Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville.

The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U. S. A., in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West online

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Produced by An Anonymous Volunteer and David Widger


Digested from his journal

by Washington Irving

Originally published in 1837

Introductory Notice

WHILE ENGAGED in writing an account of the grand enterprise of Astoria,
it was my practice to seek all kinds of oral information connected with
the subject. Nowhere did I pick up more interesting particulars than 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 ingrafted the trapper and hunter upon the
soldier. As his expeditions and adventures will form the leading theme
of the following pages, a few biographical particulars concerning him
may not be unacceptable.

Captain Bonneville is of French parentage. His father was a worthy old
emigrant, who came to this country many years since, and took up his
abode in New York. He is represented as a man not much calculated for
the sordid struggle of a money-making world, but possessed of a happy
temperament, a festivity of imagination, and a simplicity of heart, that
made him proof against its rubs and trials. He was an excellent scholar;
well acquainted with Latin and Greek, and fond of the modern classics.
His book was his elysium; once immersed in the pages of Voltaire,
Corneille, or Racine, or of his favorite English author, Shakespeare, he
forgot the world and all its concerns. Often would he be seen in summer
weather, seated under one of the trees on the Battery, or the portico of
St. Paul's church in Broadway, his bald head uncovered, his hat lying by
his side, his eyes riveted to the page of his book, and his whole soul
so engaged, as to lose all consciousness of the passing throng or the
passing hour.

Captain Bonneville, it will be found, inherited something of his
father's bonhommie, and his excitable imagination; though the latter
was somewhat disciplined in early years, by mathematical studies. He
was educated at our national Military Academy at West Point, where he
acquitted himself very creditably; thence, he entered the army, in which
he has ever since continued.

The nature of our military service took him to the frontier, where, for
a number of years, he was stationed at various posts in the Far West.
Here he was brought into frequent intercourse with Indian traders,
mountain trappers, and other pioneers of the wilderness; and became so
excited by their tales of wild scenes and wild adventures, and their
accounts of vast and magnificent regions as yet unexplored, that an
expedition to the Rocky Mountains became the ardent desire of his heart,
and an enterprise to explore untrodden tracts, the leading object of his

By degrees he shaped his vague day-dream into a practical reality.
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
any thing 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 head quarters at Washington.
He was considered virtually dead or lost and his name was stricken from
the army list.

It was in the autumn of 1835 at the country seat of Mr. John Jacob
Astor, at Hellgate, that I first met with Captain Bonneville He was
then just returned from a residence of upwards of three years among the
mountains, and was on his way to report himself at head quarters, in the
hopes of being reinstated in the service. From all that I could learn,
his wanderings in the wilderness though they had gratified his curiosity
and his love of adventure had not much benefited his fortunes. Like
Corporal Trim in his campaigns, he had "satisfied the sentiment,"
and that was all. In fact, 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 thrifty bargainer.

There was something in the whole appearance of the captain that
prepossessed me in his favor. 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.

Being extremely curious, at the time, about every thing 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.

In the course of three or four months, happening to be at the city of
Washington, I again came upon the captain, who was attending the slow
adjustment of his affairs with the War Department. I found him quartered
with a worthy brother in arms, a major in the army. Here he was writing
at a table, covered with maps and papers, in the centre of a large
barrack room, fancifully decorated with Indian arms, and trophies, and
war dresses, and the skins of various wild animals, and hung round with
pictures of Indian games and ceremonies, and scenes of war and hunting.
In a word, the captain was beguiling the tediousness of attendance at
court, by an attempt at authorship; and was rewriting and extending his
travelling notes, and making maps of the regions he had explored. As he
sat at the table, in this curious apartment, with his high bald head of
somewhat foreign cast, he reminded me of some of those antique pictures
of authors that I have seen in old Spanish volumes.

The result of his labors was a mass of manuscript, which he subsequently
put at my disposal, to fit it for publication and bring it before
the world. I found it full of interesting details of life among the
mountains, and of the singular castes and races, both white men and red
men, among whom he had sojourned. It bore, too, throughout, the impress
of his character, his bonhommie, his kindliness of spirit, and his
susceptibility to the grand and beautiful.

