Benjamin Louis Eulalie Bonneville

April 14, 1796 - June 12, 1878

Bonneville, Benjamin Louis Eulalie, army officer, frontiersman (Apr. 14, 1796-June 12, 1878). Born at Paris, Bonneville was brought by his mother to the U.S. in 1803, was well educated and graduated from West Point in 1815. He saw frontier experience, returning to France with Lafayette for one year and then took up his career at trans-Mississippi posts. Joseph R. Walker helped form Bonneville's plans to enter the fur trade in the Rocky Mountains; he may have been an agent of American expansion in this undertaking, but proof is lacking, as are details as to how he financed the considerable project. He was granted a "leave" and took a large caravan out of Fort Osage, Missouri, May 1, 1832. Washington Irving has detailed the three years Bonneville spent in the mountains, and his overall failure to make economic headway amidst the cutthroat competition in the fur trade of the day. Walker, at Bonneville's direction, led an important expedition from the officer's trading post to California, among other things discovering Yosemite Valley. Bonneville and his men ransacked the northern and northwestern mountains in their search for furs--and perhaps for details of British operations in the Oregon country. Bonneville returned to Independence, Missouri, in the summer of 1835, having officially overstayed his leave. He was dropped from army rolls, but his energetic protests caused him to be reinstated, and that mysterious facet of his career ended satisfactorily for him. He sold the manuscript he had completed of his mountain experiences to Irving for $1,000; out of it the writer fashioned an enduring classic of the fur trade. Bonneville made a rapid trip to Wind River, where he met Walker again, but shortly returned to his proper post at Fort Gibson, on the frontier. For three years he took part in the second Seminole War in Florida. During the Mexican War, as a major of the 6th. Infantry, he served in the Vera Cruz expedition under Winfield Scott. Bonneville took part in the occupation of Mexico City, earned a brevet to lieutenant colonel for "gallantry and meritorious conduct" in two battles, and a court martial for "misbehavior before the enemy," a charge he vigorously denied. However he was found guilty on three of ten specifications and sentenced to be "admonished" by the commanding general. Bonneville fearing permanent damage would result to his reputation. Upon his return to the U.S., he was assigned briefly to Fort Kearny, Nebraska, then to other posts and in 1852 to Fort Vancouver, Washington. In 1855 he was assigned to command the military department of New Mexico, during which he led a lengthy punitive operation against the Gila Apaches, which saw some skirmishing with Indians but had controversial results. In 1860 he was order to Fort Clark, Texas, taking the 3rd. Infantry there from New Mexico in a grueling endurance test. He was retired September 9, 1861, but served in non-combat capacities during the Civil War, being promoted in 1865 to Brigadier General for long and faithful service. He then settled on his extensive farm near Fort Smith where in 1871, at 75, he married Susan Neis, 22. He died at 82, the oldest retired officer in the army. Bonneville had been identified with the frontier most of his professional life, and had left his impress--for good or ill--up it; on balance, his life seems to have been a worthy one, and Bonneville a man of some imagination, energy, and vision.


Washington Irving, Adventures of Captain Bonneville; Dan L. Thrapp, Victoria and the Mimbres Apaches. Norman, Univ. of Okla. Press, 1974; Bernard DeVota, Across the Wide Missouri. Boston, Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1947.