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Bill Thayer

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 [decorative delimiter] Class of 1815

Vol. I

(Born France)

Benjaminº L. E. Bonneville

(Ap'd N. Y.)

Benjamin Louis Eulalie Bonneville:
Born Apr. 14, 1796 (?)​a1 "Paris or nearby", France.

Military History. — Cadet of the Military Academy, Apr. 14, 1813, to Dec. 11, 1815, when he was graduated and promoted in the Army to

Bvt. Second Lieut., Light Artillery, Dec. 11, 1815.

 p145  Served: in garrison at New England Posts, 1815‑19; on Recruiting

(Second Lieut., Light Artillery, Jan. 15, 1817)

service, 1819‑20; on construction of Military Road through Mississippi,

(Second Lieut., 8th Infantry, Mar. 10, 1819)

1820; in garrison at the Bay of St. Louis, Mis., 1820; on frontier duty

(First Lieut., 8th Infantry, July 9, 1820)

on march from Ft. Smith, Ark., to San Antonio, Tex., 1821‑22, — Ft.

(First Lieut., 7th Infantry,
in Re-organization of Army, June 1, 1821)

Smith, Ark., 1822‑24, — and Ft. Gibson, I. T., 1824‑25; on leave of

(Captain, 7th Infantry, Oct. 4, 1825)

absence in France, 1825‑26; on frontier duty at Ft. Gibson, I. T., 1826‑28, — Jefferson Barracks, Mo., 1828‑29, — and Ft. Gibson, I. T., 1829‑31; on an exploration to the "Far West," across and beyond the Rocky Mountains, 1831‑36, his Journal of which was edited and amplified by Washington Irving, and published in 1843; on frontier duty at Ft. Gibson, I. T., 1836‑37, — Mustering friendly Indians, 1837, — at Ft. Gibson, I. T., 1837‑38, — Ft. Towson, I. T., 1838, — Ft. Gibson, I. T., 1838, — and Ft. Smith, Ark., 1838‑39; in the Florida War, 1839‑42; on Recruiting service, 1842; in garrison at Ft. Brooke, Fla., 1843, — Baton Rouge, La., 1843‑44, — Pass Christian, Mis., 1844, — and Baton Rouge, La.,

(Major, 6th Infantry, July 15, 1845)

1844‑45; on frontier duty at Ft. Smith, Ark., 1845‑46; in the War with Mexico, 1846‑47, being engaged in the march through Chihuahua, 1846, — in the Siege of Vera Cruz, Mar. 9‑29, 1847, — Battle of Cerro Gordo, Apr. 17‑18, 1847, — Skirmish of Amazoque, May 14, 1847, — Capture of San Antonio, Aug. 20, 1847, — Battle of Churubusco, Aug. 20, 1847, where

(Bvt. Lieut.‑Colonel, Aug. 20, 1847, for Gallant and Meritorious Conduct
in the Battle of Contreras and Churubusco, Mexico)

he was wounded, — Battle of Molino del Rey, Sep. 8, 1847, — Storming of Chapultepec, Sep. 13, 1847, — and Assault and Capture of the City of Mexico, Sep. 13‑14, 1847; on frontier duty at Ft. Kearny, Neb., 1849;

(Lieut.‑Colonel, 4th Infantry, May 7, 1849)

in garrison at Sackett's Harbor, N. Y., 1850‑51, — Ft. Howard, Wis., 1851‑52, — and Ft. Columbus, N. Y., 1852; on frontier duty at Benicia, Cal., 1852, — Ft. Vancouver, W. T., 1852‑55, — Ft. Fillmore, N. M., 1856,

(Colonel, 3d Infantry, Feb. 3, 1855)

— in command of the Department of New Mexico, Oct. 11, 1856, to May 12, 1857, headquarters at Santa Fé, — commanding Gila Expedition, 1857, — Albuquerque, N. M., 1857‑58, — in command of the Department of New Mexico, Sep. 16, 1858, to Oct. 25, 1859, headquarters at Santa Fé, — Ft. Marcy, N. M., 1859‑60, — and Ft. Clark, Tex., 1860‑61; and on leave of absence, 1861.

Retired from Active Service, Sep. 9, 1861, for Disability, resulting from Long and Faithful Service, and from Sickness and Exposure in the line of Duty.

Served during the Rebellion of the Seceding States, 1861‑66; as Superintendent of Recruiting Service in Missouri, 1861‑62, and 1862‑63; as Chief Mustering and Disbursing Officer of Missouri, Sep. 20, 1862, to Nov. 17, 1863; in command of Benton Barracks, St. Louis, Mo., Mar. 6, to Aug. 1, 1862, and Sep. 12, 1862, to Dec. 1, 1865, — and of Jefferson Barracks, Mo., Dec. 1, 1865, to Oct. 15, 1866; as Commissary of Musters,

 p146  (Bvt. Brig.‑General, U. S. Army, Mar. 13, 1865,
for Long and Faithful Services in the Army)

Department of the Missouri, Apr. 8, 1863, to Oct. 15, 1866.