That manuscript has formed the staple of the following work. I have
occasionally interwoven facts and details, gathered from various
sources, especially from the conversations and journals of some of the
captain's contemporaries, who were actors in the scenes he describes.
I have also given it a tone and coloring drawn from my own observation,
during an excursion into the Indian country beyond the bounds of
civilization; as I before observed, however, the work is substantially
the narrative of the worthy captain, and many of its most graphic
passages are but little varied from his own language.

I shall conclude this notice by a dedication which he had made of his
manuscript to his hospitable brother in arms, in whose quarters I
found him occupied in his literary labors; it is a dedication which,
I believe, possesses the qualities, not always found in complimentary
documents of the kind, of being sincere, and being merited.

To JAMES HARVEY HOOK, Major, U. S. A., whose jealousy of its honor,
whose anxiety for its interests, and whose sensibility for its wants,
have endeared him to the service as The Soldier's Friend; and whose
general amenity, constant cheerfulness, disinterested hospitality, and
unwearied benevolence, entitle him to the still loftier title of The
Friend of Man, this work is inscribed, etc.



State of the fur trade of the - Rocky Mountains - American
enterprises - General - Ashley and his associates - Sublette, a
famous leader - Yearly rendezvous among the mountains -
Stratagems and dangers of the trade - Bands of trappers -
Indian banditti - Crows and Blackfeet Mountaineers - Traders
of the - Far West - Character and habits of the trapper

IN A RECENT WORK we have given an account of the grand enterprise of Mr.
John Jacob Astor to establish an American emporium for the fur trade
at the mouth of the Columbia, or Oregon River; of the failure of that
enterprise through the capture of Astoria by the British, in 1814; and
of the way in which the control of the trade of the Columbia and its
dependencies fell into the hands of the Northwest Company. We have
stated, likewise, the unfortunate supineness of the American government
in neglecting the application of Mr. Astor for the protection of the
American flag, and a small military force, to enable him to reinstate
himself in the possession of Astoria at the return of peace; when the
post was formally given up by the British government, though still
occupied by the Northwest Company. By that supineness the sovereignty
in the country has been virtually lost to the United States; and it will
cost both governments much trouble and difficulty to settle matters on
that just and rightful footing on which they would readily have been
placed had the proposition of Mr. Astor been attended to. We shall now
state a few particulars of subsequent events, so as to lead the reader
up to the period of which we are about to treat, and to prepare him for
the circumstances of our narrative.

In consequence of the apathy and neglect of the American government, Mr.
Astor abandoned all thoughts of regaining Astoria, and made no further
attempt to extend his enterprises beyond the Rocky Mountains; and the
Northwest Company considered themselves the lords of the country.
They did not long enjoy unmolested the sway which they had somewhat
surreptitiously attained. A fierce competition ensued between them and
their old rivals, the Hudson's Bay Company; which was carried on at
great cost and sacrifice, and occasionally with the loss of life. It
ended in the ruin of most of the partners of the Northwest Company; and
the merging of the relics of that establishment, in 1821, in the rival
association. From that time, the Hudson's Bay Company enjoyed a
monopoly of the Indian trade from the coast of the Pacific to the Rocky
Mountains, and for a considerable extent north and south. They removed
their emporium from Astoria to Fort Vancouver, a strong post on the left
bank of the Columbia River, about sixty miles from its mouth; whence
they furnished their interior posts, and sent forth their brigades of

The Rocky Mountains formed a vast barrier between them and the United
States, and their stern and awful defiles, their rugged valleys, and the
great western plains watered by their rivers, remained almost a terra
incognita to the American trapper. The difficulties experienced in 1808,
by Mr. Henry of the Missouri Company, the first American who trapped
upon the head-waters of the Columbia; and the frightful hardships
sustained by Wilson P. Hunt, Ramsay Crooks, Robert Stuart, and other
intrepid Astorians, in their ill-fated expeditions across the mountains,
appeared for a time to check all further enterprise in that direction.
The American traders contented themselves with following up the head
branches of the Missouri, the Yellowstone, and other rivers and streams
on the Atlantic side of the mountains, but forbore to attempt those
great snow-crowned sierras.

