The Military and Yosemite
The Bonneville Expedition
David A. Smith, Historian
The Burdick Military History Project
San Jose State University
The military involvement with the Yosemite area began with the discovery of the Yosemite Valley. Though there are several distinct geological formations located in the Yosemite region, the valley is the most unique and predominant landmark. The first white Americans to gain a glimpse of the Valley were the members of an exploring expedition struggling to traverse the Sierra Nevada Mountains during October of 1833. The overall expeditionary force was led by an officer of the United States Army, Captain Benjamin Louis De Bonneville, who chose an experienced scout, Joseph Reddford Walker, to lead a detachment of men from the Great Salt Lake to the Pacific Ocean. Ultimately, Walker passed through the Yosemite region on his way to the coast.
Benjamin de Bonneville was born in France on 13 April 1796. His father was an outspoken political journalist who was forced into exile by Napoleon, arriving with his family in the United States during 1803. Entering west Point Military Academy in 1815, Benjamin de Bonneville received a degree in engineering and spent his first ten years of military service supervising the construction of roadways throughout the United States. In 1831, then Captain Bonneville requested a leave of absence in order to lead an expedition to collect geographical and mill data, along with practicing beaver trapping, in the region west of the Rocky Mountains. Some historians such as Hiram M. Chittenden and H. H. Bancroft believe that Bonneville's reasons for beginning such an expedition were entirely commercial in nature, yet the Department of War left Captain Bonneville explicit instructions on how his leave was to be spent. The government specifically emphasized collecting data concerning "the nature and character of the several tribes of Indians inhabiting" the region which was to be explored ("the Rocky Mountains and beyond"). In particular, the Army wanted more information on Indian warfare, asking Captain Bonneville to observe
. . the number of warriors that may be in each tribe or nation that you may meet with; their alliances with other tribes, and their relative position as to a state of peace or war, and whether their friendly or warlike dispositions toward each other are recent or of a long standing.



He was further requested to note the Indians'
. . . manner of making war; of the mode of subsisting themselves during a state of war, and a state of peace; their arms, and the effect of them; whether they act on foot or on horseback; detailing the discipline and maneuvers of the war parties: the power of their horses, size, and general description . . . .



In light of these instructions, it is apparent that while Captain Bonneville did intend to do some trapping and trading during his travels, the major purpose of the expedition was the collection of intelligence. His commercial activities which helped him finance the expedition and the hiring of civilians to help him carry out his plans gave Captain Bonneville an almost "covert" element to utilize in his operation.

Early in 1831, a man named Joseph Walker stopped at Fort Gibson, in Oklahoma Territory, where Captain Bonneville was stationed with the 7th New York Infantry, "B" Company. Walker had earned a reputation for being an explorer, mountain man, and an individual who had pursued many occupations in his life. On this occasion, Walker was on a return trip from Texas where he had been involved in horse trading. In a chance meeting at the fort, Captain Bonneville became impressed with Walker; he explained to Walker his proposed expedition, its purpose, and asked Walker if he might be interested in acting as his chief scout and second in command. Walker agreed and left for Fort Osage, Missouri, where it had been agreed that Walker would organize and begin the expedition.

Joseph Walker was born on 13 December 1798, in Roane County, Tennessee. In 1818, he moved to the extreme western boundary of Missouri, along the Missouri River, where he rented government land near Fort Osage in order to farm. He also traded with local Indians and served as county sheriff. Walker left Missouri in 1820 for the New Mexico area where he had hoped to trap beaver. Unfortunately, he was accused of spying for the United States and taken into custody by the Spanish authorities, but was later released under the promise that he would help the Spanish fight their war against the Pawnees. After cooperating with the Spanish, Walker returned to the Fort Osage area.

