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The Fort Bonneville Myth
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This article discusses a question that bothered me every time I drove by the Fort Bonneville historical marker on the Horse Creek Road: Why would anyone build a fortified trading post there? This eventually led to the question: Did a Fort Bonneville exist on the Wyoming Green River during the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Era?
Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville and Joseph Rutherford Walker crossed South Pass with twenty wagons and one hundred and ten men on July 24, 1832. On a two-year leave from the army, Captain Bonneville and Walker led the first wagon train over South Pass on what became the Mormon and Oregon-California Trail.
Based on the edited Phillip's 1940 edition of Warren Ferris' Life in the Rocky Mountains and Irving's The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, three days after crossing South Pass Bonneville camped on the south side of Green River across from the Horse Creek meadows on July 27, 1832; this in its self is impossible. This time period allows three days to travel over ninety miles across rough semi-arid country with no wagon road...on the Oregon trail wagons averaged about eighty-five miles a week on an established road.
Fort Bonneville was located across the Horse Creek meadows near the black tree line at the base of the mountains.
The pre-eminent historian Dr. Leroy Hafen stated:
Hiram Chittenden had this to say about Fort Bonneville, he wrote:
A few days after arriving on at the Green River camp, Bonneville outlined a plan to build a substantial trading post. Joseph Walker objected to a fortified trading post and, according to Gilbert's Westering Man, left to locate a group of free trappers in the Green River area. Walker returned with several trappers on August 12, 1832.
The free trappers informed Bonneville of the severe winters in the Green River Valley and advised against building a fort there.
The free trappers told Bonneville the Salmon River area had milder winters and was better beaver country than the Green River Valley. Convinced by the veracity of the trappers, Bonneville commenced preparations to move to the Salmon River. Irving wrote:
The statement about the caches by Irving is questionable at best. A few men could not dig a hole big enough to cache twenty wagons in one night. Bonneville undoubtedly cached equipment, but a cache location in this area has eluded treasure seekers and archeological investigators.
After spending just over four weeks at the Green River camp, Captain Bonneville left on August 22, 1832, for the Salmon River. From the time Bonneville arrived, July 27th, until he decided to leave, August 12th, does not give Bonneville enough time to build an elaborate fort as pictured on the Fort Bonneville Historical Sign, described by archeologists, or Warren Ferris. The Bonneville trappers arrived on the Salmon River in September 1832.
In addition to a physical description of Fort Bonneville, Ferris described Indians trading from a fort blockhouse.
Ferris’ detailed description of Fort Bonneville and Indians trading from a blockhouse lacks support from his contemporaries. Three men at the 1833 rendezvous referred to Bonneville's camp site. Nathaniel Wyeth mentioned a Mr. Bonneville’s fort. Zenas Leonard referred to the camp of Bowville [Bonneville]. Charles Larpenteur stated there were still some of Capt. Bonneville's men in a small stockade. Neither Leonard, Larpenteur, nor Wyeth mentioned Indians trading at a picket-walled bastioned fort, or a blacksmith shop.
Robert Campbell attended the 1833 rendezvous with the Sublette Campbell trade goods for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
Campbell does not mention a fort in connection with Bonneville. Since he had just completed (fall 1832) Fort William on the Missouri River, this is difficult to believe. In a letter to his brother he wrote:
For someone with little regard for building a fort, he would certainly mention an elaborate fort as described by Ferris.
In Ferris' description of Fort Bonneville, he states, "posts or pickets firmly set in the ground, of a foot or more in diameter, planted close to each other, and about fifteen feet in length". It would take a considerable amount of hewing to make straight fifteen foot posts out of cottonwood trees. The closest pine posts, which fit Ferris description, are twenty miles away on the North Fork of Horse Creek. A comparison between cottonwood and pine posts/poles can be made at cottonwood-log cabin on the grounds of the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale, Wyoming, or from a log pen described by William Gray, A History of Oregon 1792 – 1849’s, at the 1836 Green River rendezvous. Gray noted:
The supposed construction of a Fort Bonneville can be compared in terms of construction time to two other posts. These two forts are the Missouri River Fort William (1832) and Fort Hall (1834) on the Portneuf River in Idaho. Charles Larpenteur, who was with Campbell at the 1833 rendezvous, described the construction of Fort William. Larpenteur wrote:
From Larpenteur’s detailed account, cottonwood trees squared on three sides were used for pickets at Fort William. The fort was livable in seventy-two days and completed forty days later. Thirty men spent close to four months building Fort William.
