- 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
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.”
Besides the enlisted soldiers, three other men accompanied Pike. His second in command was Lieutenant James B. Wilkinson, the General’s son. The Lieutenant was largely untried, though he had earlier led an unsuccessful Missouri River expedition attempting to reach the mouth of the Platte. His new assignment was to accompany Pike through what is now Missouri and Kansas, as far as the Great Bend of the Arkansas River, then to return down that river and provide the government with a detailed chart and topographic description of the route.
Accompanying the group as interpreter was Baronet Vasquez, usually called Barney by his American friends. He was a young resident of St. Louis, fluent in both French and Spanish, at home among the Indians, and accustomed to living in the wilds. The most mysterious person in the command, a man whose complex motives are still not entirely clear, was Dr. John H. Robinson. He had lately moved west to St. Louis, where he was serving as acting army surgeon, and when he learned of the expedition he is said to have entreated Wilkinson repeatedly for permission to go along as a volunteer.
In the sultriest days of a midwestern summer, the soldiers and Indians moved up the mosquito-ridden Missouri. The supplies and most of the soldiers were in boats, and the Indians kept to the shore—afoot and on horseback. They left the Missouri for the smaller, more tortuous channel of the Osage River—part of which is now the Lake of the Ozarks—and had reached the two villages of the usages in western Missouri by August 20. Here the Osage prisoners and chiefs were returned to their people; the party rested, counselled, tried with some success to recruit horses, and then moved on.
Now the expedition veered to the northwest, travelling diagonally across Kansas toward a band of Pawnees then living on the Republican River. The exact spot has long been disputed by Kansans and Nebraskans, since the river flows close to the border between the two states for several miles and there are remains of Pawnee villages on both sides of the line. Kansans were sufficiently convinced that Pike raised the flag over their soil to erect a monument near Republic in 1901. But Pike’s tables of course and distance, and his manuscript map of the route, plainly show that he was above the boundary, near Red Cloud, Nebraska. There, in the very center of the Louisiana Purchase, he talked the Pawnee chiefs into hauling down their Spanish flag and running up the Stars and Stripes. His success in persuading them to do so was all the more satisfying to Pike because the village had recently been visited by a contingent of Spanish cavalry. The glitter and dash of the Spanish horsemen, some three hundred of them, no doubt made a stronge contrast to Pike’s ill-equipped little command. But Pike was a dogged negotiator if not a gifted one, and the King’s ensign came down, at least temporarily. The explorer noted in his journal: “I did not wish to embarrass them … for fear that the Spaniards might return there in force again, I returned them their flag, but with an injunction that it should never be hoisted again during our stay.”
After making a tenuous peace between some Kansas chiefs and the Pawnees, and trying in vain to get some of the Pawnee men to lead him to the Comanches, Pike set out again. He had two chores remaining: lie must try to find and proselyte the Comanches, and he must explore the sources of the Arkansas and the Red.
By this time Pike had sent a letter to the General-carried by special messenger—which was to become the theme of every discussion of Pike’s motives for years to come. On July 22 he had written:
With respect to the Ietans [Comanches], the Genl. may rest assured I shall use every precaution previous to trusting them—but as to the mode of conduct to he pursued towards the Spaniards I feel more at a loss: as my Instructions lead me into the Country of the Ietans—part of which is no Doubt claimed by Spain—although the Boundary’s between Louisiania & N. Mexico have never yet been defined—in conséquence of which should I rencounter a [Spanish] party … in the vicinity of St. Afee [Santa Fe]—I have thought it would be good policy to give them to understand that we were bound to join our Troops near Natchitoches hut had been uncertain aboute the Head Waters of the Rivers over which we passed—but that now, if the [Spanish] Commandt. [at Santa Fe] desired it we would pay him a visit of politeness —either by Deputation, or the whole party—but if he refused: signify our intention of pursuing our Direct rout to the posts below— this if acceded to would gratify our most sanguine expectations; but if not [would] … secure us an unmolested retreate to Natchitoches. But if the Spanish jealousy, and the instigation of traters, should induce them to make us prisoners of War—(in time of peace) I trust to the magnaminity of our Country for our liberation—and a Due reward to their opposers for the Insult, & indignity, offer’d their National Honor.