Idaho Falls - City of Destiny

Captain Bonneville

The Times-Register, Tuesday, May 31. 1927

CAPTAIN BONNEVILLE - Explorer of the Great Upper Snake River Valley, Idaho. It is a far cry and a long time, as time is measured in the Inter-mountain country. Since Captain Bonneville, for whom this county is named, and which magnificent building has benn christened in his honor and to be a monument for generations to come honoring him and his brave following of frontier men, came into this part of Idaho in the year 1832.

The history of Captain Bonneville as written by Washington Irving tells us that Captain Bonneville spent the winter of 1832 in the great Snake river plains and made a permanent camp in the vicinity of what is now known as Menan, a village about 15 miles north and west of Idaho Falls, a spot where the South Fork of the Snake River merges itself with the North Fork of that stream and begins its course to the Pacific ocean, flowing as it does through Idaho, nearly a thousand miles within the state, and being as it is, the jugular vein and the life blood of a great commonwealth providing the power from its mighty flow of water along cataracts and falls, providing the life-giving water brought out onto the fertile plains through the methods of irrigation causing to be created and built upon its banks communities of size, wealth and importance supported by the cattle and the livestock which thrive by the hundred of thousands upon its hills and plains and the more than one million of acres of fertile farm lands made fruitful by the mingling of the waters of the river with the soil composed of eons of vegetation and the volcanic ash.

Captain Bonneville, so the history of him tells us, sent with a scouting expedition to explore the country, to make a report for the army and the government, to make maps and to learn of the Indians, to investigate the possibilities of the fur trade, was well equipped and suited for the mighty task set before him. Making his way across the country from the Missouri river, keeping an accurate record and diary of his travels, blazing a trail as he went, meeting the Indian as friend or foe as the circumstances developed, he was a worthy and a mighty follower of the famous Lewis and Clark who proceeded him a quarter of a century before.

The Lewis and Clark expedition penetrated this country to the north of us being guided across the mountains by the famous Indian women Sacajewea, or "bird woman", to the Pacific coast country. Records are left to the north of us in the famous Teton mountains section, of Lewis and Clark expedition, but it is known that the expedition passed on to the coast, crossing this section of the country at about where Armstead, Montana, is now located.

It remained for Captain Bonneville and his men to penetrate the then unknown desert to become known later as the Upper Snake River Valley, Idaho, of which Bonneville county is one of the principal geographical divisions with its principal city, Idaho Falls, the county seat of Bonneville county, being the geographical, commercial and population center, a community which made possible and built the great hotel which bears the name of Bonneville, the pioneer.

A dreary waste met the eye of Bonneville and his followers the winter of 1832, just a few months more than ninety-five years ago. The description of his travels, and the suffering endured, the cold, the lack of food, the frequently hostile Indians, would not lead one to believe even in this latter day and age that such a transformation could be brought about in less than a century of time. The fur bearing animals, which be hoped to find, and upon which to build his fortune, seemed to have deserted the country, had they ever inhabited it, and hardship and suffering seemed to be what he and his men were to reap as a result of his efforts.

Spring came then, as it does now, after a long winter and with the spring came the promise, as it does now, and at the junction of the two forks of the river where they form one, the men revived in spirit, flesh and in health. The horses, gaunt and lean with the winter's cold and scarcity of feed waxed lush and fat. The game came back into the country, the herds of buffalo onto the plains, the beavers to the streams, the deer, the antelope, the animals of the cat tribe and the bear, and the country was given a new name and importance in the mind and heart of its discoverer who felt that the new land gave promise, but even he in his wildest of imagination, could not for see what the years were to develop and that the Indian and the buffalo were to be succeeded by the white man, the pioneer, the trader, the stockman and later the farmer and eventually cities of commercial importance.

The very promise of the spring time, which inspired Captain Bonneville, is the same promise that held out hope for the first permanent pioneer and settler and which hope holds good today to the thousands of men, women and children who have chosen the great Snake river plains, the erstwhile American desert which they have converted and made into a scene of prosperity, happiness, contentment and the future of which can hardly be reckoned and the greatest exemplification of which is the Hotel Bonneville, dedicated to the use of the people of the community on June the 1st, 1927.

