Saturday, April 14, 2018

Army Leader and Western Explorer Benjamin Bonneville [otd 04/14]

U.S. Army General Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville was born to bourgeoisie parents on April 14, 1796, near Paris, France. His father, perhaps sensing how the political winds were blowing, sent the family to the U.S. in 1803. (Napoleon would crown himself Emperor of France in 1804). He joined them some years later.
West Point, early print, bef. 1835. Library of Congress.

A precocious student, Benjamin graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point when he was nineteen years old. Bonneville's career, and reputation, underwent a series of ups and downs, too convoluted to describe here in full. He served at duty stations that ranged from the Northeast to posts in Arkansas and Oklahoma territories, and the new state of Missouri.

When Bonneville arrived in Missouri, the Western fur trade seemed to be in full swing. Moreover, the “Oregon Country” – the Pacific Northwest, including British Columbia – had attracted the interest of religious missionaries as well as curious settlers. Bonneville, now a captain, came to share their enthusiasm.

He persuaded the Army to grant him a leave of absence to pursue a fur trade venture that would allow him to explore the region. His superiors saw this as a “win-win” situation: Bonneville could study the “joint occupancy” lands of the Oregon County, and it would cost the government nothing (not even a captain’s salary).

Bonneville then found private investors to finance his fur trade venture. Unfounded rumors of a “secret mission” have surfaced occasionally, but there is no doubt that Bonneville took his role as trader seriously. He spent three years, from the spring of 1832 to the spring of 1835, running a fur trade business while collecting information about the Oregon Country.

Along the way, he and his trappers and traders covered most of (future) Idaho south of the Salmon River. Thus, in the fall and winter of 1832, his main body camped in the Lemhi Valley near where that river flows into the Salmon. Two years later, after returning from Oregon, Bonneville’s party wintered along the upper reach of the Bear River in southeast Idaho.

Unfortunately, while the captain was an outstanding leader, he was no businessman; the venture lost money. Still, Washington Irving's account of his "adventures," based on Bonneville's personal journals, made his reputation as a western explorer.

However, because his request for an extension had gone astray in the Army files, he appeared to have severely overstayed his leave. Not only that, his formal reports, with maps, also disappeared. He had been struck from the Army roles and there was some doubt that he would regain his commission.

Benjamin Bonneville.
Library of Congress.
He was reinstated, finally, in 1836. Bonneville served in the Mexican War (1846-1848), and later saw duty at Fort Vancouver, back in Oregon Country. He began a brief retirement in 1861. However, experienced officers being in short supply, Bonneville was soon recalled to Civil War duty and rose to the rank of Brevet Brigadier General. He retired again in 1866 and died twelve years later.

With no visible evidence beyond the Irving account, some historians dismissed the notion that he had made major contributions as an explorer. Then, finally, researchers found Bonneville's documentation. His real achievements are, probably, somewhere between the breathless impression created by Irving and the dismissive attitude of the doubters.
References: [B&W], [Brit]
H. M. Chittenden, The American Fur Trade of the Far West, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1986).
Washington Irving, Edgeley W. Todd (ed.), The Adventures of Captain Bonneville U.S.A., in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West. Digested from his journal. University of Oklahoma Press (1961).
Edith Haroldsen Lovell, Benjamin Bonneville: Soldier of the American Frontier, Horizon Publishers, Bountiful, Utah (1992).

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