Chronicles of Oklahoma

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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 6, No. 2
June, 1928


Page 129

The notes of Bonneville with the maps, sketches and his journal, which he made during the explorations of the country including all west of the boundary line running through what is now Kansas, forged one more link in the record of events concerning the history of the west.

Washington Irving’s book “Adventures of Captain Bonneville,” portrays his life in those pioneer days and deals with his residence among the red men and graphically paints a picture of those times when the white settlers had to fight to preserve their lives while pursuing the trade of trappers and hunters.

Bonneville’s ability to pilot his followers over unknown trails leading over virgin prairies, through trackless forests, and over mountain passes never before pressed by the foot of a white man, earned for him the sobriquet of “The Pathfinder.”

It is the intention here to supply further adventures of this famous character, intrepid soldier of many wars whose colorful career reads like a page from The Arabian Nights. This is of particular interest to the people of the west and of this state and Arkansas, because of Bonneville’s residence in this territory which in his time embraced a vast mileage. The days which Bonneville spent in Oklahoma were days filled to the brim with history making and the name of “The Magic Empire” which was given this part of the country is peculiarly fitting, because of the romance of this unknown land, infested by savage as well as friendly tribes of Indians.

Some of these events concerning this famous man have never been published before, being gleamed from private papers in the hands of Bonneville’s descendents. They are now recorded that they may be preserved to posterity and deal with his career which had much to do with the foundation on which the Republic rests.

Prophetic indeed, seem the words carved on the mar-

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ble shaft which marks his resting-place in old Belle Fontaine:

“Here lies one whose deeds have not
escaped the pages of fame.
Generations yet unborn shall know
the record of his name.”

Bonneville, whose name was Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville, but who adopted the less pretentious form of B. L. E. Bonneville, was born in Evrieux, France, and died at Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 1878, being eighty-two years of age, the oldest officer on the retired list of the United States Army.

War and fortune attended his steps; the scope of his travels was world-wide and he was blessed above most men with the companionship of great characters; among them, LaFayette, Zachary Taylor, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Sam Houston, the hero of Texas and that great and shining example of his race— Sequoyah.

Bonneville’s grandfather was a favorite of Louis XVI who made him Grand Chamberlain of the palace at Versailles and a member of The House of Deputies. He died on the church steps at Evrieux at the age of one hundred and two. One of the treasured possessions which has been preserved is the cane presented to him by Louis XVI, fashioned from the tusk of a wild elephant and bestowed on the king by an African potentate. This cane is in evidence in nearly every photograph of our Captain Bonneville and came to him through his father who was a noted publicist and author of France, controlling the press of Paris during Napoleon’s time.

Thomas Paine was a flaming torch of brilliance, his inflammatory writings, his well-known friendship with Pere de Bonneville, resulting in trouble for them both. Napoleon became infuriated at some of the utterances in the press and ordered their arrest. Fourche, his minister of police, threw Pere de Bonneville into the Temple and his estates were confiscated but Paine with Mme de Bonneville and the young son Benjamin escaped to America and found refuge on Paine’s plantation at New Rochelle, New York. There Mme de Bonneville pursued the education of her son and taught him and other children of the refugees;

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she was a highly educated woman and for a time her school was the only one in that part of the land.

Pere de Bonneville had fought for the colonial forces during the Revolutionary war; one of the trophies of those days being a sword of great beauty which he won when he, with others, captured and burned the English frigate, “The Reindeer.” This sword shows the engraved pictures of the Reindeer, and the victory ship, The Wasp, and the words, “Captured— The Reindeer,” with the date.

After a time, Pere de Bonneville, broken in health and lucky to have escaped the guillotine in France, was released and allowed to join his family. Overjoyed at the reunion, he adopted this country as his own and resided for a time on the estate of his good friend Paine who at his death, willed his estate to de Bonneville.

It is not strange that the son decided on a military career. He graduated with honor from West Point and on the occasion of LaFayette’s visit to this country, young Bonneville, the cadet, made a manly figure as one of the honorary escort detailed by the War Department to accompany the distinguished visitor, and friend of his father.

A strong affection developed and the cadet requested leave of absence from the army that he might visit France. Mme de Bonneville wrote the noted Frenchman asking him to use his influence for the coveted permission. The following letter was copied from the letter Mme de Bonneville received in answer. This letter, penned on board the famous old boat by the hand of LaFayette is as clear as the day it was written. It has never been published, I think, before in any magazine.

