Bonneville: An explorer recognized around the nation
The early years of the United States includes tales of many daring explorers. One of these figures was Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville, a Frenchman by birth who eventually made Arkansas his home. Bonneville gave Americans a much clearer view of the Rocky Mountain West thanks to his travels in the 1830s.
Benjamin Bonneville was the son of a publisher, born in 1796 in Paris. In 1803, the family immigrated to New York. The family was close friends with Thomas Paine, the outspoken essayist who inspired countless Americans during the Revolutionary War. Paine had encouraged the family to come to the United States and paid for their voyage to their new home. Upon his death in 1809, Paine established a trust fund for Bonneville and his sister for their education.
Bonneville graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1815. He served at various Army posts, including Fort Smith. In 1824, he was transferred to Fort Gibson, which was at that time in the Arkansas Territory but is now located in northeastern Oklahoma.
Curious about the largely unexplored lands of Oregon and the far west, he took a leave of absence from the Army and led an exploratory expedition in 1832. The force of 110 men was financed by private investors. The explorers left Missouri in May, eventually trekking along the Platte River in present-day Nebraska and into Wyoming and Idaho. He took careful note of the different geologic formations along the way as well as the wildlife and fauna of the region.
He sent one part of scouts under Joe Walker to the southwest to search for an overland route to California. This party went into northern Utah and Nevada and discovered what came to be known as the California Trail, later a major route for pioneers heading west during the California Gold Rush. Walker’s team encountered Great Slat Lake and the dry, ancient lakebed that Great Salt Lake once encompassed on a larger scale which was later named Lake Bonneville. The field of salts covering the desert floor mark what was once the lake itself and is now called the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Along the way, Bonneville encountered several different Native American tribes, often trading with them for supplies and employing several as guides. He made it as far as eastern Washington. In the winter of 1834, he and his party stayed with a band of Nez Perce near the Salmon River who helped them survive the difficult season. The next spring, the party returned to Missouri.
In 1837, he worked with famed writer Washington Irving and published his journals as "The Adventures of Captain Bonneville." During the Mexican War, he served with Gen. Winfield Scott in his campaign to take Mexico City and was part of the occupation force of the Mexican capital. By 1855, he was promoted to colonel and took command of different posts in the New Mexico Territory.
He initially retired in 1861, but the eruption of the Civil War led him to return to the Army. He was promoted to the rank of general and put in charge of recruiting Union troops in Missouri. He retired for the final time in 1866.
Bonneville spent the last years of his life in Fort Smith. He died in 1878. His name appears often across Arkansas and the nation, including a number of schools in the West. The community of Booneville in Logan County was named in his honor.
Bonneville County, Idaho, was also named after the general. In 1962, the Fort Smith School District named Bonneville Elementary School after him.