French America

The French Roots of the Bonneville Salt Flats

In a testament to North America’s French heritage, many regions, towns, mountains, and rivers in the United States have French names. Every month, French-American author Anthony Lacoudre untangles their fascinating history. This issue takes us to a dry lake and the French officer who gave it his name.
© Mathieu Persan

From August through October ever year, the world’s bravest drivers all descend upon the little town of Wendover, in northwest Utah. Traveling by motorcycle and car, they set out across an enormous plain – the bed of a lake that evaporated 10,000 years ago, leaving behind the Great Salt Lake – to try and beat the current speed records. This natural speedway, the vast salt flats, and the former lake all bear the name Bonneville, after the French officer who first charted the region.

Born near Paris in 1796, Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville was seven years old when he emigrated to the United States with his parents. Thomas Paine, one of the Founding Fathers, was the boy’s godfather and a friend of his father, and agreed to pay for their crossing. After studying at the military academy at West Point, Bonneville became an officer in the U.S. Army and was posted to a succession of forts on the frontier, in Arkansas and then in Missouri. In 1832, inspired by stories of hunting and exploration he had read in the press, he joined forces with financier John Jacob Astor and organized an expedition.

Bonneville and his men first blazed a large part of the Oregon Trail, a path through the Rocky Mountains that enabled the colonization of the American northwest. In 1833, one of his trappers, Joseph R. Walker, traveled southwest as far as the Great Basin in the current states of Utah and Nevada, and discovered the vast salt flats. This was none other than a remnant of the Pleistocene era, and was later named “Bonneville Lake” by geologist Grove Karl Gilbert in 1890.

Bonneville returned after three years and sold his story to novelist Washington Irving, who went on to publish The Adventures of Captain Bonneville in 1837. The book confirmed the officer’s reputation. Several towns, schools, and natural sites in the American West (as well as a crater on Mars) now bear his name. There are even Bonneville models by Pontiac and Triumph Motorcycles, which indirectly pay tribute to the French explorer!


Article published in the August 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.