Thursday, 22 July 2010
His name can be translated as “good city” in his native French, but he made his mark far from any cities and lent it to a great, flat expanse in what eventually would become the state of Utah. He explored the Northwest in 1831-36, was wounded and brevetted for bravery at the Battle of Churubusco during the War with Mexico in 1847, retired for disability as a colonel in 1861, and was recalled to active duty during the Civil War, serving mainly in recruiting duty, for which he was brevetted to brigadier general. His early explorations along the Columbia River in Oregon ventured into territory controlled by the powerful Hudson’s Bay Company and later were chronicled by famed American author Washington Irving. His full name is Benjamin L.E. Bonneville, Class of 1815, and on 24 July 1832, he led the first wagon train of 20 wagons and 110 experienced trappers and lumbermen through South Pass, a critical point in what would become known as the Oregon Trail.
Benjamin was born in France during the Reign of Terror in 1793. His father later published a denouncement of Napoleon and was forced to flee with his family to the United States, settling in New York City in about 1800. Thirteen years later, Benjamin Bonneville was a cadet at West Point, graduating on 11 December 1815. Like many graduated cadets, he only secured a brevet second lieutenancy in the Light Artillery, not becoming an actual second lieutenant until 15 January 1817, while on recruiting service. He was transferred to the 8th Infantry on the Western Frontier in 1819 and promoted to first lieutenant in 1821 and to captain in the 7th Infantry in October of 1825, while on leave of absence in France. During this absence he accompanied his father’s old friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, during his return to France on the frigate Brandywine following his triumphant tour of the United States and remained in La Grange as his guest until 1826.
Returning to the Frontier, in 1831 he applied for a second leave of absence to explore the relatively unknown lands beyond the Mississippi River and into the Northwest. MG Alexander Macomb, on 3 August 1831, authorized him to outfit an expedition at no cost to the government and be absent until October 1833, provided that he gather information useful to the Army and submit reports at every opportunity. CPT Bonneville proceeded to St. Louis, gathered his 110 men, wagons, pack animals, provisions, astronomical instruments, trading materials, ammunition, and traps and set out from Ft. Osage on the Missouri River on 1 May 1832, arriving in sight of the Rocky Mountains on 20 July. He initially established a winter camp in mid-September on the Salmon River among the Nez Perce and Flathead tribes, but their ponies soon exhausted the forage and he was forced to make a perilous winter march, arriving in sight of the Three Tetons in January 1833. Returning to the Salmon River in March, he began trapping and exploring along the Snake, Big Horn and other rivers in the area. He then established a winter camp near the Pontneuf River at about the time that his leave of absence had expired. Evidently he was equally remiss in sending back reports, but in those pre-railroad and pre-telegraph days, it is understandable.
On Christmas Day 1833, tired of camp live, Bonneville and three companions set out in the harsh winter to return to the Snake River and beyond, while a larger party was sent to explore the Great Salt Lake. In the snow and severe cold, crossing seemingly endless mountains and valleys, Bonneville reached the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Walla Walla on the Columbia River on 4 March 1834. Although treated hospitably initially, his request for supplies that would allow him to remain in the area to establish contacts with the local tribes for the purpose of trading fur pelts was denied. He was welcome personally but not as a competitor in the fur trade. He then returned to survey the Little Snake River and was joined by the other party, which had extended its travels into California. Sending one party back with pelts and another to trap among the Black Hills, he and 23 others attempted to reach the lower Columbia River. Starvation, however, compelled this group to return to their caches on the Bear River and spend the winter among the friendly Eutaw and Shoshone tribes and vast herds of deer and buffalo. His journals are replete with detailed and enthusiastic expressions of appreciation for the grandeur he had been privileged to see. On 22 August 1835, Bonneville finally emerged from the wilderness to find that he had been dropped from the rolls of the Army. President Andrew Jackson, recognizing a kindred spirit, however, took a personal hand in restoring Bonneville’s commission.
He served with the 7th Infantry on the Frontier and in Florida until 15 July 1845, when he was promoted to major of the 6th Infantry. During the War with Mexico, he participated in the Siege of Vera Cruz, the Battles of Cerro Gordo, Churubusco (brevetted to Lieutenant Colonel), Molino del Rey and Chapultepec, and the capture of Mexico City. Promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 4th Infantry in 1849 and colonel of the 3rd Infantry in 1855, he commanded the Gila Expedition in 1857 to explore and record present-day Arizona and New Mexico plus Ft. Bliss in Texas, covering about 1,200 miles. Along the way he noted the effects of topography on travel and interviewed members of the local tribes as well as various Indian agents. He then commanded the Department of New Mexico, 1858-59, before retiring in 1861 as a colonel. Called back to duty in an administrative capacity during the Civil War, he received his final brevet to brigadier general on 13 March 1865. He died at Ft. Smith, Arkansas, on 12 June 1878.
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire.
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