Idaho History

Captain Bonneville led a life of adventure while exploring the West

Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville was born near Paris in 1796, the son of publisher Nicolas Bonneville and his wife, Marguerite Brazier. The family moved to the United States in 1803 when Benjamin was 7. Their passage was paid by English-American Thomas Paine, who had lived with the Bonneville family in France and was godfather to Benjamin and his brothers Louis and Thomas. Paine left most of his estate to Marguerite Brazier Bonneville, who cared for him in his last illness.

Paine is often considered a Founding Father for his influential writing, notably two pamphlets that inspired Americans to fight for their independence from Britain. “Common Sense” and “The American Crisis” were best sellers of their time, so influential that John Adams said, “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

The year 1803, when the Bonneville family arrived in America, was a uniquely historic one in American history. James Monroe and Robert Livingstone signed the Louisiana Purchase treaty in Paris, doubling the size of the United States, and six months after that Congress ratified the purchase for $27,000,000. President Thomas Jefferson would then appoint Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore that vast area, totally unknown to the rest of the country.

Young Benjamin Bonneville received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1813. He graduated in just two years, after which he was stationed at posts in New England, Mississippi and Arkansas before being sent to Fort Gibson in the Indian Territory in 1824 and promoted to captain.

While on leave to visit his native France he was the guest of General Lafayette. On his return to America in 1828, he was transferred to Jefferson Barracks in Missouri.

In August 1831, Bonneville secured a 26-month leave of absence from the Army to lead an information-gathering expedition on the geography, geology and Indian tribes of the American West, including what became the Oregon Trail across Southern Idaho (although the name “Idaho” would not come around until many years later). Bonneville’s journal became the source of Washington Irving’s classic “The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A., in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West. Digested from his Journal and Illustrated from Various Other Sources.”

Irving describes in an introductory note how he met Bonneville “at the table of Mr. John Jacob Astor, who, being the patriarch of the fur trade in the United States, was accustomed to have at his board various persons of adventurous turn, some of whom had been engaged in his own great undertaking; others, on their own account, had made expeditions to the Rocky Mountains and the waters of the Columbia. Among these personages, one who peculiarly took my fancy was Captain Bonneville, of the United States army; who, in a rambling kind of enterprise, had strangely engrafted the trapper and hunter upon the soldier.”

Bonneville’s name has been attached to features across the West, from prehistoric to recent. Lake Bonneville, formed about 32,000 years ago, once covered much of present Utah and parts of Idaho and Nevada. About 14,500 years ago the waters of the lake broke out through southeast Idaho’s Red Rock Pass and roared across Idaho in the great Bonneville Flood. Some of the erosion caused by that torrent can still be seen along the Snake River south of Boise Valley. Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake are remnants of ancient Lake Bonneville, and at Bonneville Salt Flats in eastern Nevada, world land speed records have been broken more than once.

Bonneville County in Eastern Idaho was created by the Legislature in 1911, with Idaho Falls as its county seat; that city has a Bonneville High School. Bonneville Peak is on the border between Bannock and Caribou counties. Boise County has a Bonneville Hot Springs, and so does the state of Washington, at North Bonneville, near Bonneville Lock and Dam on the Columbia River, operated by the Bonneville Power Administration. It has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1987. Bonneville, Ore., is an unincorporated community in Multnomah County that got a post office in 1900. The Union Pacific Railroad maintained an “eating house” there for the convenience of travelers before its passenger trains were equipped with dining cars.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email