One of the first to revive these tramontane expeditions was General
Ashley, of Missouri, a man whose courage and achievements in the
prosecution of his enterprises have rendered him famous in the Far West.
In conjunction with Mr. Henry, already mentioned, he established a post
on the banks of the Yellowstone River in 1822, and in the following year
pushed a resolute band of trappers across the mountains to the banks of
the Green River or Colorado of the West, often known by the Indian name
of the Seeds-ke-dee Agie. This attempt was followed up and sustained by
others, until in 1825 a footing was secured, and a complete system of
trapping organized beyond the mountains.

It is difficult to do justice to the courage, fortitude, and
perseverance of the pioneers of the fur trade, who conducted these
early expeditions, and first broke their way through a wilderness where
everything was calculated to deter and dismay them. They had to traverse
the most dreary and desolate mountains, and barren and trackless wastes,
uninhabited by man, or occasionally infested by predatory and cruel
savages. They knew nothing of the country beyond the verge of their
horizon, and had to gather information as they wandered. They beheld
volcanic plains stretching around them, and ranges of mountains piled
up to the clouds, and glistening with eternal frost: but knew nothing
of their defiles, nor how they were to be penetrated or traversed. They
launched themselves in frail canoes on rivers, without knowing whither
their swift currents would carry them, or what rocks and shoals and
rapids they might encounter in their course. They had to be continually
on the alert, too, against the mountain tribes, who beset every
defile, laid ambuscades in their path, or attacked them in their night
encampments; so that, of the hardy bands of trappers that first entered
into these regions, three-fifths are said to have fallen by the hands of
savage foes.

In this wild and warlike school a number of leaders have sprung up,
originally in the employ, subsequently partners of Ashley; among these
we may mention Smith, Fitzpatrick, Bridger, Robert Campbell, and William
Sublette; whose adventures and exploits partake of the wildest spirit of
romance. The association commenced by General Ashley underwent various
modifications. That gentleman having acquired sufficient fortune, sold
out his interest and retired; and the leading spirit that succeeded
him was Captain William Sublette; a man worthy of note, as his name has
become renowned in frontier story. He is a native of Kentucky, and of
game descent; his maternal grandfather, Colonel Wheatley, a companion of
Boon, having been one of the pioneers of the West, celebrated in Indian
warfare, and killed in one of the contests of the "Bloody Ground." We
shall frequently have occasion to speak of this Sublette, and always to
the credit of his game qualities. In 1830, the association took the name
of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, of which Captain Sublette and Robert
Campbell were prominent members.

In the meantime, the success of this company attracted the attention and
excited the emulation of the American Fur Company, and brought them once
more into the field of their ancient enterprise. Mr. Astor, the founder
of the association, had retired from busy life, and the concerns of the
company were ably managed by Mr. Ramsay Crooks, of Snake River renown,
who still officiates as its president. A competition immediately ensued
between the two companies for the trade with the mountain tribes and
the trapping of the head-waters of the Columbia and the other great
tributaries of the Pacific. Beside the regular operations of these
formidable rivals, there have been from time to time desultory
enterprises, or rather experiments, of minor associations, or of
adventurous individuals beside roving bands of independent trappers,
who either hunt for themselves, or engage for a single season, in the
service of one or other of the main companies.

The consequence is that the Rocky Mountains and the ulterior regions,
from the Russian possessions in the north down to the Spanish
settlements of California, have been traversed and ransacked in every
direction by bands of hunters and Indian traders; so that there is
scarcely a mountain pass, or defile, that is not known and threaded in
their restless migrations, nor a nameless stream that is not haunted by
the lonely trapper.

The American fur companies keep no established posts beyond the
mountains. Everything there is regulated by resident partners; that
is to say, partners who reside in the tramontane country, but who move
about from place to place, either with Indian tribes, whose traffic
they wish to monopolize, or with main bodies of their own men, whom they
employ in trading and trapping. In the meantime, they detach bands,
or "brigades" as they are termed, of trappers in various directions,
assigning to each a portion of country as a hunting or trapping ground.
In the months of June and July, when there is an interval between the
hunting seasons, a general rendezvous is held, at some designated place
in the mountains, where the affairs of the past year are settled by the
resident partners, and the plans for the following year arranged.

To this rendezvous repair the various brigades of trappers from their
widely separated hunting grounds, bringing in the products of their
year's campaign. Hither also repair the Indian tribes accustomed to
traffic their peltries with the company. Bands of free trappers resort
hither also, to sell the furs they have collected; or to engage their
services for the next hunting season.

