Benjamin Bonneville Route
compiled by Karen Bassett, Jim Renner, and Joyce
copyright 1998 ~ all rights reserved
Oregon Trails Coordinating Council
Bonneville, on an authorized leave of absence from service in the US Army, traversed the western states of Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming with a small group. In addition to his own explorations, Bonneville sent emissaries into California and Utah in 1832-1834. Bonneville’s effort included orders to note the natural and cultural landscape he traversed. A proud and committed military man, Bonneville took his orders seriously, fulfilling his obligations as best he could. Bonneville trapped and traded with the illustrious Mountain Men of the era (William Sublette, Stephen Meek, Ewing Young, and others) at the Green River Rendezvous and continued west into the Oregon Country. Bonneville’s explorations ranged far and wide, and he is credited with mapping major areas of the West. Several western landscape features were named by Bonneville or in honor of Bonneville’s efforts. Bonneville is also acknowledged by a number of reputable historians to have been the first white to see the Wallowa Valley. His easy way and generosity with the Indians made their encounters positive ones.
Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville, the French-born son of a civil engineer, received an appointment to the US Military Academy at West Point in 1813. He was 18 years old. Just two years later, Bonneville graduated and was commissioned brevet second lieutenant of light artillery. He served in posts in New England, Mississippi, and the Arkansas Territory. In 1824, he was transferred to Fort Gibson, Indian Territory and shortly thereafter, promoted to Captain. After traveling home to France as a guest of General Lafayette, Bonneville was transferred to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri in 1828.
Inspired by editorials in the St. Louis Enquirer (edited at the time by Thomas Hart Benton) and the writings of Hall J. Kelley, Bonneville wanted to explore the west, and if possible join the westward movement. Bonneville met with Kelley. Soon thereafter Kelley appointed Bonneville to lead one of two expeditions to the Oregon Country; Nathaniel Wyeth was to lead the other group. Kelley anticipated that 3000 emigrants would join him. When only 400 signed up, he rescheduled the group’s departure date from January, 1832, to June. Frustrated by the delay, many who signed on dropped out and Kelley abandoned his plan altogether.
Bonneville, however, was firm in his desire and commitment to explore the West. He petitioned the War Department for leave of absence that would also serve as an extended military reconnaissance. In his letter requesting leave, Bonneville proposed:
“To explore the country of the Rocky Mountains and beyond, with a view to ascertaining the nature and character of the several tribes of Indians inhabiting those regions, the trade which might profitably be carried on with them, quality of soil, productions, minerals natural history, climate, geography and topography, as well as geology of the various parts of the country within the limits of the territories of the United States between our frontier and the Pacific.”
In granting Bonneville’s request, the commanding officer, General Alexander Macomb, added several stipulations:
“The leave of absence which you have asked…has been sanctioned. You are, therefore, authorized to be absent from the army until October, 1833… It is understood that the government is to be at no expense… It is desirable…that you note particularly the numbers of warriors that my be in each tribe or nation that you may meet with; their alliances with other tribes, and their relative position as to a state of peace or war, and whether their friendly or warlike dispositions towards each other are recent or of long standing.
You will gratify us by describing their manner of making war; of the mode of subsisting themselves during a state of war, and state of peace… In short, every information which you may conceive would be useful to the government.
You will avail yourself of every opportunity of informing us of your position and progress, and at the expiration of your leave of absence, will join your proper station.”
Bonneville found a willing sponsor in John Jacob Astor, who was deeply interested in the fur trade of the Rockies and Far West. With resources in hand, it took Bonneville just a few weeks to recruit a company of experienced trappers and traders eager to head west. With 110 men in his company, assorted mules, horses, oxen, and twenty wagons, he moved out.
Bonneville headed west from Fort Osage on the Missouri River on May 1, 1832. By early June, his party struck the Platte River and as they passed between Chimney Rock and Scott’s Bluff, they noted that the prairie was black with buffalo. By mid-July, they reached the Sweetwater, coming at last into view of the Rocky Mountains. Soon thereafter, Bonneville crossed the South Pass, a trail that would prove essential to the overland emigration that followed a decade later.