John Kirk Townsend substantiated Russell’s description of Fort Hall.
From the Russell and Townsend descriptions, it is difficult to determine how much, beyond the picketed enclosure, existed in the seventeen-day period, however, three months later Osborne Russell recorded:
Based on the construction time of Fort William and Fort Hall, it is clear Captain Bonneville lacked the necessary time to build a picket-walled bastioned fort, a living area as described by Ferris, and a blacksmith shop described by archeologists in a 1989 study at the Fort Bonneville Monument in two weeks.
A question that could be asked is how many men accompanied Bonneville. Captain Bonneville had one hundred and ten men with him, but the limiting factor in building a fort with cottonwood pickets squared on three sides is not the number of men, but the number of shovels, picks, crowbars, adze, and axes. As an example, with five each of the tools mentioned, only twenty-five men could cut, trim trees, square three sides, dig postholes, and set the posts at any one time. It should be kept in mind that the trappers were paid for furs trapped not building forts. In addition to this time and space would limit the number of tools carried in the wagons.
The description of Fort Bonneville provided by Warren Ferris fits a majority of early eastern frontier military posts. Larpenteur describes Fort William as being after the usual formation of trading posts and, with the exception of the blockhouse over the entrance, Alfred Miller's painting of Fort Laramie is a typical western fort.
The book attributed to Warren A. Ferris, Life in the Rocky Mountains, was edited and complied by Paul C. Phillips in 1940. Phillip's edited version of Life in the Rocky Mountains was based on magazine and newspaper articles...not Warren Ferris' Journal. Ferris' description of Fort Bonneville is not the only questionable descriptions attributed to Ferris. Life in the Rocky Mountains contains a wide variety of erroneous descriptions, for example:
Ogden’s Hole is south of Cache Valley...not north. From the southern end of Cache Valley to Ogden’s Hole is about fifteen miles. The rough dirt road between Avon (5000 ft.) and Liberty (5100 ft.) reaches an elevation of 6500 feet crossing the mountains separating the two valleys.
Phillip's spends a page and a half describing Star Valley, Wyoming, where I was born and live. For someone who has rode and packed in this area most of his life, it is difficult to understand, or follow, the descriptions attributed to Ferris. The biggest error is describing salt deposits along the streams emptying into Salt River.
There are large salt deposits to the west of the valley, but there is no salt in Salt River, or its tributaries. Salt River heads on Mount Wagner, and the streams emptying into Salt River are fresh water mountain streams. If the branches of Salt River contained quantities of salt as suggested in Life in the Rocky Mountains, this area would not have been a prime beaver area during the fur trade era, or now, regarded as one of the finest fly fishing streams in the West.
As to the major rivers in the Green River area, Ferris supposedly wrote:
Of the description of the four rivers attributed to Ferris, the only river to head on the southeastern end of the Wind River Mountains is the Sweetwater River. If the Sandy River headed on the southeastern point of the Wind River Mountains, it would flow into the North Platte River, as does the Sweetwater River instead of the Green River. The Wind River heads east of Togwotee Pass between the Absaroka Mountains and the Wind River Mountains. Wind River flows through the Wind River Valley east of the Wind River Mountains. The North Platte River heads in Colorado's North Park.
According to Phillips, Ferris wrote:
Green River does head above the Green River lakes in the Wind River Mountains and flows into the Colorado River. Snake River heads in Fox Park on the Yellowstone Plateau west of the Continental Divide and flows into the Columbia River. The Yellowstone heads on Younts Peak east of the Continental Divide in the Absaroka Mountains and flows into the Missouri River.
Based on some excellent articles published by Warren A. Ferris, it is difficult to believe Ferris had such a poor understanding of the major rivers of the west as suggested by the quotes attributed to Ferris in the 1940 edition of Life in the Rocky Mountains.