The first signal honor paid Captain Bonneville by a grateful people, was to name a county of the state for him. Bonneville county was created by an act of the Idaho legislature on February the 7th, in the year 1911, and in fact was created before it was named, rather reversing the situation, as many young hopefuls are blessed with something to be known by before they see the light of the world. Not so with this section of the state, however, which is to make him immortal so far as continuity of name is concerned. Much discussion was had by the "Fathers" of the county and for once the "Mother" was not consulted as to the name of the new born, and it is very doubtful if there was a mother present at the time. The names of pioneers and present day citizens were discussed and as the time drew near when the infant must be named an inspiration came to a group of men, several of whom claim title to the honor of naming the lusty infant. This much is known, or so tradition has it at least, the new county was given the name and christened and baptized all at the same time in the famous bar-room of the Owyhee hotel of Boise, Idaho, where much legislation was created, more, some say, than under the doom of the capitol building. Be that as it may for the famous bar-room, with other Idaho traditions, has gone and the story will not be denied. At any rate under the inspiration of what was had, the name Bonneville was suggested and there and then with proper and due ceremony the new county of Idaho, destined to become of such importance, was given its name of Bonneville.

Captain Bonneville, from all of the accounts we have of him, is worthy of the honors which have been bestowed, not only by the historian Washington Irving, but by a grateful and appreciative people, who honor his name and seek to perpetuate his memory.

His biographer did not go into a great deal of detail regarding the appearance or personality of his subject other than his courage and ability, his energy and ambition to succeed---which he did. Little is told of him. It is learned that he was of French parentage. His father a worthy emigrant, who was one of the first men to come to the vicinity of New York. The "pere" of Captain Bonneville was not of and for the money making line of life, but rather a student and dreamer, a great reader, and filled and fired with imagination. The son with whom we are more interested, received his love of adventure, no doubt, from the French father. History tells us that he did inherit much of the "bonhomie" of the father, his excitable imagination, which was in later life, however, curtailed to certain degree, by his study of mathematics, for he became an army engineer. Educated at West Point, the nation's military training school, he entered the Unites States army. The nature of his military service took him to the frontier where he was for a number of years stationed at the various forts and outposts and in this way giving him an early education and training for the work which was to come in later life. He was brought into frequent intercourse with Indian traders and trappers and other pioneers of the wilderness and frequently thrown into intimate contact with people of his father's nationality, the French.

It was the wonderful tales told him by them, tales bordering on the sensational to a degree as great as that with which the trapper, Jim Bridger, inflamed the imagination of the hearers and earned for that worthy individual the title of being the "greatest liar of the west."

Captain Bonneville, hearing and believing the wonderful tales of the Rocky mountains, the great desert plain beyond, with its wealth of game, of timber and the mines of the mountains and beyond them the great Pacific, had his mind and ambition fired to see for himself the great country of which he was told and of which he determined to become a part.

By degrees he shaped his day dreams into a reality. Acquainting himself with the needs and requisites of so venturesome a trip, he secured a leave of absence and the official sanction of the trip he was to undertake and received his commission from the war department to make the expedition.

The doughty captain soon learned, as do other men, the ambition alone will not carry one through and capital is required. His capital consisted of his meagre knowledge, gained from scattered returned travels and his sword was necessary but not enough so he turned to the city of New York where his eloquence, his knowledge helped and aided by the imagination, he was able to paint a picture of wealth, of gold and precious stones, of pelt and furs which could be had from the simple Indian for little more than a trinket.

So eloquent was the Captain and so eager were the men of New York, with whom he talked, to stake his enterprise that he had little difficulty in forming an organization of which he was placed at the head and thus backed and provided he set out for the west, and was soon beyond the Rocky mountains. Years went by and no word from the leader or the expedition, until hope was lost and the man was given up. His term of leave of absence from the army expired and no report from him, he was considered dead and his name stricken from the army list.

Some years later Captain Bonneville made his way back to the east after his hardships, not richer in pocket, but in sentiment, for he had learned to love the land that he explored and as an indirect result of his labor and effort, we of this part of Idaho are blessed with what we have today, for it was the story which he told that caused others to take up the life where he left it and to carry on. Other Men profited when he failed if such worthy effort can be called failure, for the captain was too much of the frank and free hearted soldier of fortune, too fired with imagination, to make much of a scheming trapper or thrifty bargain hunter, and he failed and refused to take advantage of the Indian or cheat and beat him out of his furs, and paid in full for what he did receive and in that way reducing what profit he might have made. Others, however, not so filled with sentiment as he followed after, profited as we know and generations to come will profit, for as time goes on the stories told by Captain Bonneville will increase and grow in wonder. It was not the fur trader and the trapper, the hunter or the miner, or the trader, who made the fortune, however, even though they were paid well for their effort, but it was the camp follower of civilization, the farmer, none the less a pioneer, however, who is to and who has reaped the reward, and an imagination, almost as vivid as that of the French captain, and with a courage as great and sublime, for it did take courage to come to this valley before the days of irrigation and cultivation and hope and expect to stake out a home, for nothing could have looked more bleak and less promising and prepossessing.

