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Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville (April 14, 1796 ‚Äď June 12, 1878) was a Frenchmarker-born officer in the United States Army, fur trapper, and explorer in the American West. He is noted for his expeditions to the Oregon Country and the Great Basin, and in particular for blazing portions of the Oregon Trail.

During his lifetime, Bonneville was made famous by an account of his explorations in the west written by Washington Irving.

Early career

He was born in or near Parismarker, the son of civil engineer and publisher Nicolas Bonneville and his wife Marguerite. In 1803 his family moved to the United Statesmarker. Their passage was paid by Thomas Paine who had lodged with the Bonnevilles in Paris. In his will, Paine left the bulk of his estate to Marguerite, including 100 acres (40.5 ha) of his farm so she could maintain and educate Benjamin and his brother Thomas. In 1813 Benjamin received an appointment to the United States Military Academymarker at West Point, New Yorkmarker. He graduated after only two years, receiving a commission as brevet second lieutenant of light artillery. In his early career he served at posts in New Englandmarker, Mississippimarker, and at Fort Smithmarker in the Arkansas Territory. In 1824, he was transferred to Fort Gibsonmarker in the Indian territory and promoted to Captain. While traveling to France, he was a guest of General Lafayette. After returning from France, he was transferred in 1828 to Jefferson Barracksmarker in Missouri.

While in Missouri, Bonneville was inspired by the writing of Hall J. Kelley, as well as editorials in the St. Louis Enquirer (edited at the time by Thomas Hart Benton) to join in the exploration of the American West. Bonneville met with Kelley, who was impressed by him and appointed him to lead one of the expeditions to the Oregon Country that were to leave in early 1832. The lack of volunteers for the expedition forced the delay and eventual cancellation of the expedition, leaving Bonneville unrequited in his ambitions.

In order to pursue his desire to explore the west, he petitioned General Alexander Macomb for a leave of absence from the military, arguing in his request that he would be able to perform valuable reconnaissance among the Native Americans in the Oregon Country, which at the time was under a precarious joint occupation of the U.S. and Britainmarker and largely controlled by the Hudson's Bay Company. Macomb granted his request, instructed him to gather all information that might be useful to the government.

Expedition of 1832

The expedition that would become the most famous accomplishment of his life began in May 1832, when he left Missouri with 110 men, including Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth. The voyage was financed by John Jacob Astor, a rival of the Hudson's Bay Company. The expedition proceeded up to the Platte River and across present-day Wyomingmarker. They reached the Green River in August and built a winter fort, which they named Fort Bonneville.

In the spring of 1833 he explored along the Snake River in present-day Idahomarker. He also sent a party of men under Joseph Walker to explore the Great Salt Lakemarker and to find an overland route to Californiamarker. Walker discovered a route along the Humboldt River across present-day Nevadamarker, as well as Walker Passmarker across the Sierra Nevada, a path that later became known as the California Trail, the primary route for the immigrants to the gold fields during the California Gold Rush. Much speculation has surrounded Bonneville's motivations for sending Walker to California. In particular some historians have speculated that Bonneville was attempting to lay the groundwork for an eventual invasion of California, then part of Mexicomarker, by the United States Army.

John McLoughlin, the director of the Columbia operations of the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouvermarker on the Columbia River, heard of Bonneville's mission and forbade his traders from doing business with Bonneville and his men. Bonneville reported that many of the Native Americans he encountered in the Snake River were also reluctant to displease the Hudson's Bay Company by trading with the Americans.

In the summer of 1833 Bonneville ventured into the Wind River Range in present-day Wyoming to trade with the Shoshone. By this time he realized that he would not be able to fulfill his obligation to return east by October. He wrote a lengthy letter to Macomb summarizing some of his findings and requesting more time, specifically in order to survey the Columbia and parts of the Southwest before his return.

Trying to reach Oregon

After spending the early winter at Fort Bonneville, he set out westward in January 1834 with the goal of reaching the Willamette Valley. He and his men traveled up the Snake River, through Hells Canyonmarker, and into the Wallowa Mountainsmarker, where they found a hospitable welcome by the Nez Perce along the Imnaha River.

On March 4, 1834, they reached Fort Nez Percesmarker, the outpost of the Hudson's Bay Company at the confluence of the Walla Walla River with the Columbia. Pierre C. Pambrun, the HBC commander of the fort welcomed him but refused to do business with him. Empty handed, Bonneville and men retraced their course back to southeast Idaho and made camp on the Portneuf Rivermarker.

In July he made a second trip west, determined to trade with the Hudson's Bay Company. He followed an easier route across the Blue Mountainsmarker, where he met Nathaniel Wyeth once again and camped along the Grande Ronde River. By this time he and his men had become desperate for food and supplies. At Fort Nez Perces, they found the same rejection from Pabrun. Instead of returning immediately east he and men journeyed down the Columbia towards Fort Vancouver. Along the river, he attempted to trade with Sahaptins but without success. He came to realize that he would probably receive the same rejection from McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver and decided to turn back east.

He spent the winter of 1834-1835 with the Shoshone along the upper Bear River and in April 1835 began the voyage back to Missouri. He reached Independencemarker by August and discovered that although his letter requesting an extension had arrived, it had not been delivered to Macomb. In the meantime, his commission had been revoked.

Washington Irving

Bonneville journeyed east hoping to be able to recover his commission. On the way to Washington, D.C.marker, he stopped in New York Citymarker where he was received by his patron John Jacob Astor. While staying with Astor, Bonneville met Washington Irving. Bonneville regaled Irving with tales of his adventures, tales that Bonneville planning on capturing in a book he was working on.

A month or two later, Irving visited Bonneville again, at the Washington D.C. barracks where the latter was staying. Bonneville was having difficulties writing his adventures. The two of them agreed that for the sum of $1000, Bonneville would turn over his maps and notes so that Irving could use them as the basis for his third "Western" book. The result was The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, published in 1837.

More military service

In Washington, Bonneville petitioned tirelessly to Secretary of War Lewis Cass to have his commission re-instated. In early 1836 he was successful, and in subsequent years was given assignments on the western frontier at Fort Kearny in the Nebraska Territorymarker and in the New Mexico Territory at Fort Fillmore where he became the commander of the third infantry regiment on February 3, 1855, after the death of Colonel Thomas Staniford. He also served in the Mexican-American War, taking part in the Veracruzmarker campaign of Winfield Scott. He also served in the occupation of Mexico Citymarker, during which he was court martialed for "misbehavior before the enemy". Ironically, one of later assignments in the 1850s included a post in the Oregon Territorymarker as a colonel at the Columbia Barracks next to Fort Vancouver, which had become a U.S. Army post in 1849.

He retired from the military in 1861 but was soon recalled to duty during the American Civil War, reaching the rank of brevet Brigadier General. He retired a second time in 1866 and moved to Fort Smith, Arkansasmarker, where he died at age 82 in 1878. He is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, Missourimarker.


Bonneville's namesakes include:

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