To this rendezvous the company sends annually a convoy of supplies from
its establishment on the Atlantic frontier, under the guidance of some
experienced partner or officer. On the arrival of this convoy, the
resident partner at the rendezvous depends to set all his next year's
machinery in motion.

Now as the rival companies keep a vigilant eye upon each other, and are
anxious to discover each other's plans and movements, they generally
contrive to hold their annual assemblages at no great distance apart.
An eager competition exists also between their respective convoys of
supplies, which shall first reach its place of rendezvous. For this
purpose, they set off with the first appearance of grass on the Atlantic
frontier and push with all diligence for the mountains. The company that
can first open its tempting supplies of coffee, tobacco, ammunition,
scarlet cloth, blankets, bright shawls, and glittering trinkets has the
greatest chance to get all the peltries and furs of the Indians and free
trappers, and to engage their services for the next season. It is able,
also, to fit out and dispatch its own trappers the soonest, so as to
get the start of its competitors, and to have the first dash into the
hunting and trapping grounds.

A new species of strategy has sprung out of this hunting and trapping
competition. The constant study of the rival bands is to forestall and
outwit each other; to supplant each other in the good will and custom of
the Indian tribes; to cross each other's plans; to mislead each other as
to routes; in a word, next to his own advantage, the study of the Indian
trader is the disadvantage of his competitor.

The influx of this wandering trade has had its effects on the habits of
the mountain tribes. They have found the trapping of the beaver their
most profitable species of hunting; and the traffic with the white man
has opened to them sources of luxury of which they previously had no
idea. The introduction of firearms has rendered them more successful
hunters, but at the same time, more formidable foes; some of them,
incorrigibly savage and warlike in their nature, have found the
expeditions of the fur traders grand objects of profitable adventure.
To waylay and harass a band of trappers with their pack-horses, when
embarrassed in the rugged defiles of the mountains, has become as
favorite an exploit with these Indians as the plunder of a caravan to
the Arab of the desert. The Crows and Blackfeet, who were such terrors
in the path of the early adventurers to Astoria, still continue their
predatory habits, but seem to have brought them to greater system. They
know the routes and resorts of the trappers; where to waylay them on
their journeys; where to find them in the hunting seasons, and where to
hover about them in winter quarters. The life of a trapper, therefore,
is a perpetual state militant, and he must sleep with his weapons in his

A new order of trappers and traders, also, has grown out of this system
of things. In the old times of the great Northwest Company, when the
trade in furs was pursued chiefly about the lakes and rivers, the
expeditions were carried on in batteaux and canoes. The voyageurs or
boatmen were the rank and file in the service of the trader, and even
the hardy "men of the north," those great rufflers and game birds, were
fain to be paddled from point to point of their migrations.

A totally different class has now sprung up: - "the Mountaineers," the
traders and trappers that scale the vast mountain chains, and pursue
their hazardous vocations amidst their wild recesses. They move from
place to place on horseback. The equestrian exercises, therefore, in
which they are engaged, the nature of the countries they traverse, vast
plains and mountains, pure and exhilarating in atmospheric qualities,
seem to make them physically and mentally a more lively and mercurial
race than the fur traders and trappers of former days, the self-vaunting
"men of the north." A man who bestrides a horse must be essentially
different from a man who cowers in a canoe. We find them, accordingly,
hardy, lithe, vigorous, and active; extravagant in word, and thought,
and deed; heedless of hardship; daring of danger; prodigal of the
present, and thoughtless of the future.

A difference is to be perceived even between these mountain hunters and
those of the lower regions along the waters of the Missouri. The latter,
generally French creoles, live comfortably in cabins and log-huts, well
sheltered from the inclemencies of the seasons. They are within
the reach of frequent supplies from the settlements; their life is
comparatively free from danger, and from most of the vicissitudes of
the upper wilderness. The consequence is that they are less hardy,
self-dependent and game-spirited than the mountaineer. If the latter by
chance comes among them on his way to and from the settlements, he
is like a game-cock among the common roosters of the poultry-yard.
Accustomed to live in tents, or to bivouac in the open air, he despises
the comforts and is impatient of the confinement of the log-house. If

Online LibraryBenjamin Louis Eulalie de BonnevilleThe Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U. S. A., in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West → online text (page 1 of 29)