When Walker returned to his home at Fort Osage after the encounter with Captain Bonneville, he began to take the necessary steps to assemble the expedition. There was the hiring of personnel, the ordering of supplies, and the acquisition of equipment including the twenty wagons in which the supplies would be transported. By the time Bonneville arrived, Walker was already deeply engaged in the manning and outfitting of the expedition. On 1 May 1832, the expedition left Fort Osage with 110 men. Their journey took them through the Kansas plains, up the Platte River to the Sweetwater River, and through South Pass into the Green River country where they established a stockade on the Green River, five miles above the mouth of Horse Creek. The location was ill-suited for a commercial operation because it was so far north on the Green River that it was impractical to man during half the year due to heavy snowfall. However unsuitable the location was for commercial use, it was situated perfectly for military purposes guarding the approaches to South and Union Passes, the Snake and Bear Rivers, Jackson Hole, the Great Salt Lake, and Blackfoot Territory. For observation, the fort was ideally located.

After attending a rendezvous of mountain men on the Green River in early July of 1833, Captain Bonneville decided to split his command. He ordered experienced trapper Michael Sylvester Cerré back to St. Louis with the 4,000 pounds of beaver pelts that they had collected over the past year, and a large package of intelligence information which had been collected during the same time. Bonneville then traveled south with Walker and about a hundred men to the Great Salt Lake where he instructed Walker to head west ". . . through unknown country towards the Pacific, and . . . he should return to the Great S. L. the following summer." The remaining company, numbering an estimated forty members, struck a course towards the Pacific Northwest where Bonneville investigated the Oregon area for the level of British influence.

Before leaving for the Northwest, Captain Bonneville gave each man under Walker's command four horses, blankets, ammunition, trade goods, and a small supply of food. It was with these provisions that Walker and fifty-eight men set out from the Great Salt Lake's northern shore in August of 1833. Walker's party kept the lake's shoreline in sight until they reached its western shore, then traveled westward to the Humboldt River, south to Humboldt Lake, and then continued southwest through the Nevada Sinks, reaching the Sierra Nevada Mountains in early October.

It is at this point in retracing the route of the Walker party that the two surviving narratives chronicling the journey became important in establishing the party's claim to having been the first white Americans to view the Yosemite Valley. These accounts were written by Zenas Leonard and George Nidever, that of the former being a journal and the latter being a memoir. It is from these works that one can attempt to determine accurately Walker's route through the Yosemite region. Leonard mentions in his journal that in early October, the party camped
. . on the margin of a lake formed by a river which heads into this mountain. This lake . . . has no outlet for water, except that which sinks into the ground. The water in the lake is similar to lie, and tastes like pearlash. . . . There is also a great quantity of pumice stone floating on the surface of the water, and shore is covered with them.


The route of approach to the mountains, this description, no doubt, is of Mono Lake which is located just east of Yosemite National Park's present day boundary. Pinpointing the location of the group is important because it is from this position that Walker sent groups of men to explore possible routes across the Sierra Nevada Mountains and to search for game to replenish their rapidly diminishing supplies. It was on one such search that a trail was discovered leading to a high pass. It appeared well used, and from the description given, it appears to have been the infamous Mono Trail which led up Bloody Canyon and through Mono Pass. It took Walker and his men two days to reach the pass where they camped without fodder for their horses and in deep snow. After suffering a night in the intense cold, the party began to make their way slowly westward. In order to make their way through high snow drifts, Walker would send alternating bands of men whose job it was to create a passable trail for the horses. Progress was slow, and the lack of food exacerbated growing tensions between some of the party members and Walker. At one point Walker found "that some of our men had become almost unmanageable, and were desirous of turning back and retracing our steps to the Buffalo Country!" To insure that the restless members of his crew would not desert, Walker took away their horses and ammunition, and then slaughtered two horses to curb the party's intense hunger.

Walker had barely entered the Yosemite region, yet in a few days travel he had lost the original trail and found himself and his party relying on horsemeat for subsistence. In an attempt to gain a better view of the terrain which lay before him, Walker moved his path of travel from the valleys to the ridges which rose above them. Still proceeding with great difficulty due to the terrain and the deep snow, the party continued its westward trek, "scarcely stopping in our journey to view an occasional specimen of the wonders of nature's handiwork." As they continued their journey, they began to encounter a series of small streams which served as a watershed for larger streams emptying into what came to be known as the Yosemite Valley. In his journal, Leonard describes it thusly:

the precipices appeared to us to be more than a mile high. Some of the men thought that if we could succeed in descending one of the precipices to the bottom, we might thus work our way to the valley below, but on making several attempts we found it utterly impossible for a man to descent, to say nothing of our horses.

