The word “Bonneville” is synonymous with the pursuit speed, with home-built vehicles solely designed to do one thing; break land speed records. The name has also been given to a fair number of great, and small, areas across the mainland United States; and has graced one of the most famous series of motorcycles in existence, a crater on Mars, and a long-running, though now discontinued, American sedan, however; to mention only the legacy of the word is to do a disservice to the man behind the name; a man that was perhaps even more extraordinary than his name may imply.
For those who read my last article, the name Bonneville may ring some bells, and while I only mentioned him briefly, he will play a significant role in this story.
Nicholas Bonneville was a French publisher and writer, and a good friend of American Founding Father, Thomas Paine. The two, as you discovered in my last article, played an important role in the early French Revolution and, Paine, in particular, defended the revolution from criticism by stating in his work, The Rights of Man,:
“When it can be said by any country in the world, my poor are happy, neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them, my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars, the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive, the rational world is my friend because I am the friend of happiness. When these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and government. Independence is my happiness, the world is my country, and my religion is to do good.”
On the 9th of November, 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte performed a coup d’etat against the French Directory in order to seize power and become Consul. The ‘Constitution of the Year VIII’ prohibited Napoleon from retaining too much power, however; Napoleon rewrote the Consitution, and by popular vote (3 million in favour vs 1567 opposing), Napoleon became the dictator that he his known for being today. Nicholas Bonneville was very critical of Bonaparte and publicly compared him to the British revolutionary leader, Oliver Cromwell, in his work “The Well Informed“. For this behaviour, Bonneville was sent to prison, and while his sentence was short, he left prison to discover his printing presses had been confiscated by the regime. With no way to produce, nor publicise, his work, Bonneville fled, leaving his family behind with his close friend, Thomas Paine.
Living under police surveillance with his father, Bonneville had Paine take his wife and three sons to the United States where they would be safe from the Napoleonic regime. In 1802, Thomas Paine, Marguerite Brazier, and Bonneville’s three sons, Benjamin, Louis, and Thomas, travelled across the Atlantic ocean to start their new lives in America. They settled in New Rochelle, New York, on Paine’s old farm, where the children grew up as Americans rather than as Frenchmen. Paine died in 1809 at the age of 72, the farm and its expansive grounds were left to Brazier and her sons so that they could continue to live there, and so that she could raise and educate the children herself.
This is where our story begins.
The Bonneville of this tale is not the father, Nicholas, but rather one of his sons: Benjamin Bonneville.
Benjamin’s life was immortalised in Washington Irving’s ‘The Adventures of Captain Bonneville’, a book that I will be referencing as I continue to write this article. It tells you a lot about a man when a person chooses to write a book about them and their travels, especially while they are still alive. Bonneville was not a celebrity, he was not particularly famous, the man was a soldier, an explorer and traveller; to the average bystander, Bonneville was nothing but an average man. While staying with Jon Jacob Astor, an extremely wealthy and influential German-American merchant of the fur trade, Irving met Benjamin Bonneville. Irving was enthralled with the story of Bonneville’s life and, with the help of the maps that Bonneville would go on to sell to Irving, the author began to write the tale of a Frenchman turned American pioneer, the story of Captain Benjamin Bonneville.
According to Irving, Benjamin “inherited something of his father’s bonhommie, and his excitable imagination”, it appears that Bonneville was a friendly and approachable man, and as Irving’s story goes on, it becomes clear that the man was incredibly driven, even sometimes risking his own life in order to achieve a task.
Bonneville entered the West Point Military Academy at the age of seventeen, ten years after he had arrived in America. He soon began to excel in his training and graduated after only two years at the age of nineteen, and with the rank of Brevet second lieutenant. Bonneville was stationed all around the country in his early career, most notably spending time in Mississippi and Arkansas, before being transferred to Fort Gibson in the Indian Country (now modern-day Oklahoma) where he was promoted to the rank of Captain.
