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Bonneville:The Explorer Who Blazed the Oregon Trail and the West

Updated on January 23, 2020

Columbia River

Unexplored Oregon Country

Unexplored Oregon Country
Unexplored Oregon Country

The Beginning of Exploration of Oregon Country

After Lewis and Clark's major expedition to the Pacific Coast, it would take another fifty years to complete cartography of the west. And, it wouldn't be done by just one man but by many. The men that mapped and explored this vast area consisted of fur traders, missionaries, and Mountain Men.

There was a missionary, Father de Smet (1801-1873) who prepared a manuscript of the Upper Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain region. He would detail an accurate record of the locations of mountain ranges, rivers, forts and trails. I believe the Library of Congress may have some information on his manuscript.

Explorers of the West

There are many explorers; some remain anonymous, some left an indelible mark on the exploration of the wide-open spaces of the Pacific Northwest.

One of these was Benjamin Bonneville. Born in 1796 Paris, France and them immigrating to America with his parents and two brothers. Their passage was paid by Mr. Thomas Paine, who had lodged with the Bonnevilles while he was in France. Paine was also godfather to the Bonneville children.

Benjamin's mother, Marguerite, had nursed Paine when he took ill until his death in 1809. As a result, Paine left his 100-acre farm in New Rochelle, New York, to the Bonnevilles so that the family could continue to stay.

In 1813, Benjamin received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New york. Bonneville graduated two years later with the Class of 1815.

By the year 1824, he was stationed at Ft. Gibson in Indian Territory and promoted to Captain. Sometime in 1828, he was transferred to the Jefferson Barracks in Missouri. Inspired by the works of Hall J. Kelley, Bonneville became aware of Kelley seeking volunteer explorers for the American West. After meeting with Kelley, he was appointed to lead one of the expeditions to Oregon Country.

Kelley (1790-1874) was a powerful advocate of the exploration of the Oregon Country. He was a graduate of Harvard, and at one point, he did lead an exploration trip in 1834 but took ill and had to return home. It was his writings that inspired Bonneville. The Kelley Point Park in Portland, Oregon, is named after him.

They were scheduled to leave in 1832, but the expedition was lacking for enough volunteers, and the trip was canceled. Disappointed, Bonneville asked his commander for a leave of absence, arguing he could discover valuable information of the Native Americans along with topographical information.

He was granted a 26-month leave starting in August 1831 and lasting until October 1833. The government instructed Bonneville to obtain all the information that would be of use to them. Bonneville never let them down, compiling journals and maps of his exploits. And, he was to furnish his equipment. Fortunately, John J. Astor also felt the need to explore the west and fur trading, and he helped him with the financing.

U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY

U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY
U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY

John J. Astor

John J. Astor
John J. Astor

Hall J. Kelley, Advocate for Oregon Country

Hall J. Kelley, Advocate for Oregon Country
Hall J. Kelley, Advocate for Oregon Country

Expedition Begins in 1832

Bonneville, posing as a fur trader, left Missouri in May 1832 with one hundred and ten men along with two Mountain Men, Michael Cerre and Joseph Walker. They left Ft. Osage and headed up the Platte River and crossed what today is now Wyoming.

By August, they reached the Green River and built a trading post naming it Ft. Bonneville. Somehow the fur traders ended up calling it "Ft. Nonsense' and refused to do any trading there.

By the spring of 1833, he began exploring the Snake River (today Idaho) and proceeded to the head of the Salmon River and into Ft. Nez Perce. Along the way, he was fortunate and had procured a young 10-year old Shoshone boy as a guide. This Shoshone lad was named John Enos, and he would later act as a guide for the Fremont Expedition.

Bonneville continued to be hindered by the Hudson's Bay Company and its domination of the fur trading in the area. But he was so consumed with exploring that even with the adversity of the weather, lack of food, mountains to climb, and frustration with Hudson's Bay Co, he nonetheless kept his journals and mapping as the essential documents he must complete.

Bonneville was aware of the knowledge the mountain men possessed, used a number of them with his searches. Some of them were:

William Sublette(1798-1845), Stephen Meek(1807-1889), and Ewing Young(1799-18410. And of course the earlier mention of Cerre and Walker.

Bonneville is best known for his explorations of the Oregon Country and was the first white man to view Wallowa Valley. His maps and journals were invaluable to the military and the migration of settlers to the west. He was a charismatic and generous man who was an advantage with his relationships with the Native Americans.

Return From His Leave of Absense

Bonneville was granted an initial 26-month leave of absence, but due to circumstances, he sent a letter to his commanding officer requesting an extension. In 1835 he returned to Missouri and discovered his letter never arrived, and he had lost his commission. He was on his way to Washington to plead for reinstatement but stopped off in New York to visit with Mr. Astor. While there, he met Washington Irving, and after meeting, Irving said he would write the book about Bonneville's adventures, so he gave his maps and journals to Irving.

Irving went on to write the book The Adventures of Captain Bonneville. When released, it was a best seller.

In 1836 Bonneville finally got his commission returned. He was also promoted to Colonel. He retired in 1861, but with the outbreak of the Civil War, he was called back to duty. He retired again at the end of the war as a Bridigdear General. Finally, he moved to Ft. Smith, Arkansas, and married Ms. Sue Neis. He died in 1878, age 82.

Were it not for these men of vision to seek and explore the unknown; we might not be where we are today.

The Adventures of Captain Bonneville

The Adventures of Captain Bonneville
The Adventures of Captain Bonneville

Snake River

Snake River
Snake River

Namesakes to Bonneville

Listed here are some of the namesakes to Bonneville:

Bonneville, Arkansas

Bonneville Ave., Las Vegas, NV

Bonneville Salt Flats

Lake Bonneville

Bonneville High School, Idaho

Bonneville High School, Utah

Bonneville Dam

Triumph Bonneville, motorcycle by Triumph

The Bonneville House, Ft. Smith, Arkansas

SS Bonneville, WW II Liberty Ship

Lake Bonneville

Lake Bonneville
Lake Bonneville

Bonneville Triumph Motorcycle

Bonneville Triumph Motorcycle
Bonneville Triumph Motorcycle

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