The Question Is: How Lost Was Zebulon Pike?

In the deepening snows of a high mountain valley, about where Salida, Colorado, now stands, a band of sixteen men were gathered on the day before Christmas, 1806. Earlier they had been separated into straggling parties to forage and explore, but now they were united. Earlier they had been wretchedly hungry, but now they had been so fortunate as to kill several buffalo cows. The timely appearance of these animals at a meaningful season must have seemed providential to the young leader of the band, but he was not a man to dwell for long upon such notions in the journal he was keeping.

“We now again found ourselves all assembled together on Christmas Eve,” wrote Zebulon Pike, “and appeared generally to be content, although all the refreshment we had to celebrate that day with, was buffalo meat, without salt, or any other thing whatever.”

Pike was in a far worse situation than he realized. Although he thought he was on the headwaters of the Red River, he actually was some three hundred miles to the northwest, high up the Arkansas; and before discovering his error he would spend agonizing days along the fro/en river bed and in the bottom of an incredible canyon now called the Royal Gorge. His men—some of whom had cut up their blankets to wrap around their feet—had every reason to believe that they were now to start for the more moderate climes of home. Yet they still were to face an ordeal of hunger and cold in the Wet Mountain Valley that would leave some of them forever maimed. Certainly neither Pike nor his men could have foreseen that they were about to mistake still another river for the Red, and that within a few weeks they all would be prisoners of the Spanish government in Mexico.

Could Pike have known that these misadventures would occur, it is altogether likely that he would have chosen to go on, for lie was not easily deterred by disappointment and physical discomfort. But it would have distressed him greatly to know that even at that moment, hack in the Fast, many of his countrymen were questioning the very aim of his expedition. Although Pike was officially performing a notable chore in the national interest, he soon would face the allegation that secretly his mission was a private one, somehow linked with the Aaron Burr conspiracy. Burr had been accused of plotting hostile inroads into the Spanish Southwest, and even of trying to divide the Union by separating the western states and territories. For at least a while, Pike’s reputation as an explorer would depend less upon his own skill and courage than upon the turn of events at home.

At the age of twenty-seven, Zebulon Pike was a man to whom reputation meant nearly everything. He believed that he would find it, and glory besides, in the United States Army. He would not duplicate the drab career of his father, Major Zebulon Pike, whose lifetime of military service had left him poor, lame, and occasionally addled. Even young Pike's own early years in the service, spent routinely in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, had not quelled his zeal. He attacked every assignment with enthusiasm, studied military tactics and taught himself French and Spanish, and kept a ready eye on the promotion lists sent out by the Secretary of War.

But making it alone in those times was very difficult for a young officer of modest background; it required all the help that a man could find, including the favors of influential men in the Army and the government. Pike knew this. “Send me inclosed some letters … to any friends of Influence you may have,” he once wrote his lather, “as I have Schemes in view that require every exertion in my power to accomplish.”

Such a man is a born protégé, wailing for a patron. Pike was lucky enough to come under the patronage of the one man in the world with whom it seemed that he could prosper most, the commanding general of the United States Army. In 1805, when Pike was still a first lieutenant whose most important previous assignment had been that of regimental paymaster, he was picked by this general for an expedition up the Mississippi that sent his career into a steep ascent. From that day until his death in the War of 1812, Pike’s heart, hand, and sword were dedicated to the service of Brigadier General James Wilkinson.

Saying that Wilkinson was profoundly a knave puts the historian in no danger of losing perspective; the General’s misdeeds throughout decades spent in public office, ranging from petty chicanery to treason, are now well documented. To some he was a charming gallant, but he impressed others as too cocksure and pompous: Washington Irving felt that had he not become a general he would have made “an admirable trumpeter.” He had been made a brigadier general during the Revolution, had engaged in various civilian enterprises in Kentucky, then had returned to military life. Upon the death of General Anthony Wayne in 1796, he found himself the ranking general of the Army. He was to serve in this status until his failure to take Montreal during the War of 1812 cost him his command. Not until years after his death was it proved that he had taken an oath of allegiance to Spain and had received an annual pension from that country during his service at the head of the United States Army.