The Captain returned to France for a time where he was a guest of General Lafayette, a good friend of a number of the Founding Fathers including Thomas Paine. When Bonneville returned to America in 1828, he was stationed in Missouri where he was inspired by the work of Hall J. Kelley to consider joining in with the exploration of the American Frontier. Bonneville met with Kelley and was appointed to lead his expedition to the west coast, unfortunately, the plan fell through and the trip was cancelled, leaving Bonneville with an urge to explore, but with no team and with no funding. Fortunately for the Captain, the US Army granted him leave of absence for 26 months, giving him ample time to gain financial backing from Alfred Seton (and by proxy, John Jacob Astor), an old friend of Bonneville’s, and travel to the West and back. Bonneville was only granted the leave on the agreement that any information learned on the subject of tribal culture, the terrain, the weather, and the general landscape during the expedition would be shared with the United States Army. The mission was simple: Bonneville and his men would pose as fur traders, or trappers, and would travel through the Rockies to the Pacific Northwest in order to learn the afore-mentioned information. Bonneville and his 110 men were the first people to travel through the South Pass, in what is now present-day Wyoming, with carts (presumably filled with trading supplies), confirming to other explorers, traders, and later, migrant wagon trains, that this particular route was viable for larger hauls. This track became known as the Oregon Trail.
The trip was possibly the most important of all early expeditions, however; that is not to say it all went to plan. Due to Astor’s involvement with funding of the trip, and his rivalry with the dominant Hudson Bay Company, the Company refused to trade with Bonneville and his men. This by itself would have been less of an issue if the native tribes hadn’t also refused to trade with the explorers, leaving them with no one to trade pelts with. For reasons historians do not yet understand, Bonneville sent a team of his men, headed by Joe Walker, to explore the Great Salt Lake, and to find a way to get to California across the continent. Walker and his men discovered two usable passages; one through Nevada, and the other through the Sierra Nevada Mountains; these paths became known as the California Trail and were instrumental in the organisation of the Gold Rush.
Unable to return to Missouri in time, Bonneville sent a later to his commanding officer, Alexander Macomb, and continued heading west where they finally made it to Oregon. After making their way through the Wallowa Mountains, the group came across the friendly Naz Perces and then headed north to the Fort Naz Perces in southern Washington; unfortunately, the fort was run by the Hudson Bay Company, who refused to trade with them, and so the group left. A few months later, Bonneville returned to the fort after spending some time in south-east Idaho; once again, Bonneville attempted to trade but was now desperate for food and supplies. The Hudson Bay Company was cold in their resolve and refused Bonneville’s offer, sending the group on their way. With seemingly nowhere left to turn but to Fort Vancouver or to head back home, the group decided to make one last effort and headed south. On the way down, the group encountered some Sahaptins who also refused to trade; realising that Fort Vancouver, the home of the commanding officer who originally told the Hudson Bay Company not to trade with the group in the first place, was incredibly unlikely to trade with Bonneville and his men, the group finally admitted that they could go on no further, and decided to head back to Missouri.
The city of Independence, Missouri was surprised when the group returned, but Bonneville was unsure why; he soon discovered that the letter he had sent well over a year ago to Alexander Macomb had never arrived, and so the group had been declared dead or missing, Bonneville’s name had been struck from the military’s register, and his commission had been revoked.
Washington Irving summarised the entire trip nicely in the introduction of his book:
“Having made himself acquainted with all the requisites for a trading enterprise beyond the mountains, he determined to undertake it. A leave of absence, and a sanction of his expedition, was obtained from the major general in chief, on his offering to combine public utility with his private projects, and to collect statistical information for the War Department concerning the wild countries and wild tribes he might visit in the course of his journeyings.
Nothing now was wanting to the darling project of the captain, but the ways and means. The expedition would require an outfit of many thousand dollars; a staggering obstacle to a soldier, whose capital is seldom anything more than his sword. Full of that buoyant hope, however, which belongs to the sanguine temperament, he repaired to New-York, the great focus of American enterprise, where there are always funds ready for any scheme, however chimerical or romantic. Here he had the good fortune to meet with a gentleman of high respectability and influence, who had been his associate in boyhood, and who cherished a schoolfellow friendship for him. He took a general interest in the scheme of the captain; introduced him to commercial men of his acquaintance, and in a little while an association was formed, and the necessary funds were raised to carry the proposed measure into effect. One of the most efficient persons in this association was Mr. Alfred Seton, who, when quite a youth, had accompanied one of the expeditions sent out by Mr. Astor to his commercial establishments on the Columbia, and had distinguished himself by his activity and courage at one of the interior posts. Mr. Seton was one of the American youths who were at Astoria at the time of its surrender to the British, and who manifested such grief and indignation at seeing the flag of their country hauled down. The hope of seeing that flag once more planted on the shores of the Columbia, may have entered into his motives for engaging in the present enterprise.
Thus backed and provided, Captain Bonneville undertook his expedition into the Far West, and was soon beyond the Rocky Mountains. Year after year elapsed without his return. The term of his leave of absence expired, yet no report was made of him at headquarters at Washington. He was considered virtually dead or lost and his name was stricken from the army list.”
