The North American Frontiersmen Association

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4th Quarter 2013







The Fort Bonneville Myth
                                         O. Ned Eddins

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

                                     South Pass over the Continental Divide

Based on Ferris' Life in the Rocky Mountains, and Irving's The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, three days later, July 27, 1832, Bonneville camped on the south side of Green River across from the Horse Creek meadows. This time period allows three days to travel over ninety miles across rough semi-arid country with no wagon roads...on the Oregon trail wagons averaged about eighty-five miles a week on an established road.

                                                   Horse Creek Meadows

Washington Irving, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, described Bonneville’s Green River camp:

…As it would be necessary to remain some time in this neighborhood, that both men and horses might repose, and recruit their strength; and as it was a region full of danger, Captain Bonneville fortified his camp with breastworks of logs and pickets...

The pre-eminent historian Dr. Leroy Hafen stated:

…Bonneville erected a rude fortification of logs and pickets that came to be called Fort Bonneville.

Hiram Chittenden had this to say about Fort Bonneville, he wrote:

...Fort Bonneville or Bonneville's Folly are names applied to a rude stockade which Captain Bonneville built on the right bank of Green River, five miles above the mouth of Horse Creek in early August, 1832. Though apparently commenced with a view of making it a trading post it was abandoned as soon as built and was never of any consequence whatever in the trade.

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, 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.

                                                          Starvin Times

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:

…Captain Bonneville now made his arrangements for the autumn and the winter. The nature of the country through which he was about to travel rendered it impossible to proceed with wagons. He had more goods and supplies of various kinds, than were required for present purposes, or than could be conveniently transported on horseback;

...aided, therefore, by a few confidential men, he made caches, or secret pits, during the night, when all the rest of the camp were asleep, and in these deposited the superfluous effects, including the wagons.

The statement about the caches by Irving is questionable. A few men could not dig a hole big enough to cache twenty wagons in one night. Bonneville undoubtedly cached equipment in this area, but the cache location 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. 

At the 1833 Horse Creek rendezvous, Warren A. Ferris described a fort he attributed to Captain Bonneville. Ferris wrote:

…The fort presents a square enclosure, surrounded by 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. At two of the corners, diagonally opposite to each other, block houses of un-hewn logs are so constructed and situated, as to defend the square outside of the pickets, and hinder the approach of an enemy from any quarter. The prairie in the vicinity of the fort is covered with fine grass, and the whole together seems well calculated for the security both of men and horses.

 …From the circumstance of a great deal of labor having been expended in its construction, and the works shortly after their completion deserted, it is frequently called "Fort Nonsense."

In addition to a physical description of Fort Bonneville, Ferris described Indians trading from a fort blockhouse.

…Some fifty or sixty lodges of Snakes lay encamped about the fort, and were daily exchanging their skins and robes, for munitions, knives, ornaments, etc., with the whites, who kept a quantity of goods opened for the purpose of trading in one of the block houses, constituting a part of the fort.

                          Fort Bonneville Historical Sign Stockade Picture

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.

While we were at Green River, I met Bonneville, Dripps and then there was our company, making three companies. We were located a mile apart for the purpose of not having our animals mingle.

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:

You have never built a fort? Then pray Heaven you never may; for of all the trouble and annoyance I have ever experienced, that gives the most.

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 space between the logs [cottonwoods] were sufficient to admit all the light required to do business in this primitive store.

The 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:

…Seeing the necessity of having safer quarters, we went to work [September 4, 1834] with all our might every day, and Sunday too; and by the 15th of November got into our comfortable quarters…

 …I will here describe the construction of Fort William, which was after the usual formation of trading posts. It was 150 feet front and 130 deep. The stockade was of cottonwood logs, called pickets, 18 feet in length, hewn on three sides and planted three feet in the ground. The boss' house stood back, opposite the front door; it consisted of a double cabin, having two rooms of 18x20 feet, with a passage between them 12 feet wide. There was a store and warehouse 40 feet in length and 18 feet in width; two rooms for the men's quarters 16x18 feet, a carpenter's shop, blacksmith's shop, ice house, meat house, and two splendid bastions. The whole was completed by Christmas of 1833 [1834]…

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.

