the line of duty," Colonel Bonneville was retired in September, 1861, a few months after the commencement of the Civil War. Some individuals maintained that his heart was with the South, but nevertheless he returned to active duty with the Union Army shortly after his retirement. For five years he occupied a "desk job" in his beloved St. Louis where congregated the frontiers, army officers, and western adventurers, whose life was Bonneville's.
After the war, with a brevet rank of Brigadier General, Bonneville removed to Fort Smith, now a city, to be among his old friends. In 1870, he married Miss Susan Neis, who survived him. The explorer died on June 12, 1878 and was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.
Cullum in his Register of West Point Graduates said that Bonneville's last days were occupied with private affairs. "He always felt a lively interest in all matters pertaining to the development of the Great West, particularly the progress of railroad enterprises through the regions he was among the first to penetrate with wagons, and by the pathways in which he always claimed to have been the pioneer to subsequent explorers. Though he seldom spoke of his remarkable exploits, he devoted his leisure hours to arranging his maps and collecting his notes p51(apparently never found), with a view of leaving behind much important information omitted by Washington Irving, to whom any allusion in connection with his adventures was displeasing."
In addition to the qualities of "bravery, enterprise, and pertinacity of purpose" which so fitted Bonneville to become the great explorer of the West, he had what others lacked — "amiable qualities of head and heart." Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville's "cheerful manner and débonnaire appearance" have been remembered though death took him to "the happy hunting grounds, the blissful abode of kindred souls."
a The same William Patterson who a few months later would become the father-in‑law of Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon's nephew. (The French dictator didn't like it; the story takes up all of Chapter 1 of Macartney and Dorrance, The Bonapartes in America.)
b But see the interesting saga of Paine's remains, as told on the Thomas Paine Gravesite page at Find-a‑Grave.
c The details are given by Waugh in Chapter 4 of West Point, The Story Of The United States Military Academy.
d Nov. 2, 1832 (Ganoe, The History of The United States Army, p172).
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