Bonneville’s party settled into the Green river valley to rest livestock, hunt and replenish what stores they could in early August. After the rendezvous, Bonneville realized that his wagons and many of the stores could be cached in the Green River Valley. Bonneville stored what he could, buried the wagons, built a makeshift fort between the Green River and Horse Creek, and divided his company into groups. Twenty men stayed at “Fort Bonneville.” The others were sent off in three brigades to hunt buffalo and other game.
While his men were securing the winter’s supply of meat, Bonneville surveyed the tribes he met. He visited the Flatheads and camped among the Nez Perces during his first winter in the West. Bonneville’s assessments of the tribes (as reported later by his “biographer” Washington Irving) were characterized by a keen and genuine interest in the cultures and customs of the tribes he met. His report of the Nez Perces serves as an example:
“Simply to call these people [Nez Perces] religious would convey but a faint idea of the piety and devotion which pervades their whole conduct. Their honesty is immaculate. Their purity of purpose and their observance of the rites of their religion are uniform and remarkable….Their customs and manners are all strongly imbued with religion.”
In November, 1832, Bonneville again sent brigades out to hunt and trap. He continued visiting tribes, collecting information and pelts and anything else that was fit for trade. The Hudson’s Bay Company had been trapping and trading in the region since the early 1820s, and although “the Indians were sorely tempted by his blankets and other trade goods, they refused to trade with him because they feared that when he had gone the traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company would not buy their furs.” Bonneville had counted on tribal trade to replenish his supplies.
Word of Bonneville’s presence and activities reached Fort Vancouver’s John McLoughlin. In very terse and direct terms, McLoughlin forbade the HBC traders to associate with Bonneville or his men. Having established themselves and developed trade relationships with the Indians, the HBC was determined to maintain control of the fur trade in the West. Caught between the HBC’s control and the tribes’ reticence to stir the HBC’s ire, success and survival in the Oregon Country for Wyeth and Bonneville was difficult.
In early 1833, Bonneville sent a group of 50 men to the Snake River to trap and collect information about Indians, instructing them to rejoin the party in July, 1833. Bonneville also sent Joseph Walker and a small company to explore the Great Salt Lake in Utah and meet with the Crow Indians. He completed his own reconnaissance work too, traveling along the Snake River, camping near the Bannock Indians, hunting buffalo, and meeting bands of Flathead and Nez Perce Indians as well as small groups of white trappers — among them Milton Sublette and J. B. Gervais.
In early July, Bonneville and Wyeth met again, and together they traveled to the Green River Rendezvous. Bonneville and his men remained at the rendezvous for a fortnight before leaving for the Wind River Range.
Bonneville realized in late July that a year was an insufficient period in which to finish his information-gathering, nor could he fulfill his promises to General Macomb to return to the States by October. There was too much yet to accomplish. As his leave lapsed, Bonneville composed a letter to Macomb detailing his explorations, the watersheds and riverways he traveled, the tribes he met and their temperaments, and the soils’ potential for sustainable agricultural operations.
“The information I have already obtained authorizes me to say this much: That if our government ever intends taking possession of Oregon, the sooner it shall be done the better, and at present I deem a subaltern’s command is equal to the task, yet I would recommend a full company, which by bringing provisions to last till June could then live upon the salmon which abounds there (on the lower Columbia) during the summer and fall, and farming for themselves for the next year could subsist themselves well…
As to the cultivation of the bottoms of the Columbia, the lands are of the best the timber abundant, but it is deluged at the rise of the river, but the Multnomah, or as it is named here the Wallamet [Willamette], runs through one of the most beautiful, fertile, and extensive vallies in the world — wheat, corn, and tobacco country.”
In this letter, Bonneville also asked for an extension of his leave. He cited several reasons for lingering in the West. He described at length the Hudson’s Bay Company’s operations and successes in the Oregon Country and his interest in their operations in New Caledonia (British Columbia) and the Cottonais (Kutenai country, Montana). Bonneville wanted to survey the lower Columbia River, California, and parts of the Southwest before his return. With his reconnaissance work to date documented and his letter enroute to General Macomb (carried by a trustworthy courier), Bonneville continued his trek through the West.