Osborne Russell described the building of Fort Hall:

…On the 18th [July] we commenced the Fort which was a stockade 80 ft square built of Cotton wood trees set on end sunk 2 1/2 feet in the ground and standing about 15 feet above with two bastions 8 ft square at the opposite angles. On the 4th of August the Fort was completed; And on the 5th the "Stars and Stripes" were unfurled to the breeze at Sunrise in the center of a savage and uncivilized country over an American trading Post.

 John Kirk Townsend substantiated Russell’s description of Fort Hall.

…At the fort, affairs look prosperous: the stockade is finished; two bastions have been erected, and the work is singularly good, considering the scarcity of proper building tools. The house will now soon be habitable, and the structure can then be completed at leisure by men who will be left here.

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:

…In the meantime we were employed building small log houses and making other nessary [necessary] preparations for the approaching winter…

Based on the construction time of Fort William and Fort Hall, Captain Bonneville lacked the necessary time to build a picket-walled bastioned fort with a living area as described by Ferris and a blacksmith shop described by archeologists in a 1989 study at the Fort Bonneville Monument.

 Bonneville had 110 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.

The description of Fort Bonneville provided by Warren Ferris fits a majority of the early 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. As will be shown later, 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.

...We remained about ten days in the northern point of Cache Valley, in a small cove frequently called Ogden’s Hole, in compliment to a gentleman of that name of the Hudson Bay Company, who paid it a visit some years since.

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.

...a beautiful valley fifteen miles long, and six to eight broad, watered by several small streams which unite and form "Salt River," so called from the quantities of salt, in a chrystalized form, found upon most of its branches.

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:

...It [Sandy River] has its source in the south-eastern point of the Wind Mountains, where also the Sweet Water, [North] Platte, and Wind River of the Bighorn, take their rise.

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:

...After a weary march, on the twenty-first, we reached Green River, a fine, clear, deep and rapid stream, one hundred and fifty yards wide, which takes its rise in the Wind Mountains, with the sources of Lewis River [Snake] and the Yellow Stone…

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. 

                                                            Green River Lakes

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:

...about our journal if you can get it don’t have it published. I have changed my mind but keep it. I should like to look over it sometime.” 

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 correspondence of Warren during this period shows no consciousness of this fact, and it is probable that Charles undertook it solely on his own responsibility and that he made some revisions to the text.

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:

The text of the Ferris writings as it appears in this volume is transcribed from the original publications of the Western Literary Messenger and the Dallas Herald.

With condensing, editing, and rewriting for magazine articles no one knows what was edited out of, or added to, Ferris' original manuscript. 

In regards to the map of the Rocky Mountain Region in the Ferris manuscript, Paul C. Phillips stated:

The Ferris "Map" shows that in 1836 its maker knew the Rocky Mountain region of the United States so well that he could picture the river systems, its lakes, its landmarks and its routes of travel.

                                           Section of the 1836 Ferris Map

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.

1) Ferris traveled up the Hoback River, and yet his map does not show a Hoback River...the stream draining this area that empties into Snake River is not named. The source of this streams comes from the northeast, not the south as does the Hoback River.

2) The map shows the South Platte heading in the same general area as the North Fork of the Platte...the South Fork of the Platte heads in the Colorado Bayou Salade and joins the North Fork near Julesburg, Colorado. From the map it appears the South Fork of the Platte is flowing South instead of East.

3) Ferris's map shows a Fort Nonsense, but a map drawn by Captain Bonneville, the supposed builder of Fort Nonsense, does not.

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:

…Both the stone marker and the historical sign, are now located on the old site of Fort Bonneville.

                                                   Fort Bonneville Monument

 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:

…Magnetometer results at Ft. Bonneville were disappointing. We benefitted from Dr. George Frison's unpublished test excavations and placed the magnetometer block to overlap the fort's southeastern (uninvestigated) exterior wall. The wall was not present in our excavation units. Magnetometer anomaly testing, conducted by the senior author, identified only rodent burrows, not wall features.

