CAPTAIN BONNEVILLE now found himself at the head of a hardy, well-seasoned and
well-appointed company of trappers, all benefited by at least one year's experience
among the mountains, and capable of protecting themselves from Indian wiles and
stratagems, and of providing for their subsistence wherever game was to be found. He
had, also, an excellent troop of horses, in prime condition, and fit for hard service. He
determined, therefore, to strike out into some of the bolder parts of his scheme. One of
these was to carry his expeditions into some of the unknown tracts of the Far West,
beyond what is generally termed the buffalo range. This would have something of the
merit and charm of discovery, so dear to every brave and adventurous spirit. Another
favorite project was to establish a trading post on the lower part of the Columbia River,
near the Multnomah valley, and to endeavor to retrieve for his country some of the lost
trade of Astoria.
The first of the above mentioned views was, at present, uppermost in his mind--the
exploring of unknown regions. Among the grand features of the wilderness about which
he was roaming, one had made a vivid impression on his mind, and been clothed by his
imagination with vague and ideal charms. This is a great lake of salt water, laving the
feet of the mountains, but extending far to the west-southwest, into one of those vast
and elevated plateaus of land, which range high above the level of the Pacific.
Captain Bonneville gives a striking account of the lake when seen from the land. As
you ascend the mountains about its shores, says he, you behold this immense body of
water spreading itself before you, and stretching further and further, in one wide and
far-reaching expanse, until the eye, wearied with continued and strained attention,
rests in the blue dimness of distance, upon lofty ranges of mountains, confidently
asserted to rise from the bosom of the waters. Nearer to you, the smooth and unruffled
surface is studded with little islands, where the mountain sheep roam in considerable
numbers. What extent of lowland may be encompassed by the high peaks beyond,
must remain for the present matter of mere conjecture though from the form of the
summits, and the breaks which may be discovered among them, there can be little
doubt that they are the sources of streams calculated to water large tracts, which are
probably concealed from view by the rotundity of the lake's surface. At some future day,
in all probability, the rich harvest of beaver fur, which may be reasonably anticipated in
such a spot, will tempt adventurers to reduce all this doubtful region to the palpable
certainty of a beaten track. At present, however, destitute of the means of making
boats, the trapper stands upon the shore, and gazes upon a promised land which his
feet are never to tread.
Such is the somewhat fanciful view which Captain Bonneville gives to this great body of
water. He has evidently taken part of his ideas concerning it from the representations of
others, who have somewhat exaggerated its features. It is reported to be about one
hundred and fifty miles long, and fifty miles broad. The ranges of mountain peaks which
Captain Bonneville speaks of, as rising from its bosom, are probably the summits of
mountains beyond it, which may be visible at a vast distance, when viewed from an
eminence, in the transparent atmosphere of these lofty regions. Several large islands
certainly exist in the lake; one of which is said to be mountainous, but not by any
means to the extent required to furnish the series of peaks above mentioned.
Captain Sublette, in one of his early expeditions across the mountains, is said to have
sent four men in a skin canoe, to explore the lake, who professed to have navigated all
round it; but to have suffered excessively from thirst, the water of the lake being
extremely salt, and there being no fresh streams running into it.
Captain Bonneville doubts this report, or that the men accomplished the
circumnavigation, because, he says, the lake receives several large streams from the
mountains which bound it to the east. In the spring, when the streams are swollen by
rain and by the melting of the snows, the lake rises several feet above its ordinary level
during the summer, it gradually subsides again, leaving a sparkling zone of the finest
salt upon its shores.
The elevation of the vast plateau on which this lake is situated, is estimated by Captain
Bonneville at one and three-fourths of a mile above the level of the ocean. The
admirable purity and transparency of the atmosphere in this region, allowing objects to
be seen, and the report of firearms to be heard, at an astonishing distance; and its
extreme dryness, causing the wheels of wagons to fall in pieces, as instanced in former
passages of this work, are proofs of the great altitude of the Rocky Mountain plains.
That a body of salt water should exist at such a height is cited as a singular
phenomenon by Captain Bonneville, though the salt lake of Mexico is not much inferior
To have this lake properly explored, and all its secrets revealed, was the grand scheme
of the captain for the present year; and while it was one in which his imagination
evidently took a leading part, he believed it would be attended with great profit, from
the numerous beaver streams with which the lake must be fringed.
This momentous undertaking he confided to his lieutenant, Mr. Walker, in whose
experience and ability he had great confidence. He instructed him to keep along the
shores of the lake, and trap in all the streams on his route; also to keep a journal, and
minutely to record the events of his journey, and everything curious or interesting,
making maps or charts of his route, and of the surrounding country.
No pains nor expense were spared in fitting out the party, of forty men, which he was to
command. They had complete supplies for a year, and were to meet Captain Bonneville
in the ensuing summer, in the valley of Bear River, the largest tributary of the Salt Lake,
which was to be his point of general rendezvous.
The next care of Captain Bonneville was to arrange for the safe transportation of the
peltries which he had collected to the Atlantic States. Mr. Robert Campbell, the partner
of Sublette, was at this time in the rendezvous of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company,
having brought up their supplies. He was about to set off on his return, with the peltries
collected during the year, and intended to proceed through the Crow country, to the
head of navigation on the Bighorn River, and to descend in boats down that river, the
Missouri, and the Yellowstone, to St. Louis.
Captain Bonneville determined to forward his peltries by the same route, under the especial care of Mr. Cerre. By way of escort, he would accompany Cerre to the point of embarkation, and then make an autumnal hunt in the Crow country.