Benjamin Bonneville

Although an arguable assertion, Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville may be Fort Smith's most noted early settler. It would take thousands of words to even summarize his many accomplishments and experience. Because he should be included in the Who's Who section though, will attempt to achieve a barebone summary of his life in just a few hundred.

Bonneville was born April 14, 1796, in or near Paris. His father was a French Revolutionary and Thomas Paine was a close family friend of the Boonevilles. Fleeing Napoleonic France with his mother and siblings, the family settled in New York. In 1813, Benjamin Bonneville entered West point, graduating two years later. In 1821, he joined the Seventh Infantry at Fort Smith. After serving as escort to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825 and his aide in France in 1826, Bonneville returned to the area to command Fort Gibson. For several years, he attempted a career as a fur trader out West with little success. He is credited as being the first person to take a wagon train through the South Pass of the Rockies.

During his time as a fur trader, the Army dropped him from its rolls. While attempting to get reinstated, Bonneville wrote an account of his western experiences entitled The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, which was published by Washington Irving in 1837.

Eventually, he regained his commission and served in a number of posts including commander of the Department of New Mexico from 1856 to 1860. He also served and fought in the Mexican War. His retirement in September 1861 was short-lived. Just a few months later, he re-entered the Army to serve as a military recruiter. His wife of twenty years and a teenaged daughter died in 1862.

After the Civil War, he retired to Fort Smith, living on a large estate of land he had purchased near the city many years earlier. In 1871, he married Susan Neis who was about 50 years younger. The North Seventh Street house which bears his name actually was one purchased after his death by his widow.

Bonneville's name designates many natural and man-made landmarks in the American West and even a crater on Mars.

Source: American National Biography, V. 3, pages. 182-183.