He met trappers Campbell, Fitzpatrick, Stewart and Wyeth again after the Rendezvous ended and traveled again over the South Pass and through the Wind River range, meeting Shoshones and (in a pattern well established by now) carefully recording their habits, customs, and territories for the Army. Bonneville returned to Fort Bonneville in mid-September 1833.
After a brief respite and several short trips away from the Fort, Bonneville and his men set out again, this time bound for the Portneuf River where they established a winter camp.
Bonneville left the Fort again in early January, 1834, with a small group of men and a Shoshone guide aiming for the Willamette Valley by way of the Columbia River. By January 12, the party reached the Snake River. Their guide quickly departed for other obligations, leaving Bonneville to his instincts. The group traveled through the steep gorge now called Hell’s Canyon, past the present-day site of Homestead, Oregon, the Big Bar, and the present Hell’s Canyon dam site until the canyon’s ragged walls became too steep to safely maneuver. After backtracking a bit, the group found their way out of the canyon, up and over the Wallowas near Himmelwright Springs. Still traveling in deep snow and growing very hungry, Bonneville’s company butchered a mule before continuing toward the Imnaha valley, where they found grass just turning green. On the banks of the Imnaha River (at the present community of Imnaha), Bonneville was welcomed by Nez Perces. In a description that echoes his apparent generosity towards the Indians he met during the western adventures, historian Edith Lovell wrote:
“Bonneville enjoyed royal treatment. He won good will by fashioning turbans for the women from his own plaid jacket; the Indians eyed his shiny pate and titled him “The Bald Chief.” In a dos-a-dos of gift giving, Bonneville received a fine horse in exchange for a rifle, hatchet, and ear bobs. Chief Yo-mus-re-cut butchered a colt in welcome to his village.”
Alvin Josephy describes Bonneville’s departure from the Imnaha village:
“When it came time to leave that settlement they were accompanied by the headman and a young Indian, who guided them up and down the steep draws and across high, broken country from the lower valley of the Imnaha to the deep canyon of Joseph Creek. They reached that stream near its junction with the Grande Ronde River, which Bonneville called the Way-lee-way, close to where it flowed past the high goosenecks of land to empty into the Snake. As the travelers approached the mouth of Joseph Creek, their guide informed them that he had sent work of their arrival ahead to an important village at the junction of the Grand Ronde. Rounding a high grassy hill, they came upon the Indian settlement, the sheltered winter camp of the principal chief of the Wallowa Nez Perces, Tuekakas. The father of the more celebrated Chief Joseph (who would be born in this vicinity six years later), Tuekakas was in his late forties…”
No white man knew of the Wallowa Valley, much less wanted it at that time, and the Indians welcomed Bonneville and his companions as representatives of a friendly and honorable people.
uekakas and his people welcomed Bonneville with a reception (in which the Nez Perces individually greeted Bonneville and pledged friendship to him and his party) and feast followed by long and intense conversation about the United States and the Nez Perces.
Bonneville was again accompanied by Yo-mus-re-cut and the Indian guide when he left the Nez Perces’ meeting and celebration. After following the Grande Ronde River to its confluence with the Snake River, Bonneville’s party entered another Nez Perce village, where they were greeted with another warm reception and celebratory feast. Near the modern town of Asotin, Washington, on the Snake River, Bonneville met Apash Wyakaikt, later called Looking Glass. (His son, also named Looking Glass, was War Chief through the Nez Perces war of 1877). Apash Wyakaikt worked closely with the HBC at Fort Nez Perces and on the Snake and Clearwater Rivers. He knew that the Americans “gave better terms” than did the HBC and was eager to trade with them. Journals and reports recounting the meeting do not include what arrangements the men might have negotiated. After their meeting, Bonneville continued down the Snake River to the Columbia, then on the Columbia to Fort Nez Perces, the HBC’s post situated on the Walla Walla River.