Died, June 12, 1878, at Ft. Smith, Ark.: Aged 85.​a2

Buried, Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, MO.

Biographical Sketch.​b

Bvt. Brig.‑General Benj. L. E. Bonneville, the last survivor of the Class of 1815, died June 12, 1878, at Fort Smith, Ark., at the advanced age of 85. He was born in France during the Reign of Terror, in the event­ful year 1793,​a3 when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded; in which Marat was assassinated and Danton guillotined; when the Revolutionary Tribunal was established and the Girondists fell; in which war was declared against England, Spain, and Holland, and insurrection triumphed in La Vendée; when royal tombs were desecrated, the Sabbath abolished, and the Goddess of Reason worshiped; and in which, throughout the new republic, horrors on horrors accumulated.

Bonneville's father, a man of classic culture, was a member of the National Convention, and the intimate friend of Condorcet, Lafayette, and Thomas Paine. By nature earnest and excitable, he dared, years later, to denounce, in the "Bien Informé," which he edited, the rising Bonaparte as the Cromwell of France, for which his journal was suppressed, and himself and family forced to emigrate to America. Taking up his abode in New York city, he mingled little with the money-making world, preferring his elysium in the pages of Voltaire, Corneille, Racine, or Shakspeare. Almost on any summer's day he was to be seen, book in hand, under one of the Battery trees, or in the shadow of St. Paul's Church, little heeding, in his poetic dreams, the passing throng or the passing hour.

The son, inheriting the ardent temperament of his father, decided to follow the stirring and adventurous career of a soldier. Accordingly, Apr. 14, 1813, he became a Cadet at West Point, and was graduated from the Military Academy, Dec. 11, 1815, when he was promoted to be a Bvt. Second Lieut. of Light Artillery. He served at New England posts and on recruiting duty till Mar. 10, 1819, when he was transferred to the Eighth Infantry, which carried him to the Western frontier, a more congenial field to one of his enterprising spirit.

In 1825 he obtained a leave of absence to accompany and be the Secretary of General Lafayette on his return to Europe in the frigate Brandywine, after his triumphal tour through the United States. On arriving at La Grange, in his native France, Bonneville became the guest of his father's old friend till the following year, when he returned to his congenial Western life.

He had long been familiar with stories of adventure beyond the Rocky Mountains, and sighed for the vocation of a voyageur. Accordingly, he applied for a leave of absence to enable him to penetrate the great terra incognita of the American Desert beyond the Mississippi. The General-in‑Chief, Aug. 3, 1831, granted the desired indulgence until Oct., 1833, on condition that, without any expense to the Government, Bonneville was to provide himself with maps, instruments, and a complete outfit to explore the country to the Pacific; ascertain the nature, character, and mode of warfare of the Indian tribes; the agricultural and mineral resources of Great West; its geographical and geological features; and, in fine, to undertake what it has required half a century since to discover. Nothing daunted, he at once began his preparations, and, May 1, 1832, with one hundred and ten men, some of them experienced hunters and trappers, and twenty ox and mule wagons loaded with provisions, ammunition, and trinkets, left Fort Osage on the Missouri River. In a  p147 week they had passed the last border habitation, and with light hearts, exulting in the wild freedom of savage life, bade a long farewell to the ease and security of civilization, then little dreaming of the barren and trackless wastes they had to pass; the dreary and desolate mountains they were to climb; the narrow and dangerous defiles to be penetrated; the broad and rapid currents to be ferried in frail skin boats; the ambushes of wily savages to be escaped; and encounters with merciless foes to be boldly met.

Bonneville took the route then almost unexplored, but now so well known to Pacific travelers. He reached the Platte, June 3, continuing his toilsome way amid wild scenes and wilder warriors to Polo Creek, and thence to where Fort Laramie now stands. Finding the river continually land-locked by rugged promontories, he, July 12th, abandoned the Platte, taking his course up the Sweet Water through the Black Hills, coming, on the 20th, in sight of the Rocky Mountains, the goal of his fondest hopes and brightest anticipations. Arrived at their summit, we can imagine the enthusiastic captain's ecstatic exultation when he beheld the vast and magnificent scene around him of mountains piled on mountains till their lofty peaks towered to the clouds, and with what admiration and awe he gazed upon those snow-clad sierras, the parent source of the mighty rivers flowing down the Pacific and Atlantic slopes.

