- Historic Sites
The Question Is: How Lost Was Zebulon Pike?
In a strange message to the intriguing General Wilkinson, the soldier-explorer seemed to predict his own geographical befuddlement and his capture by the Spanish.
February 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 2
The sheer magnitude of Wilkinson’s shoddy undertakings is one of the marvels of his time; another is the ease with which he duped such men as Thomas Jefferson and repeatedly escaped disclosure and punishment. It would have been impossible, however, for Wilkinson to serve so long as the commanding general of the Army if he had been completely a charlatan. He ran the military affairs of his country, including the many problems of a lengthening frontier, not brilliantly but at least not disastrously. He had a keen interest in geography and natural history, and like most other Americans he was eager to know just what the United States had acquired in 1803 in the vast tract of land called the Louisiana Purchase. Lewis and Clark were already in the Northwest, encouraged by Jefferson’s intense and highly personal interest in their success, when Wilkinson was appointed as governor of the territory of Louisiana in 1805. Upon reaching his headquarters in St. Louis, Wilkinson began at once to carry out Jefferson’s wishes in regard to further exploration.
But was Wilkinson interested in what lay to the west for his country’s sake or because he had private schemes to develop? Here was a large part of the General’s secret of success: his private designs so often overlapped those of the country that they could be easily concealed and implemented.
Neither Pike’s expedition up the Mississippi in 1805–6 nor his second to the West in 1806–7 was specifically authorized by Jefferson. But Wilkinson kept the President and Secretary of War Henry Dearborn fully informed of Pike’s progress, and both expeditions were later approved.
About the Mississippi River expedition there was no air of mystery and no suspicion of scandal. Pike was sent by Wilkinson to explore the headwaters of the Mississippi, to purchase sites from the Indians for future military posts, and to assert both to Indians and to Canadian traders the authority of the United States over the lands it had recently acquired. He was also to bring some influential chiefs back to St. Louis for talks with Wilkinson. Leaving St. Louis in August in a single keelboat with twenty men, Pike worked his way to the vicinity of Little Falls, Minnesota, by the onset of winter. Here he built a stockade for the protection of his party, then pushed on with a few men-travelling on foot and by dog sled to visit various furtrading establishments. The uppermost point of his journey was Cass Lake in northern Minnesota.
Pike returned to St. Louis in April. He had not found the ultimate source of the Mississippi but had tome within a few miles of it. In carrying out the rest of his mission he was only moderately successful. The success of the venture, however, must be judged not on the basis of Wilkinson’s extravagant expectations, but on what might have been expected from a small party with an inexperienced leader. The trip seasoned Pike and his men for their more substantial foray into the West, and it produced a notable map and journal.
Upon his return, Pike found that Wilkinson was already planning to send him on a second expedition. Some Osage prisoners taken from the Potawatomis, and a few junketing Osage chiefs, needed to be escorted to their homes in what is now western Missouri. Also, a party of Kansas Indians had recently come down and asked for help in making peace with the Pawnees in the Kansas-Nebraska area. Wilkinson wanted, furthermore, to establish contact with the Comanches farther to the west, because their close association with the Spanish made them seem a dangerous threat to the frontier. And, finally, there was the ever-present need to know what the Spanish themselves were doing along the poorly defined western border of the Louisiana Purchase.
In 1806 almost every American citizen expected a war with Spain, which had not reacted happily to France’s sale of Louisiana to the United States. The Secretary of War had instructed Wilkinson to engage in intelligence operations, using army officers disguised as traders if necessary, to find out what Spain was up to. and to get an idea of the terrain “to the west of Louisiana.” The Secretary had even hinted that a military expedition against Mexico might become necessary. Some of the government’s apprehensions about the Spanish had originated with Wilkinson himself, and even though they were now merely being fed back to the General, the official concern gave Wilkinson a freer rein.
It would soon develop that Wilkinson and Aaron Burr had been planning a coup in the West. Was it a traitorous movement to separate the western states and territories from the Union, or merely a plot to conduct filibustering operations against Spanish-dominated Mexico? The question is still disputed by historians. In either case, the expedition to the Spanish borderlands would serve Wilkinson well. His orders to Pike instructed him to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers, which were presumed to lie just within the western limits of the Louisiana Purchase. When he had completed his reconnaissance he was to descend the Red to Natchitoches. In a separate letter Wilkinson told the young explorer, “you must indeed be extremely guarded with respect to the Spaniards—neither alarm nor offend them unnecessarily.”
After some delay because his Osage charges were ill in St. Louis, Pike got his entourage moving on July 15, 1806. The main portion of his command was an assortment of eighteen enlisted men from the First Infantry Regiment, most of whom had been with Pike on his earlier expedition. “A Dam’d set of Rascels,” he called them, “but very proper for such expeditions as I am engaged in.”