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.

In his 1989, report on Archaeological Investigations at Fort Bonneville, A. Dudley Gardner wrote:

…The remaining 594 artifacts, as well as the bone and the melted glass, represent activities which took place during Bonneville’s occupation of the post for a short period between 1832 and 1835. Subsequent use of the structures during the trapper rendezvous of 1836, 1837, 1839, and 1840 is possible, and even likely. While the features are more than likely associated with Bonneville’s occupation, the archaeological remains recovered are not sufficiently sensitive to differentiate between Bonneville’s occupation and any subsequent short-term rendezvous related activities occurring in the years immediately following Bonneville’s departure.

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:

...It was found that the occupation of Fort Bonneville resulted in a highly compacted floor across the entire stockade compound. Artifacts were primarily found above this floor.

…archaeological excavations indicate that trade items were manufactured and possibly repaired at Fort Bonneville’s blacksmith shop.

…the slag found at Fort Bonneville appears as melted glass. Since the glass was not cross-sectioned and microscopically analyzed, it is impossible to say whether this is slag or melted glass.

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.

Dr. Gardner further stated:

…The building of a blacksmith shop drew people to the fort to obtain a needed service. Brazing was one of the activities carried out at the Fort Bonneville blacksmith shop. More important, the blacksmith could manufacture tools and repair guns as well as provide iron.

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.

…Starting from a square log pen 18 by 18, with no doors, except two logs that had been cut so as to leave a space about four feet from the ground two feet wide and six feet long, designed for an entrance, as a also a place to hand out goods and take in furs. It was covered with poles, brush on top of the poles; in case of rain.

…At a little distance from the store the camps of the fur company in which might be seen the pack-saddles and equipage of the mules in piles, in piles to suit the tastes of the men having them in charge. The trading hut was little distance from the main branch of Green River, so situated that the company’s mules and horses could all be driven between the store and river, the tents and men on either side, the store in front, forming a camp that could be defended against an attack of Indians, in case they should attempt anything of the kind.

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 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:

…West of the fur company camp or store were most of the camps of hunters and trappers, east of it, close to the river was the missionary camp.

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:

…The Chief Hudson’s Bay Trader, John McLeod, informed the missionaries that it was not the wish of the company to have these trappers or mountain men to go to the Columbia River area to settle because they would cause difficulty with the Indians. He also made them understand if they needed manual labor or men to help put up their houses and improvements, the company would send men to help them.

…The missionaries had brought with them all of the supplies necessary to exist in an area two thousand miles from the closest source of supplies. Having a blacksmith shop, plow, seeds, clothing, and supplies to last for two years.

…Goods at the missionary camp were sorted. All goods supposed unnecessary, or that could be replaced, such as irons for plows, blacksmith tools, useless kettles, etc, etc. disposed of. All articles left, the party were careful to learn, could be had at Fort Vancouver of the Hudson’s Bay Company or at Methodist Mission at reasonable prices. 

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:

…During the sixteen-year history of the rendezvous, neither mountain man, traveler, missionary, nor visitor left a more detailed description of the wilderness experience than did Alfred Jacob Miller.

                           1837 Horse Creek Rendezvous - Alfred Jacob Miller

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?

                                             Fort Laramie - Alfred Jacob Miller

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:

…We rode up to an old log building which was formerly used as a store house during the Rendezvous where I discovered a piece of paper fastened upon the wall which informed me that we should find the Whites at the forks of Wind river.

                                               1830 - 1838 Rendezvous Site

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.

                          Corner of the original cabin - Pearson Ranch

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:

…Complying with your request of Nov. 19. concerning old Fort Bonneville I must tell you that there is very little evidence left of its ever having been here.  When I came here, about 13 years ago there were ends of decaying posts in the ground in the form of a square about 12 ft. There is a schoolhouse within 20 ft of the place now and although it is protected by bare sagebrush, with the children and the cattle it is doubtful whether you could find anything of it now.