Unable to reach the valley's floor to follow the Merced River to the San Joaquin Valley, Walker led his party westward, between the valley and the Tuolumne River. It is because they were unable to descend to the valley that a second major discovery was made--the Sequoia gigantea. Leonard duly noted the discovery of these trees, describing them as measuring "from sixteen to eighteen fathom round the trunk and at the height of a man's head to the ground." Walker's men had undoubtedly stumbled upon either the Tuolumne Grove or Merced Grove of "Big Trees" located just northwest of the Yosemite Valley. Eventually, the party reached the San Joaquin Valley on or about 31 October 1833, having spent nearly seventeen days in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In the process, they had lost twenty-four horses, seventeen of which were shot for food. Though the crossing proved difficult, there seems to have been, within the party, a level of satisfaction. This satisfaction came from the experience of the physical act of crossing, and of the discovery of "many natural curiosities."

Encamped at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills at the Merced River, Walker's force paused to recover from their crossing, replenish their food supply, and do some trapping. Walker also engaged in some trading with the native Yokuts. While traversing the Sierra's, the party had only seen one Indian, and on that occasion it was but a brief glimpse. The Indians of the Yosemite are, the Ahwahneechees, were apparently aware of Walker's presence in the region. Lafayette Bunnell, a member of the Mariposa Battalion during the Mariposa War and an early Yosemite pioneer, recorded in his book, Discovery of the Yosemite and the Indian War of 1851 Which Led to That Event, that the leader of the Ahwahneechees knew of a "small party of white men” who crossed the mountains to the north of the valley. Adhering to their practice of wintering in the valley and other more clement areas than the high country, these Indians managed to avoid contact with the Walker party. Walker and his men did not make contact with Indians until after his descent from the mountains. In trading with the Yokuts, Walker gained five more horses for his force, and after a brief rest, the party concentrated on completing its journey to the coast.

The horses that Walker received from the Indians were marked with Spanish brands. This led Walker to believe that they were very close to the Pacific Ocean. The party continued its westward push to the coast by following the San Joaquin River to the Delta, and thus to the San Francisco Bar area. After marching around the perimeter of the bay and crossing the coastal mountain range, the company reached the Pacific Ocean near Half Moon Bay on 20 November 1833. The next day, Walker decided to send search parties out to try to make contact with a Spanish settlement if one could be located. Although they only encountered signs of the Spanish presence, they were able to make contact with a Boston trading ship name the Lagoda.
The captain, John Bradshaw, informed Walker of the nearest coastal settlements, but recommended that they first travel to the rancho of Scots immigrant John Gilroy which was located near present day Gilroy in south Santa Clara County. Bradshaw felt that the Spanish would be more receptive to the party if they make their approach to the capital cautiously; Walker agreed and heeded the advice. The party traversed the Santa Cruz Mountains and descended into the Santa Clara Valley where they were welcomed at the rancho on 24 November 1833. The company halted for a few days and then began its slow advance on Upper California's capital at Monterey. On or about 1 December, Walker gained permission to remain in California from Governor Jose Figeroa, and with this concession, the party settled in for the winter. During their winter stay in California, Walker and his men hunted and traded for food to supply them on their return trip. Walker also bought several horses and cattle. Some of the men engaged in trapping after permission was granted by the governor; others took to capturing wild horses. The party's brief stay was peaceful and, for the most part, uneventful.