After a short tarry in the Green River Valley among the warlike Blackfeet, he pursued his weary way across rough and lofty ridges, and through deep, rocky defiles, reaching, Sep. 19th, the upper waters of the Salmon River, where he made his first winter cantonment. Here, among friendly Nez Percés and Flathead Indians, and a motley crew of trappers of all colors, he led a hunter's life in the heart of the wilderness, enjoying the wild and bustling scenes of which he was the central figure. By the middle of December, however, all the forage being exhausted, he was obliged to break up his camp and begin his winter's march, with the cold so intense that the horsemen had often to dismount to prevent freezing in their saddles. Surrounded with perils on every side and hunger staring them in the face, they continued their slow and weary way to the Snake River, encamping, Jan. 13, 1833, in sight of the Three Tetons, the Captain feeling great pride in having accomplished his daring and doubtful enterprise, and, even amid all his trials, enjoying and appreciating the grandeur of nature. "Far away," says he in one of the bursts of his enthusiasm, "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 up by the caliphs' story-teller to adorn his vale of diamonds."

On the 19th of February, Bonneville, with sixteen of his party, left the Snake River camp to return to his caches on the Salmon, through terrible snow-drifts and dangers equal to those he had before encountered on this route. He reached his destination Mar. 11, and not long after began his trapping campaign of 1833 among the mountains and valleys of the Malade, Snake, Boisée, Green, and Big Horn rivers, upon the details of which we will not enter, nor attempt to describe the adventures of the expedition he sent to explore the Great Basin of Salt Lake. His perils by flood and field in the rock-piled wilderness during this campaign were compensated by daily sights of Nature in her sublimest moods. On one occasion the romantic Captain clambered up a gigantic peak capped with eternal snow. The ascent was so steep that he was obliged to sling his gun on his back and creep on his hands and knees.  p148 After incredible toil and danger he finally reached the lofty summit. Here a scene burst upon him of overwhelming grandeur and immensity. He stood in fact upon that dividing ridge separating the waters of the two great oceans of the globe, which the Indians regard as the Crest of the World. "Whichever way he turned his eye, it was confounded by the vastness and variety of objects. Beneath him, the Rocky Mountains seemed to open all their secret recesses: deep, solemn valleys, treasured lakes, dreary passes, rugged defiles, and foaming torrents; while, beyond their savage peaks, the eye was lost in an almost immeasurable landscape, stretching on every side into dim and hazy distance, like the expanse of a summer's sea. Whichever way he looked 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, til they melted like clouds into the horizon."

Bonneville established his winter camp, towards the close of 1833, near the Portneuf River, the weather being piercing cold at that high elevation; but soon his restless spirit sighed for new adventures. Accordingly, with only three companions, he set off on Christmas Day 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. Their route lay at first near the gloomy cañon of Snake River, scarfed with basaltic precipices; then they passed through the beautiful valley of the "Grande Ronde;" and, finally, had to cross the Blue Mountains. The perils they encountered in this latter journeying almost surpasses belief: through deep snow-drifts and amid tumbling avalanches; climbing steep crags and lofty promontories; passing over yawning chasms by frail ice bridges; moving along slippery brinks of precipices; and continually surmounting the most formidable barriers. Day after day did their toil continue; peak after peak confronted them; the sierras' cold was intense, and famine was staring them full in the face. Human effort was about to yield when they came to their Pisgah mount, and in a frenzy of delight beheld the lovely valley of the Immahah, like a promised land, smiling with verdure. For fifty-three days they had been travelling in the midst of winter, exposed to almost every species of privation and hardship; and for the last twenty had been entangled in the wild and desolate labyrinths of the snowy mountains, climbing and descending icy precipices, and nearly exhausted with cold and hunger. Bonneville, now following the course of the Immahah, was soon again in the vicinity of the Snake River region, with its steep hills and deep valleys. "The grandeur and originality of the views," says the enchanted Captain, "beggar both the pencil and the pen. Nothing we had 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." Forgetting in his enthusiasm, all toil and perils past, he continued his wanderings over dark mountain peaks and rifted rocks marking the convulsions of nature, amid the chaotic confusion of crags and chasms, the wild sport of earthquakes, and along bold basaltic battlements o'erhanging the roaring rapids and cataracts careering in the cañon beneath.

At last, Mar. 4, 1834, he struck the Columbia River at Fort Wallawalla. Here, hospitably treated, he had designed remaining some time, to collect information and establish trading connections; but, upon requesting some needed supplies, the Superintendent of the Hudson's Bay Company sullenly informed him that, however he might feel disposed to serve him personally, he could do nothing officially to facilitate or encourage rival traders among the Indians of that region. Thus thwarted in his designs, the undaunted Captain was in two days returning, by the  p149 same hazardous route he had just traversed, to his caches on the Portneuf, which he reached after much suffering, May 18, 1834.