The HBC chief trader at Fort Nez Perces, Pierre C. Pambrun, welcomed Bonneville and his men into the Fort on March 4, 1834. Pambrun provided gracious hospitality, but the HBC considered Bonneville a rival for the pelt trade and so declined to provide any goods. Two days after arriving, Bonneville set out again, empty handed, retracing his original route. He returned to the camp on the Portneuf River by May 12. Forays to the American Falls, Blackfoot River, and Bear Lake areas occupied Bonneville’s time through the early summer of 1834.
Bonneville was discouraged by the HBC’s rejection at Fort Nez Perces in March, but he was persistent, too. In July, after sending a trapping brigade to the Crow country of Wyoming and sending another to St. Louis with the few pelts he had obtained, Bonneville and a small group determined to try trading again with the HBC — at Fort Nez Perces and at Fort Vancouver. Along the way, he hoped to establish trading relationships with the Nez Perce and Cayuse and visit the Willamette Valley.
Bonneville traveled from the Portneuf to the Snake. This time, Bonneville followed an easier course into the Nez Perces’ country through the Blue Mountains, along the Powder River and into the Grande Ronde Valley. He was impressed by the Cayuse and Nez Perce horse herds and their Christian perspectives. According to Josephy, Bonneville noted the way in which Christian traditions were “grafted onto ancestral beliefs and practices.” Equal in significance to Bonneville was the breadth and scope of modern farming practices used by Indians in the Grande Ronde Valley. Both features of the changing culture had been introduced by the HBC.
While Bonneville camped in the Grand Ronde Valley, he visited with Nathaniel Wyeth (who was on his second trip to the West). The two men met and perhaps discussed the beginning of a joint trading effort. Correspondence indicates that they were negotiating with the Nez Perces and Cayuse. The men planned to meet Apash Wyakaikt on the Asotin River, but Bonneville needed food and supplies first and when he again approached Pambrun he found the same warm welcome but the same denial of trade and service.
Without food or supplies, Bonneville’s position became more desperate. Rather than go back, he headed down the Columbia River hoping to get to Fort Vancouver and the Willamette Valley. Along the way he tried to trade with river bands of Sahaptins to no avail. The HBC’s hold was deep and widespread. As Bonneville neared the junction of the John Day river and the Columbia he realized that Chief Factor John McLoughlin would likely greet him in the same manner as Pambrun, with the same futile result.
“Notwithstanding the unkind reception of the traders, I continued down the Columbia, subsisting on horses, dogs, roots, and occasionally a salmon, until I reached the vicinity of Mounts Hood and Baker [Adams].
I now discovered that if I advanced much farther, the snow that was then falling in the mountains would soon prevent my retreat from this impoverished country and that in the spring I would not have a horse left, as it became indispensably necessary to slaughter them for subsistence. I consequently took a south course and entered the mountains of John Day’s river, gradually turning my course towards the mountains of the upper country, which I reached the 15 November, 1834.”
Captain Bonneville was through with the Oregon Country.
Once out of the Oregon Country, Bonneville stayed the winter with the Shoshone Indians on the Upper Bear River. In April, Bonneville returned to the Green River before working his way east over the Wind River Range toward Missouri. He arrived in Independence on August 22 to learn that his July, 1833, letter requesting an extension had arrived, but was not delivered to Macomb. In the interim, Bonneville’s commission had been revoked. By September 26, 1834, the first of Bonneville’s volley of letters to the Secretary of War, Lewis Cass, was received in Washington, DC Bonneville petitioned tirelessly to have his commission reinstated and in early 1836, he was recommissioned. He immediately set out again for duty stations in the Midwest and on the western frontier, including a stint as a colonel at the Columbia Barracks adjacent to old Fort Vancouver, which had been a US Army post since 1849.
Bonneville’s military career continued through the western expansion and the Civil War. In 1866, as a Brevet Brigadier General, he retired and moved to Arkansas to live out his remaining days. Bonneville died in 1878 at age 80.
Bonneville’s travels in Oregon and throughout the region were characterized by constant movement and exploration. Bonneville replicated his understanding of much of the western landscape on maps that helped both the military and the overland emigrants find their way west.