“On Board the Natches.

“On the Mississippi, April 24—1825.

“Madame: I received the letter, madam, you wrote me December 2nd, and I answered you at a great distance from Washington, where I can perform your commission. I have been well received, traveling up the Mississippi, bordering the Arkansas Territory, but Fort Smith, being very far from the mouth of the Arkansas River, I find it impossible to pay you a visit. I write to my friends, the good Brown, commander of the troops of the line, and Mr. Barbow (Barbor) secretary of war. I hope they will

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present to the new president, your son’s request for leave of absence, and I will ask them to do so. I, myself will be in Washington at the end of July, and if he would start for France at the end of this summer, after having received his leave of absence, I would be very glad to travel with him.

“I am very sorry to hear from you that M. de Bonneville is in a bad condition and I would be ever so happy if I could contribute to procure him as well as yourself, madam, the pleasure to see a son, who just leaving the admirable school of West Point, where he conducted himself always very well, can’t help but give you all possible satisfaction. I offer my friendship to his father. Receive, the expression of my affection and esteem.


The above is a translation from the French and the letter to the secretary of war must have been influencial in the bestowal of the sought-for leave for the visit became a reality when Bonneville in company with LaFayette and Farragut, set sail on the “Brandywine.” Madame LaFayette, a motherly, cultured woman, warmly welcomed the young lieutenant and for eighteen months he was their guest at the palatial Paris residence and at LaGrange, the country seat. During this visit, the table manners and the deportment of the youth were closely supervised by Mme LaFayette and in her famous salon he met the leading men and women of the day.

Quick promotion followed Bonneville’s return from France and his first real advancement, a commission now stained and worn, evidently having accompanied Bonneville during his travels through the West, made him “Captain” Bonneville. The signature on this document is that of John Quincy Adams.

Grant Foreman mentions in his “Pioneer Days In The Early Southwest,” that Bonneville, at Fort Gibson, wrote the Adjutant-General offering to head an expedition to the western Indians to reach an understanding with the Kiowa and other prairie tribes. This, however was entrusted to Chouteau and Bonneville keenly felt the disappointment. His consuming desire to explore the unknown west, at last resulted in permission from the War Department for leave of absence providing the trip would be

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made without expense to the government and that Bonneville would procure information as to the tribes of Indians, modes of warfare, and return with maps of the trails, rivers, mountain passes and the land over which he would travel.

This party was financed by friends of Bonneville whom he had met in the home of John Jacob Astor, then the foremost fur trader of the day. These friends were greatly interested in the possibilities of the country and the investment of capital. The Hudson Bay Fur Company, the American Fur Company and The Rocky Mountain Fur Company were kings of that wild elysium, the hunter’s paradise. The rendezvous of the hunters and trappers lay on the frontier where now stand Fort Smith and Fort Gibson, and beyond the boundary of civilization; the guides were men famous for valor and the traders vied with each other in being first to get their men outfitted and into the wilderness.

The Indians naturally resented the intrusion of strange white hunters and many were the scalps that swung from the belts of the warring braves. Game was abundant but it took strong hearted men to bring in the pelts of the lynx, fox, buffalo, elk, deer, panther, bear, beaver and otter, because of the attendant dangers of a trapper’s life.

Bonneville at last set out with his company of one hundred and ten, some of them Delaware Indians, chosen for courage and experience, on May 1, 1832, with a caravan of twenty wagons drawn by horses, mules and oxen and accompanied by outriders on horseback, from Fort Osage heading for the Rockies.

A picturesque train they made as they rode and Bonneville was full of enthusiasm at the prospect of new adventures.

One day while camped in the Indian country he was surprised with a visit from a savage chief who had brought his daughter suffering with some vague but severe malady, to the whiteman’s camp to be cured by the “white medicine.” Bonneville’s knowledge of materia medica was slight but realizing the benefits of friendship with the tribe he essayed a cure. His remedies were a sweet bath, teas of native herbs and quinine. These were administered and

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in addition the accompanying tribal medicine-men did their part; they danced, their faces, painted, slashed and bleeding; their legs decorated with tortoise shells filled with stones; gourds made into mammoth rattles, keeping time with the booming buffalo-hide drums.

Fortunately the girl lived through the pandemonium and her recovery established Bonneville’s fame as a big medicine-man. Many tribes had their homes in the mountain fastness amid fertile valleys and on the boundless prairies. With all of them he was friendly when permitted. Among some of those with whom he had dealings at various times, were the Osage, Comanches, Flat-Heads, Iriquois, Pend-Oreilles (hanging-ears), Crows, Shoshones, Nez-Perce (Pierced-nose), Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chippewas, Eutaws, Euchees, Blackfeet and Snakes.

