Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville: Fur Trader of the Rocky Mountains and Far West

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Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville

Captain Benjamin Bonneville’s adventures in the fur trade of the Rocky Mountains and far West. Hudson Bay’s depletion of beaver in Oregon Country.

Bonneville Comes to America

Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville was born in Paris, France in 1796. His father was a “fugitive from Napoleon’s wrath.” Bonneville and his mother had been allowed to come to America under the “safe-conduct” of Thomas Paine.

Early Military Years

Bonneville graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1815 and entered the army. Eventually, he was assigned to frontier duty where he became a skillful traveler of the prairie and of the Indian country. While in St. Louis, Missouri he became interested in the fur trade, an interest that later led him to enter that profession.

Bonneville Heads West

After gaining experience with the fur trade while serving at frontier posts, Bonneville obtained a leave of absence from the army, in 1832, to venture westward. In his endeavor, he was testing his belief that wagons could be successfully taken over the Divide and on to the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. Within the twenty wagons that made up his train, Bonneville managed to transport a large enough stock of goods for trade to last for two full years.

In spite of dry air shrinking spokes on the wagon wheels and causing them to fall off, wagon boxes falling apart; traversing gullies, canyons, and cliffs, as well as rivers, his experiment was successful.

Making his base on the Green River in Wyoming, Bonneville, in August of 1832, built his trading fort on Horse Creek about “halfway down the Upper Valley.”

Bonneville’s Fort Nonsense

Other mountain men christened Bonneville’s establishment “Fort Nonsense,” explaining that the severe winters in that location made the area uninhabitable in that season. However, Bonneville’s location was the “exact center of the richest remaining treasury of furs.” And it was not the express cause of his downfall in the fur trade. Rather, it was a case of various competitors ganging up on the man.

America in Opposition to British in Oregon

What Bonneville did accomplish was to draw the first map, to be published, of the interior West that had “its principal geographical features” close to where they actually were. Also, surviving letters written by Bonneville, during this time, to his commanding officers discuss the problems to be faced by a military invasion of Oregon. During this time the British-backed Hudson Bay Company was venturing further and further eastward in an attempt to deplete the beaver population before the Americans could make any headway westward towards Oregon’s fur trade. It is suspected that Bonneville’s sojourn into the west was backed by John Jacob Astor and was an attempt to scope out the military aspects of dispelling the British from Oregon Territory.

Mexican War and American Civil War

Having spent four years in fur trading and exploring, Bonneville overstayed his leave from the army and was dismissed. However, he was reinstated in the army in 1836 by Andrew Jackson and served in the Mexican War. He retired in 1861 but re-entered the army during the American Civil War. In 1863, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. He retired again in 1866.

Lake Bonneville

Lake Bonneville, an inland sea of the prehistoric Pleistocene epoch, covering the northwest part of present-day Utah, is named in his honor.

Sources:

  1. De Voto, Bernard. Across the Wide Missouri Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1947.
  2. Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, Vol. 4. Funk & Wagnalls, Inc.