Warren Ferris left the mountains in 1835. He returned to the family home in Buffalo, New York where he wrote and submitted his journal for publication in 1836. The publisher rejected the manuscript and returned it to Ferris' family in Buffalo, New York. In a letter to his brother, Charles, on November 26, 1837 from Nacogdoches, Texas, Ferris wrote:
This brings up the question, if Phillip's Life in the Rocky Mountains is not based on Ferris' journal what is it based on? Warren Ferris' brother Charles Ferris become an editor of the Western Literary Messenger in 1842. Charles for one year and then Jesse Stone published extracts from Warren Ferris' rejected manuscript in a series of weekly articles for the Western Literary Messenger between July 13, 1842 to May 4, 1844.
There is no evidence to show Warren Ferris knew about, or had anything to do with, the publication of the articles in the Western Literary Messenger by his brother Charles. Paul C. Phillips editor of the 1940 edition of Life in the Rocky Mountains noted:
The material for the book, Life in the Rocky Mountains, Paul C. Phillips edited was taken, not from Ferris' unpublished journal, but from the Western Literary Messenger, Ferris family letters, and newspaper articles in the Democratic Intelligencer and the Dallas Herald of Dallas, Texas. Phillips, noted:
With condensing, editing, and rewriting for magazine articles no one knows what was edited out of, or added to, Ferris' original manuscript.
Despite the glowing remarks by Phillips, the Ferris map shows several major discrepancies errors on the river systems in addition to those all ready pointed out.
A logical questions is did Ferris acquire his information on the river systems after leaving the mountains, or is someone else the maker of the fur trade map praised by Phillips in the preface to Life in the Rocky Mountains? The Ferris map, which was supposedly submitted with the manuscript, was misplaces and not found until in the 1930's.
Another source of information for a supposed Fort Bonneville comes from an archeological study in 1989.A. Dudley Gardner, David E. Johnson, and David Vlcek conducted an archeological investigation at the Fort Bonneville Monument site in 1989. The investigation involved a proton magnetometer survey on July 7, and field excavations from July 31 through August 8, 1989.
In regards to the location of the present-day Fort Bonneville Monument, Dr. Gowans stated in Rocky Mountain Rendezvous:
In a paper presented at the 55th Annual Plains Anthropological Conference, Symposium on Geophysical Prospection Methods in the Great Plains: New Advances and Applications, November 19-22, 1997, Boulder, Colorado by David Vlcek BLM Pinedale Resource Area and William Current, Vlcek noted:
The magnetometer study also failed to locate the twenty wagons and other goods cached by Captain Bonneville in 1832, which according to a post-fur trade historian Bil Gilbert were cached inside Fort Nonsense.
Dr. Gardner’s statement on Captain Bonneville is without merit. Captain Bonneville arrived at the 1833 rendezvous on July 12 and left on July 25, 1833. The 1833 rendezvous is the only Horse Creek rendezvous Captain Bonneville attended.
Artifacts uncovered by the archeologists included: plate glass fragments, 18.98 pounds of melted glass globules, clinkers, percussion pistol caps, twenty-two poorly formed metal arrow points, buffalo bones, metal fasteners, a mule shoe, horseshoe/mule shoe nails, files, a chisel, tacks, leather fragments, wood fragments, iron wagon brace, wagon wrench, spring fragment, an item possibly identified as a bridle, and miscellaneous bolts and nuts.
Based on the artifacts recovered at the archeological site, Dr. Gardner wrote:
On average, the Green River rendezvous lasted two to three weeks. This does not allow much time to accomplish any repairs done at a hypothetical Fort Bonneville blacksmith shop, especially forge welding. Several tools are required for forge welding: tongs, a vice, hammers, and an anvil...none of these tools were found at the Fort Bonneville site excavation.
This is total speculation by Dr. Gardner without supporting evidence. Between 1836 and 1840, forty-five wagons and thirty-seven two-wheeled carts traveled over South Pass to the Horse Creek rendezvous. In Dr. Gowans’ Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, there is not one reference to glass, or strap metal, in the rendezvous caravans to the 1833, 1835, 1836, 1837, 1839, or 1840 rendezvous, or to a blacksmith shop on Horse Creek.