The expedition would have been in sad want during the prolonged, severe winters had not Bonneville been foresighted enough to store food in secret caches from which he drew in emergency.

Never was such a life as Bonneville and his men led in the wilderness but he overstaid his allotted time and back in the states he was given up for dead. Other officers suceeded to the promotions caused by his supposed death and when at last he returned to Washington expecting plaudits and welcome, imagine his surprise to find himself in disgrace and facing court-martial. He was not of the breed, however to sit and silently endure injustice and when his every endeavor met with rebuff, he appealed to the President. “Old Hickory” listened to him, demanded the maps and his notes as proof and when he found that the trip had been made in the interest of the government, his eyes flashed fire at the grave injustice about to be perpetrated. He knocked the ashes from the corn-cob pipe he was smoking and exclaimed “By The Eternal, sir—I’ll see that you are re-instated to your command; for this valuable service to the War Department and to your country, you deserve high promotion!” Bonneville was re-instated to the army with rank of Captain in the Seventh infantry, and he returned to Fort Gibson.

There is no record of the wife and daughter of Bonneville in Fort Gibson. He had married the beautiful Ann

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Lewis of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, while at Jefferson Barracks. His little son after a brief life of one month and nine days lay in the cemetery at St. Louis and perhaps this period saw the wife and daughter domiciled in that city. The daughter’s name was Mary Irving (after Washington Irving) de Bonneville and both she and Mme de Bonneville continued the use of the prefix until they died.

Fort Gibson had been named by Arbuckle in honor of Colonel George Gibson and the story that Washington Irving visited Bonneville there, swimming his horse across the swollen Arkansas—the primitive ferry, consisting of a flatboat, having been swept away in a recent storm—does not tally with the authentic version of Foreman. Neither does the date of John Howard Payne’s visit to the frontier fort lend credence to the belief that Payne, lonely in the wilderness of this savage land, found here, perhaps, his inspiration for “Home Sweet Home,” the heart-song of a nation.

It is a fact though, that Payne, Vinnie Ream, the sculptor, Catlin, the artist and Nathan Boone were resident at times at Fort Gibson,—then the out-post of civilization. Indeed, Boone surveyed the line between the Cherokee and the Creek nations.

Sam Houston, too, lived in Fort Gibson for a while; he had left his bride and the Governorship back in Tennessee and was adopted as a member of the tribe and married in tribal fashion, the daughter of a Cherokee chieftain. Talahina was her name and her grave is marked with a stone in “The Officer’s Circle” in the National cemetery at Fort Gibson. Legend has it that she died of a broken heart when he left her and went to Texas.

There is another story which has been disproved in the memoirs of Jefferson Davis, written by his wife. Old settlers believe that Jefferson Davis eloped to Van Buren, Arkansas with the charming Betty, Zachary’s daughter and that there they were married.

Perhaps she might have been called ‘Bettie” but her name was Sarah Knox Taylor and they were married in 1835. Taylor came to Fort Gibson in 1841. The young people did not elope; Davis married her at the home of her aunt in Kentucky. Taylor, however did oppose the marriage.

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After Davis had comported himself brilliantly at the battle of Monterey, Taylor forgave the couple and remarked— “Bettie’s judgment was better than mine.”

A gallant officer was Bonneville in the battles of the Mexican war. He received promotion as Brevet Lieutenant Colonel “For gallant service in the battles of Contreras and Cherubusco.” This commission was signed by James K. Polk. Wounded by a Mexican bullet, Bonneville was borne to the rear by Robert E. Lee and Martin Scott, a celebrated sharp-shooter. By chance, the ball struck Bonneville’s canteen and the wound was not serious.

Bonneville had seen service in Florida, in the West and in Mexico and on his return from the Mexican war he was stationed at many posts. He lived a lonely, though adventurous life; his wife and daughter had both died; the wife following Mary to the grave in a few days and now he was a tragic and sorrowful man. It was while he was situated at San Antonio that war between the states, flamed; brother took up arms against brother and the entire union was threatened with dissolution.