The Wyoming Oregon Trail Commission visited the site of the old fort, June 9, 1915.

…with pick, irrigating shovel and crowbar the old rotten stumps of the stockade were found buried three or four feet in the ground.  

…During the winter of 1914-15, Dr. J. W. Montrose, of Daniel, [had] snaked on the snow and up the frozen river a native boulder which he hauled near the supposed site of the old fort.

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.  

In my official capacity I have been about the state this summer, particularly on a pilgrimage to find the location of Old Fort Bonneville, which I located and established beyond a question of a doubt, and we placed a monument on the site with appropriate ceremonies, a monument made from a boulder from that locality, on which we chiseled the inscription with our own hands with chisels and mallets we had taken with us.  

                                                     Fort Bonneville Monument

Dr. Hebard to Dr. Montrose March 20, 1917.

…I have come across this description of Bonneville’s Fort and I am wondering if you would be kind enough to tell me the distance from where we located the rotten stumps north to the Green River, and if so would you see how near this description coincides with the locality [where the monument was placed]….

Montrose to Hebard April 6, 1917:

…I enjoyed the description from Gray’s which I am returning. I[t] coincides perfectly with the actual locality.

Hebard to Montrose April 14, 1917:

…thank you very much for your information as contained in your letter of the 6th instant relative to telling of the account given by Gray in his History of Oregon on the site of Fort Bonneville in ’36, when Whitman and Spaulding were there and the location of the stockade as marked in 1915. This, I believe, is all the proof that we need ever have to establish the exact location of that stockade and I am sure I still feel under deep obligation to you for your part in this….

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.

Following  the 1989 archeological investigation, a new historical marker sign was placed at the Fort Bonneville Monument site for the Wyoming Centennial Celebration.

                                                    Fort Bonneville Historical Sign

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:

1) Dr. Gardner's conclusions lack support from rendezvous participants. Not one missionary, naturalist, or mountain man mention the repair of a wagon, cart, trap, gun, or having any other type of blacksmith work done at a Horse Creek blacksmith shop. Dr. F. A. Wislizenus. A journey to the Rocky Mountains in 1839, left a detailed account of the 1839 rendezvous. The 1840 rendezvous was attended by Father De Smet whose account is in Dr. Gowans’ Rocky Mountain Rendezvous. Neither Dr. Wislizenus nor Father De Smet mention a blacksmith shop, or a Fort Bonneville, in the Green River Valley.

2) Warren Angus Ferris, Life in the Rocky Mountains, is the only mountain man that attended a Green River Rendezvous to leave a physical description of a Fort Bonneville, or uses the term Fort Nonsense. With the exception of Warren A. Ferris' description of Fort Bonneville, there is no evidence in contemporary fur trade literature to support the existence of a Fort Bonneville. Osborne Russell, Zenas Leonard, Robert Newell, Joe Meek, Robert Campbell, Charles Larpenteur, William H. Gray, Nathaniel Wyeth, Alfred Jacob Miller, Sir William Drummond Stewart, John Townsend, Dr. F. A. Wislizenus, and Father De Smet attended various mountain man rendezvous on the Horse Creek meadows. Not one journal, biography, or book by Ferris' contemporaries mention a Fort Bonneville, a Fort Nonsense, or a Bonneville's Folly. 

3) The existence of a Fort Bonneville, as described by Ferris, is not supported by Captain Bonneville's manuscript, letters, or maps:

Bonneville does not mention a Fort Bonneville in the manuscript he sold to Washington Irving for one thousand dollars. In a letter to General Macomb asking for an extension on his military leave, Bonneville describes other forts in the West...but does not mention a Fort Bonneville. Dropped from the army rolls for over extending his leave, Bonneville wrote to Secretary Lewis Cass, Secretary of War, seeking reinstatement. In the letter, Bonneville did not justify his plea for reinstatement with any reference to building a fortified trading post west of South Pass in the center of the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade area.

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) Afton, Wyoming. 2002.








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