The advance guard of the latter day civilization, the Mormon people, had their early training and education in a country no more promising and so were prepared for the hardships which they had to meet and which they did meet and overcome. The Mormon people were none the less a pioneer than Captain Bonneville and with less imagination to drive them on; they came and they conquered the country. To them it was a land of "no return", in the sense there was no turning back, It has proven to be a land of abundant return, however, as a result of their efforts, faith and toil.

No imagination of gold, f rich pelts, led the men. No great promise of reward other than the result of their own labors could they look to; for them there was no opportunity to have some one else finance the venture and lacking money they backed their own fate and faith and won.

Captain Bonneville is described as a man of frank, open countenance and engaging, well browned by the sun, the wind and the rain as becomes an outdoor man and with a decidedly frank expression, deep dark eyes and a decided French cast of countenance.

On the return to New York and submitting his report he made his way to Washington, D. C. where he again entered the army and as an honor to him and a partial payment of his efforts he was given the title of Major and it was here that he prepared his concise and elaborate reports on the country, the resources, prepared and drew maps for the benefit of the war department. The result of his labor was a great mass of manuscript which proved valuable to the war department giving some considerable idea of the manner and kind of country the far west was and what might be expected of it, but even with his great imagination and ability to write Captain Bonneville could not for-see what was to come and in a large measure, be the result of his visit to what is now Idaho, and his wind swept desert home, in the dead of winter, where he and his men lived on the flesh of the deer and the buffalo, eaten without salt, and where his men and animals suffered and died from the cold and starvation, was and is far different from the country it is today with its civilization, its elimination of the red man, its taming of the mighty river, its subduing of the plain, its taking from the stream its waters and pouring that over the land, building up and creating a civilization as unique , in a way, as any that Captain Bonneville ever saw, and a match and an equal of that of his cultivated Washington, D. C. and New York City.

Captain Bonneville did his work well, it profited him little in a material way and there may be those who not being able to understand the zeal which prompts a more able spirit will in their mind and words criticize and condemn the man for not taken a more personal advantage of the situation, little realizing thet more is demanded of and required of the man of spirit and imagination, than he at a more practical turn of nature who profits by the energy of the man of imagination.

The inspirational work done by the original surveyor, if not pioneer and settler, has been worth while. Unknowingly he founded an empire that rejoices to do him honor. The great ground-work which he laid provided the way for other to follow. The maps he gave induced the less imaginative, but the more practical, to come west. Horace Greeley in his writings and speeches admonished the young man to "Go West", which he has been doing in increasing hordes these many years since Captain Bonneville first came. The young man and frequently the older man, has continued to heed the advice and travel west bringing with him the wife of his bosom or learning his fate in that direction soon after his arrival, and with her help, has conquered the country. He has caused many blades of grass to grow where none grew before. He and she have made the "desert bloom like the rose." Homes and institutions have been built and founded. Civilization has been advanced and aided, science in agriculture has been developed and men through their labor and their sweat, their faith and their determination have built well and better than the pioneer knew.

The faith and the vision, the imagination and the story as told by Captain Bonneville upon his return to the civilization of the then young nation has been carried on by those who in many instances, perhaps know little of him, but who have been actuated by the same divine faith to conquer a new land, to establish for themselves and those who were to come a new home and better conditions.

So it is that the people of this day and generation are glad of the opportunity to do honor to what may be well called the founder of their part of the country. To name for him a building of public service, dedicated in the name so that on-coming generations may ask about Captain Bonneville, who he was and what he did. Let it be hoped that the stories told of him will always do him honor as did the founders of the county which bears his name and the intelligent and far-seeing people that made possible the erection of the monument that will perpetuate for generations to come the name Bonneville.


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Bonneville Hotel as of 1980