The year was 1835, and it was late autumn/fall when Bonneville and Irving met at the residence of John Jacob Aster. Irving had been employed by Aster to write up the history of his trading colony in Oregon, Astoria. Bonneville, on his way to Washington DC in order to retrieve his commission, had stopped at his funder’s house in New York City to rest (which presumably, while being further away than DC, was actually more direct due to the roadways at the time). Bonneville and Irving got along very well (at least according to Irving), so much so that Irving was willing to listen to Bonneville’s entire story. In this encounter, we learn quite a bit about Bonneville’s character and disposition; most notably, Irving identifies that he was, “too much of the frank, freehearted soldier, and had inherited too much of his father’s temperament, to make a scheming trapper, or a thriftybargainer.” Irving also details Bonneville’s physical appearance and says, “He was of the middle size, well made and well set; and a military frock of foreign cut, that had seen service, gave him a look of compactness. His countenance was frank, open, and engaging; well browned by the sun, and had something of a French expression. He had a pleasant black eye, a high forehead, and, while he kept his hat on, the look of a man in the jocund prime of his days; but the moment his head was uncovered, a bald crown gained him credit for a few more years than he was really entitled to.”, and Irving summarises the man in the following paragraph, “Being extremely curious, at the time, about everything connected with the Far West, I addressed numerous questions to him. They drew from him a number of extremely striking details, which were given with mingled modesty and frankness; and in a gentleness of manner, and a soft tone of voice, contrasting singularly with the wild and often startling nature of his themes. It was difficult to conceive the mild, quiet-looking personage before you, the actual hero of the stirring scenes related.”
When Bonneville reached the District of Columbia in early 1836, he had to petition the Secretary of War, Lewis Cass, multiple times to have his commission reinstated, but eventually, and to the pleasure of Bonneville, it eventually was. Later that same year, the now Major Bonneville had tried and failed to publish the travel logs in which he had detailed his expedition. Fortunately for Bonneville, help arrived when he was visited by Irving who, in good faith, offered to purchase the materials from Bonneville with intention of turning them into the third book in his “Western” series, ‘The Adventures of Captain Bonneville’. The explorer took him up on his offer and a year later, the book was released to critical praise, however; a number of other explorers, as well as historians, suggest that while Bonneville was a great military officer, he was not a great explorer and he ultimately took credit away from the more experienced members of his group, most notably Joe Walker and Michael Silvestre Cerré.
Bonneville went on to fight in the Mexican-American war as part of the Veracruz Campaign, and the occupation of Mexico City. The war went on for nearly two years, and over forty thousand people died over its course. The man was then stationed in Fort Kearny, Nebraska before being sent to Fort Filmore in New Mexico. During his time in Fort Filmore, he was promoted to Colonel of the 3rd Infantry Regiment after the death of Colonel Thomas Staniford.
The Colonel’s first retirement in 1861 was short lived when, at the age of 65, Bonneville was recalled to be part of the Civil War. Fortunately for the now aged Bonneville, he was not forced into actual combat but was rather made superintendent of recruiting in Missouri. In 1862, with the Civil War still raging between the Union and the Confederates, the Colonel, still retaining his previous job, was also made commander of Benton Barracks, Missouri. By the end of the war, the fort contained well over a mile of barracks with a maximum occupancy of 30,000 soldiers, the largest military hospital in the West (capable of holding over 2,000 wounded), as well as warehouses, stables, and a two-storey building for the commander’s use.
At the end of the war, Benjamin Bonneville achieved his final rank: Brevet Brigadier General. The honourary rank was given as service for his military career in the two major wars, as well as for his exploration in the American Frontier. With this final rank, Brevet Brigadier General Benjamin Bonneville retired for the second time and, in 1866, moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Benjamin then married for a second time, to a woman named Sue Neis who was many decades his younger at the age of 22. Bonneville was previously married, and actually had a child, a young girl, but both died a decade prior to his second marriage.
When Bonneville died in 1778, he was 82 years of age which, at the time, made him the oldest retired American soldier. He was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetary, Missouri where his body remains to this day.
The discoveries made by Bonneville and his men are invaluable. Without the creation of the Oregon and California trails at that moment in time, the development of the western United States, and the rest of the world would be miles behind. If the technological and cultural revolution originating from West Coast had not taken place, we would be trailing by decades. While the man behind the name may not be commonly remembered, the name “Bonneville” most certainly is; the legacy of the man, both the hidden and the more obvious, have changed the world and will continue to influence the world to come.
Henry Kincaid is a British freelance writer:
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