Eminent fellow-officers, among them, Lee, Twiggs, Beauregard and Hardee, sympathized with the south; Bonneville could not swallow secession, so he returned to cast his fortunes with the federals. He found little consideration; because of his long and faithful service he expected a high command. Instead, he found that civilians with political influence were promoted over his head while he was kept in the background. General Grant had fought by his side in Mexico and knowing his value, appointed him chief recruiting officer at Benton Barracks where he served to the end of the war.

In 1865 Andrew Johnson made Bonneville, Brevet Brigadier General and now the war over, his thoughts turned back to that Belle Point of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers, that beautiful spot, nestling in the foot-hills of the Ozarks, known to-day as Fort Smith. In days gone by the General had entered large tracts of fertile lands near Fort Smith and he envisioned a home for his declining years there in the midst of his old friends. His courtship and marriage to sweet Susie Neis soon followed and he erected a stately mansion, bringing his lumber from Little

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Rock by wagon and steamboat, a distance of one hundred and sixty-two miles by rail at the present time. The mansion stood two hundred feet above the surrounding prairie and still at this late date in spite of the ravages of more than half a century, is occupied and shows signs of past splendor. In the immense drawing-room still glows somberly, the moulding of gold-leaf and the ancient French windows with the original glass and hardware, open on spacious galleries. The house had running water. It was pumped by hand. The well provides sweet pure water now as in the days when the pulley and chain with two buckets, preceded the modern pump of the present. The solid stairway of black walnut is worn in places by the tread of countless feet since the old General’s day. He was “a fine figure of a man” so say the few remaining friends who danced at the wedding, which was an eventful occasion, the ceremony being performed in the Church of The Immaculate Conception by Father Smythe, to the day and hour, just fifty years since his first marriage.

Bonneville had been called “Bald-Head” by the Indians, because of his shining pate but pictures of the General show that at this time he sported a luxurious growth of brown hair. At any rate he made a gallant picture as he led his youthful bride to the altar. Preceding the party marched General Cabell (“Old Tige”) and General Duval, the men in full regimentals and the bride attired in the grown of the period, a magnificent Spanish uncut white velvet, the tight fitting basque piped with satin and the skirt en train, with overskirt of heavy white fringe. The priceless veil of rose-point which hid her blushes is a beautiful thing and is treasured with care.

At Adelaide Hall where the guests danced until four o’clock in the morning, the cornet band greeted the couple with the strains of “Hail, the Conquering Hero Comes.” The wedding feast prepared by Callioux, a celebrated French caterer, was enjoyed by a large concourse. The occasion will never be forgotten. Rare wines and champagnes flowed like water and every delicacy possible was provided.

Soon the mansion on the hill became noted for its hospitality; its furnishings were magnificent and are to-day

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in perfect condition—a collection of Americana which would make an antiquary envious.

A massive board of solid mahogany, supported by carved lions, is the dining table; the buffets, sideboards and the original chairs are in use to-day.

Perhaps the most notable object in the collection, is the sword presented to Bonneville by LaFayette; the gold epaulettes, and belt—the sword engraved—“To The Entire Army.” Next in value is the Washington Irving silver, marked with the Irving monogram. An immense solid silver coffee urn, teapot and tray. In the collection are many pieces too numerous to mention in detail but a silver butter-dish of design so rare and chaste must not be overlooked. It is a solid silver melon resting on a large chased leaf. The tendrils from the stem are of silver wire and the tiny leaves that adorn are the work of a master. The filagree baskets, salts, loving cup marked 1846, and a pair of unique posset-cups are curious and exquisite. The posset-cups are shaped like barrels and stand about eight inches high.

Collectors viewing the priceless old china, the valuable old books, the commissions signed by various Presidents of the United States—Polk, Jackson, Taylor, Pierce, Adams;—the land-grants, the deeds, letters and photographs that have escaped the ravages of years have pronounced them beyond price.

An interesting letter illustrating the business acumen of Bonneville even in the bestowal of a gift is the one where he presents a pair of carriage horses to his wife on her birthday. It is worded with much formality (he includes the harness and carriage) and is witnessed by R. G. Campbell, an adopted son. Also a list of property beginning—“I owe no man.”

At the time of General Booneville’s second marriage he was seventy-five and his bride was twenty-four. Mrs. Bonneville survived the General for many years and after his death, erected a home of brick and stone near the old mansion. There carefully preserved, are to be found many relics of the days when this part of the United States was a savage land. To-day, the populous Mid-West is the beauty spot of the nation.

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The name of Bonneville will always be a loved and honored one in the nation he helped to create—a government established on a sure foundation.

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