On 14 February 1834, the party resumed its odyssey and left the Monterey area for its rendezvous with Captain Bonneville. Walker left with 52 men (George Nidever and five others had decided to stay in California), 315 horses, 50 cattle, and 30 dogs. This time he decided to take a southern route and try to avoid another crossing of the Sierra Nevada. The first crossing had been too costly for the expedition since they lost twenty-four horses in the attempt, seventeen of them for food. The party spent the spring in the San Joaquin Valley, then crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains at what is now known as Walker Pass and headed north through the Owens Valley. Upon their emergence from the Owens Valley, they pushed northeast through the Sinks of Nevada in the hope of finding the route that they had followed on their westward trek. In the Nevada Desert, they faced tremendous hardships. There was little vegetation suitable for the stock, a lack of wood for fires, and very little, if any, water. Moccasins were cut from dying cattle to save already injured hooves of the horses from further deterioration. They finally became hopelessly lost in the Great Basin Wastelands, and being without water, desperately tried to satisfy their thirsts with the blood of dead cattle and horses. At the climax of their sufferings, Walker discovered both a small stream and their track from the previous crossing, but not before he had lost seventy-five animals from want of water.

After locating the Humboldt River, Walker led his party north to the Snake River where they met with Captain Bonneville on 12 July 1834. Almost immediately Bonneville again decided to split his command, and on 30 July sent Cerré back to St. Louis with forty-five men, more pelts, and more intelligence information, Walker to the Bighorn River with fifty-five men to trap beaver, and himself to the headwaters of the Columbia River with fifty men to concentrate on the commercial aspect of his venture. Later, Captain Bonneville met Walker at the mouth of Popoasia Creek on the Bighorn River on 10 June 1835, where it was decided that Walker should spend another year trapping with fifty-nine men before returning to Missouri. Collecting those who wished to return, Bonneville led the party back to Missouri where they arrived at Independence on 29 August 1835; they had been absent four years, four months, and five days.

According to the instructions issued prior to Captain Bonneville's excursion, he was ordered to return to Fort Gibson in October of 1833. His tardiness prompted a reprimand from his superiors, but President Andrew Jackson was impressed by the intelligence reports Captain Bonneville had sent to Washington and he had Congress reinstate Bonneville to his old command. Still, the Army never forgave his violation of a direct order, and sent him
from one undesirable assignment to another until the end of his career. Captain Benjamin de Bonneville died at Fort Smith, Arkansas, on 12 June 1878.
Joseph Walker finished his assignment and then went on to join John C. Frémont's 1845-46 expedition to California after being hired as Frémont's chief scout. Walker served with the Army in the war against Mexico in California, and remained in California until his death on 27 October 1876.

The expedition led by Captain Bonneville, in retrospect, has earned the right to be noted for three key elements--the way in which the expedition was organized and the reasons for its initiation; its contribution in terms of providing information on geography, Indians, and the British presence; and Walker's discoveries in California. The first element, the way in which the expedition developed, is important because it must not be seen as a precedent, but as a continuation of the policy of the United States Government. America, still unable, or unwilling, to support exploratory and intelligence gathering missions financially, depended upon "spies" like Lieutenant Zebulon Pike, John C. Frémont, and Captain Benjamin de Bonneville in order to exert American influence and perform "covert" operations in the west. Their contributions in collecting data in the far west later became crucial for the expansion of the United States. Captain Bonneville, himself, regained his military stature with his detailed accounts of geographical features, reports on the Indians of the west, and reconnaissance material concerning the British presence in Oregon and Washington. These first two elements are similar in that they strongly suggest that despite comments of some historians, the expedition was of a military nature, a point which is important if one is to consider the expedition as being a part of Yosemite's military history.

The third element, Walker's discoveries in California, is the most important of the three for the purpose of this study. Captain Bonneville must be seen as responsible for directing Walker to the Pacific Ocean since without this mandate, the discovery of the Yosemite Valley and the immediate region would not have occurred. Unfortunately, the discovery went unrecognized by the public. Only Walker’s discovery of Walker's Pass, which greatly aided in the establishment of a transcontinental route suitable for wagon travel, achieved immediate recognition. For this and other such discoveries, both Walker and Bonneville would find themselves among an elite group of individuals who were responsible for the opening of the West to American expansion.
However, even though the Yosemite region and its inhabitants remained "undiscovered" for nearly two decades following Walker's discovery, the spirit of Manifest Destiny and the discovery of gold in California in 1848 would bring about a sudden swell in population that made it inevitable that the valley would again be "discovered."
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Updated 8 February 2016