Again in the field, pursuing his way up Bear River, our plucky Captain had, June 13th, reached Little Snake Lake, of which he made a survey. Soon after he was joined by the party he had sent the year before to explore the Great Salt Lake, of which it had not only made the complete circuit, but had extended its perambulations to Lower California. He now divided his force, sending one detachment with peltries to St. Louis; another to trap in the Crow country, the Black Hills, and along the Arkansas; while he, contemning distance and danger, proceeded with twenty-three men, designing to go to the lower California and valley of Multnomah. He had by September nearly reached the present site of Fort Vancouver, expecting to make this winter quarters in the noble valley of the Willamette, but threatening starvation compelled him a second time to turn his back to the Columbia and set off for the Blue Mountains, reaching them, by way of John Day's River, through a rugged and difficult defile, Oct. 1, 1834, and after clambering among bald clay hills he was by the 20th again on Snake River. About the middle of November he reached his caches on the Bear River, taking up his quarters in the upper part of the valley, where, amid vast herds of deer and buffalo, he passed a festive winter.

Bidding farewell to his Eutaw and Shoshone allies, the roving Captain broke camp, Apr. 1, 1835, and proceeded up Ham's Fork to Green River; was, June 10th, to the east of the Wind River Mountains; after various incidents and delays, reached by way of the Nebraska valley, August 22, 1835, the frontier settlements; and the bold voyageur, with his wild tatterdemalion band, was once more out of the wilderness in which he had spent over three of the most event­ful and trying years. Far, however, from enjoying the blessings of peaceful society and the guardian­ship of law, he sighed for his nomadic life. "He who has roved," says he, "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 splendours and gayeties of the metropolis, and plunge again amid the hardships and perils of the wilderness."

In this brief sketch, we would only outline the travels and history of the intrepid explorer. Those who would enjoy the fascinating details of Bonneville's romantic adventures among savage men and more savage nature must peruse Washington Irving's almost fairy tale, which, though based upon the Captain's journal, reads like a fiction of knight-errantry.

The oblivious officer had now been absent without leave nearly two years, and, without railroads and telegraphs at his disposal, had utterly failed to make the regulation reports of his whereabouts. Consequently he had been given up for lost, and his name had been dropped from the Army rolls. His return created a lively surprise for the Secretary of War, who was unwilling any longer to recognize him as a live captain in the military service of his country. Fortunately, General Jackson was then the President, to whom it was only necessary to tell his tale of daring deeds to be at once restored to his former commission.

With his regiment on the Western frontier and in the Florida War, he continued till July 15, 1845, when he was promoted to be Major of the Sixth Infantry. Ordered soon to Mexico, he made the march through Chihuahua in 1846, and in 1847 participated in all the battles of General Scott's campaign, from Vera Cruz to the capital. At the fierce attack on the fortified convent of Churubusco, he was charged with mismanagement of the regiment which he commanded, but the veteran soldier who had faced so many dangers escaped with little loss to his reputation, and  p150 was subsequently brevetted for his gallantry to a Lieutenant-Colonelcy. After Mexican War his life was not particularly event­ful, except a short revival of his wilderness experience when he commanded the Gila Expedition of 1857.

Having attained the rank of Colonel, and from age and exposure in the line of duty becoming disqualified for active service, he was retired, Sept. 9, 1861, and hence did not take the field during the Civil War, though he continued to perform valuable and responsible duties, for which, at its close, he was brevetted a Brigadier-General, in recognition of his "long and faithful services in the army" of half a century.

Though the remainder of his days was chiefly taken up with his 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, with a view of leaving behind much important information omitted by Washington Irving, to whom any allusion in connection with his adventures was displeasing.

Aside from the high qualities of bravery, enterprise, and pertinacity of purpose which so eminently fitted him to become the great explorer of our Western wilds, he was noted for his amiable qualities of head and heart. His cheerful manner and débonnaireº appearance will long be remembered by all, young and old, who had the pleasure of his acquaintance. After the fitful fever of a long and active life, Death, the mighty archer, has at last taken him to the happy hunting grounds, the blissful abode of kindred souls.

"Of no distemper, of no blast he died,

But fell like autumn fruit that mellow'd long;

Even wonder'd at, because he dropt no sooner.

Fate seem'd to wind him up for fourscore years;

Yet freshly ran he on five winters more,

Till, like a clock worn out with eating time,

The wheels of weary life at last stood still."

Thayer's Notes:

a1 a2 a3 Bonneville's actual birthdate is unknown. The year of his birth as given in the Biographical Sketch, matching his age at the time of his death according to the Register — repeated in the verse envoi — represents a minority view. The date I give in the heading, which I find in my print copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica (and widely repeated online), is that reported by Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hiram M. Chittenden, in Vol. I, p392 of The American Fur Trade of the Far West (New York, 1902): for which he gives no source. See Baumer, p3.

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b A more detailed short biography of Benjamin Bonneville forms the first section of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.W. H. Baumer's Not All Warriors: "Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville", pp1‑51.

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