Actual participants of the 1833, 1835, 1836, 1837, 1839, and 1840 Green River Rendezvous that left journals do not support the information attributed to Ferris by the editor of Life in the Rocky Mountains. At the 1836 Rendezvous, William H. Gray, who was with the Whitman Spaulding missionary party, described a fur trade building in his book, A History of Oregon 1792 – 1849’s. Gray locates this building along a three mile stretch of the Green River where the river runs west to east.
The fur trade literature does not provide a builder for the Green River storage shed described by Gray. Based on conjecture, Joseph Walker is the logical builder. Walker and six men accompanied by Shoshone Indians arrived in early June at the 1833 rendezvous site. Walker opened the caches and started trading with the Shoshone.28 With fifteen or so packs of furs Walker brought with him, the opened caches, and the furs he traded for, a dry storage area would be required. The six men, who accompanied Walker, had ample time to build a storage shed for the pelts and trade goods before the festivities of the rendezvous started in early July.
A History of Oregon 1792 – 1849’s, provides a detailed description of the square log pen and the placement of the various fur trade camps to defend against an Indian attack...to the mountain man anything to get behind constituted a fort i.e, logs, packsaddle, saddles, dirt bank, etc. Gray description of the Green River camp makes no mention of a four-year-old picketed-bastioned fort as described by Ferris. William Gray wrote:
The tents of the missionary camp contained the wives of Dr. Marcus Whitman and Henry Spaulding. On the way to establish missions in the Northwest, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spaulding were the first white women to cross South Pass and attend a mountain man rendezvous.
The Whitman-Spaulding party arrived at the 1836 rendezvous with two wagon and left with the smaller wagon. From the 1836 rendezvous, the missionary party traveled to the Oregon Country with a group of Hudson’s Bay Company trappers under John McLeod and Thomas McKay. William Gray noted:
Alfred Jacob Miller attended the 1837 Rendezvous with Sir William Drummond Stewart. Miller made several sketches of the 1837 Green River rendezvous. About the young painter, Dr. Gowans wrote:
It would be hard to disagree with Dr. Gowans assessment of Alfred Jacob Miller. If a Fort Bonneville existed in 1833, why five years later did Miller not paint a picture of a Fort Bonneville as he did Fort Laramie, especially if mountain men and Indians were trading out of a blacksmith shop as suggested by archeologists?
Sir William Drummond Stewart, Altowan, or Incidents of Life and Adventure in the Rocky Mountains, referred to a Green River storehouse. Stewart implied the storehouse was a separate structure from the nearby-dilapidated ruins built by whites. The dilapidated ruins referred to by Stewart was likely the log barricade built by Bonneville as described by Irving, Hafen, and Chittenden.
Scheduled for the Green River Valley, the Pierre Chouteau, Jr. and Company moved the 1838 rendezvous to site of the 1830 rendezvous at the junction of the Wind and Popo Agie rivers. The change in the rendezvous site was to escape trading pressure from the Hudson's Bay Company. Headed for the 1838 rendezvous, Osborne Russell reached Horse Creek where he recorded in his journal:
Russell is probably referring to the storehouse described by Grey. A building or structure in the Green River Valley does not become old, or dilapidated, in a few years. Part of the original homestead cabin built in the early 1900’s by Dr. John D. Montrose is less than a half mile west of the Fort Bonneville Monument.
A pertinent question in regards to the mythical Fort Bonneville is location of the present day monument. Dr. Grace Hebard, a history professor at the University of Wyoming, determined the location through field investigations and a series of letters with John D. Montrose M.D.
Dr. Montrose homestead the area surrounding the proposed Fort Bonneville in 1903. In a letter from Dr. Montrose to Dr. Hebard dated December 1, 1913:
The Wyoming Oregon Trail Commission visited the site of the old fort, June 9, 1915.
President H. G. Nickerson and Secretary Grace R. Hebard of the Wyoming Oregon Trail Commission dedicated the Fort Bonneville Monument on August 9, 1915, with eighty-five people in attendance.
Dr. Hebard to Dr. James K. Breckenridge, St. Louis, Missouri, Sept. 29, 1915.
Dr. Hebard to Dr. Montrose March 20, 1917.
Montrose to Hebard April 6, 1917:
Hebard to Montrose April 14, 1917:
The Wyoming Oregon Trail Commission dedication ceremony placed the rock monument over the log pen described by William Gray—not Fort Bonneville as described in the book, Life in the Rocky Mountains, edited by Paul C. Phillips.
