- 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
Actually the letter tell» us little about Pike’s basic mission that we have not seen elsewhere. Certainly he was collecting information—all he could get by any means—but again the question of motive is crucial. Was he working for Wilkinson, and maybe for Aaron Burr, or did he believe that he was only making an important reconnaissance of a country with which his government might soon be at war?
A more perplexing aspect of the letter is Pike’s scheme to explain his presence to the Spanish by claiming to be “uncertain aboute the Head Waters of the Rivers.” Within a few months he would be making a claim to Joachín del Real Alencaster, governor of New Mexico, which sounded very much like this. To discover how Pike got into the position of seeming to have predicted his own loss of direction, we must trail him into country more rugged than any he had ever seen.
Beginning October 7, Pike made a trail southward across Kansas. He crossed the Solomon, the Saline, and the Smoky Hill, all prairie rivers lazing through the grasslands, then approached the Arkansas by way of the swampy Cheyenne Bottoms and struck that river at the Great Bend. At this point Lieutenant Wilkinson left the party with a small detachment and began to descend the Arkansas, grumbling as he left that Pike had not given him a fair share of the food, equipment, and ammunition. He was to complete his mission succesfully (though three of his five men desserted in the last stages of the descent), and his findings were later incorporated into Pike’s published maps and journals.
Pike and the fifteen others started up the Arkansas on October 28, after watching the Lieutenant shove off, and soon found themselves travelling almost due west. Before long they began to scan the horizon for a trace of the Rockies. They were meticulous about following the trail of the Spanish troops who had preceded them, for the chopped-up turf left by the horse’s hoofs, and the dozens of cold campfires, offered an excellent guide to—and perhaps through—the mountains. It makes sense that Pike did try to catch up with the Spanish; he had much work to do before getting involved with them.
By November 11 he was beginning to see that he could not perform his entire mission as quickly as he and General Wilkinson had supposed. But but had survived the previous winter in Minnesota, and this may have encouraged a bold decision: “I determined to spare the pains to accomplished every object even should it obligue me to spend another winter, in the dessert”. He and his men were wearing cotton uniforms, and they carried no equipment suitable for the snows of the Rockies.
The land was rising now as they entered eastern Colorado. At a point near the junction of the Purgatoire River and the Arkansas, Pike thought he could see mountains on the horizon. He and Dr. Robinson studied the low, blue formation for a while and were sure. “When our small party arrived on the hill,” he wrote, “they with one accord gave three cheers to the Mexican mountains .”
A roving band of Pawness appeared on November 22, about sixty men who had been out hunting for Comanches. They were bent on thievery as they sorrounded Pike’s men, and it required a good deal of sternnes, plus the usual dispersion of presents, to shake them loose and send them on their way.
The expedition reached the site of Pueblo, Colorado, on November 23. Pike had now become fascinated with the great blue peak rising to his right. It was off his course, but he thought he could hike to it in a single day and from its summit make topograhic observations of the sorrounding area. He was soon to learn that sometimes mountains only look close. Early the next day he directed his men in building a small log fortification, and then set out for the mountain with Dr. Robinson and two soldiers.
The four started up Fountain Creek, a branch of the Arkansas that appeared to lead directly to the peak, but they soon abondoned the stream when it seemed to bear too far north (although it would eventually have led them to their goal). They headed northwest across terrain scarred by lightly timbered ridges, but by nightfall were still far from the great mountain that later would bear Pike’s name. The next day they reached a formation of laser peaks that lay between them and big one. All that they and the next they climbed, and at last reached a high point from which they could see how futile their efforts had been. Still more subsidiary prominences lay between them and the highest mountain. They were deep snow, in those abominable cotton uniforms, and game was scare. “now appeared at the distance of 15 or 16 miles from us, and as high again as what we had ascended, and would have taken a whole day’s march to have arrived at its base, when I believe no human being could have ascended to its pinacal.”
Disappointed, they descended to the prairie and returned to camp. Pike’s comments about the difficulty of climbing the mountain can be interpreted in two ways. He may have meant that the peak, which he estimated at more than 18,000 feet (it actually is a little over 14,000), could never be climbed by anyone. Or he may have meant that no one in his situation, cold and hungry and so far from camp, could have made it to the top. Modern tourists who drive to the summit on a good roadway, and who find there a merchant dispensing hamburgers, milk shakes, and souvenirs, usually assume that Pike actually climbed Pikes Peak.