Benjamin Bonneville, an inept fur trader who some speculate may have actually been a spy, leads the first wagon train to cross the Rocky Mountains at Wyoming’s South Pass.
The motivations for Bonneville’s western expeditions have always remained somewhat mysterious. A native of France, Bonneville came to the United States in 1803 at the age of seven. He later graduated from West Point, and he served at frontier posts in Arkansas, Texas, and Indian Territory. According to one view, Bonneville simply observed the rapid growth of the western fur trade at these posts and conceived a bold plan to mount his own fur trading expedition. However, others suggest Bonneville’s true goal for the expedition may have been to serve as a Far Western spy for the U.S. government.
The circumstances of Bonneville’s entry into the fur business were indeed somewhat odd. Despite his complete lack of experience as a mountain man, a group of Manhattan businessmen agreed to back his expedition with ample funds. It was also strange that a career military man should ask for, and quickly receive, a two-year leave of absence from the army to pursue a strictly commercial adventure.
Bonneville began his expedition in May 1832, and that summer he and his men built an imposing trading post along Wyoming’s Green River. Bonneville proved to be an incompetent fur trader, yet he seemed unconcerned about making a profit. By contrast, he seemed very interested in exploring the vast territory.
Shortly after arriving in Wyoming, he mounted an expedition to the Columbia River country of Oregon, although he was well aware that the powerful British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company dominated the region. On this day in 1832, Bonneville led 110 men and 20 wagons across South Pass, the first-ever wagon crossing of that critical route connecting the existing United States to the northwest region of the continent. During the next two decades, thousands of American settlers would take their wagons across South Pass as they followed the Oregon Trail.
In 1835, Bonneville returned to Washington, where President Andrew Jackson personally oversaw his reinstatement as a captain in the army. Some historians speculate that Bonneville might have actually been a spy for a U.S. government, which was eager to collect information on the British strength in the Northwest. No historical records have ever been found to substantiate this speculation, though, and it is possible that Bonneville was simply an inept fur trader whose dreams exceeded his grasp.