There is only a couple of sentences on this sign substantiated by historical facts...the rest is speculation and flawed assumptions. Despite the statement on the Fort Bonneville Historical Marker, none of the artifacts found at the archeological excavation site can be traced to Captain Bonneville, or his men. Mr. David Vlcek noted that artifacts taken from the Fort Bonneville excavation site, and artifacts given to the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale, could not be positively linked to the existence of a Fort Bonneville. This was confirmed in a conversation with Laurie Hartwig, Director of the Mountain Man Museum in Pinedale, Wyoming
A more plausible explanation for the artifacts is the excess goods, including blacksmith tools and pieces of iron, left by Dr. Whitman, a schoolhouse with glass windows, clinkers from a coal-burning stove, and children playing outside. School children rode horses or traveled in a covered sleigh pulled by a team of horses to school which would account for many of the horse related artifacts.
In review of the question asked at the start of the article, there is no evidence for the existence for a Fort Bonneville:
Based of the evidence presented it would appear Fort Bonneville (Fort Nonsense or Bonneville's Folly) is the creation of post-fur trade historians and archeologists...not mountain men of the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Era.
The Fort Bonneville article was written by O. Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming. Permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.
Citation: Eddins, Ned. (article name) Thefurtrapper.com. Afton, Wyoming. 2002.
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Ball John. Across the Plains to Oregon, 1832. Online Edition. Mtmen.org.
Chittenden, Hiram Martin. American Fur Trade of the Far West. The Press of the Pioneers, Inc., New York, New York. 1935. Vol. II.
Ferris, Warren A. Life in the Rocky Mountains: A Diary of Wanderings on the sources of the Rivers Missouri, Columbia, and Colorado from February, 1830, to November, 1835. On Line Edition www. Mtmen.org.
Ferris, W. A. Life in the Rocky Mountains. Paul C. Phillips ed. Old West Publishing Company. Denver, Colorado. 1940.
Gardner A. Dudley, Johnson David E., David Vlcek. Archeological Investigations at Fort Bonneville. Western Wyoming Community College. Rock Springs. Wyoming 1991.
Ghent, W. J. The Early Far West. Longmans, Green and Co. New York, N.Y. 1931.
Gilbert, Bil. Westering Man The Life of Joseph Walker. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, Oklahoma. 1985.
Gowans, Fred. Rocky Mountain Rendezvous. Perrigrine Smith Books Layton, Utah. 1985.
Gray, William H. A History of Oregon 1792 – 1849. Harris & Holman; New York, New York. 1870.
Hebard, Grace Raymond. Hebard Letters. American Heritage Museum. University of Wyoming. Laramie, Wyoming.
Leonard, Zenas. Adventures of a Mountain Man. Bison Books. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln, Nebraska. 1978.
Larpenteur, Charles. Forty Years a Fur Trader. Online Edition Mtmen.org.
Russell, Osborne. Journal of a Trapper [1834-1843]. Edited by Aubrey L. Haines. Bison Book. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln, Nebraska. 1970.
Todd, Edgeley W. ed. The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A. in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK. 1961.
Townsend, John, Kirk. Across the Rockies to the Columbia. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln, Nebraska. 1978.
Victor, Mrs. Francis Fuller. The River of the West. Edited by Blevins, Winfred. Online Edition. Mountain Press Publishing Company. Missoula, Montana. 1983.
Wyeth, Nathaniel. The Journals of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth's Expeditions to the Oregon Country 1831-1836. Don Johnson, ed. Ye Galleon Press. Fairfield, Washington. 1984.
Wislizenus, F. A. M.D. A journey to the Rocky Mountains in 1839. English translation by the Missouri Historical Society. St. Louis, Missouri. 1912.
www.mtmen.org - Mountain Men and the Fur Trade Journals and Letters.
www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/field_offices/.../fort_bonneville.html - Archeological Investigations at Fort Bonneville by David Vlcek.A [PDF] file of the 1989 Archeological Investigations at Fort Bonneville by A. Dudley Gardner, David Johnson, and David Vlcek, and the Hebard Montrose letters