- 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 next significant stop was on the present site of Cannon City. Here Pike made one of those crucial decisions that shaped the future of his expedition. He had been following the Arkansas for many days, past several forks, and now he found that it forked again. One branch seemed to reach into the very heart of the mountains, between steep cliffs (the Royal Gorge), and the other veered northward through easier country. This branch, now called Four-Mile Creek, is a sizable affluent of the Arkansas which rises high in the north, at the extremity of the Arkansas River watershed. Pike and Dr. Robinson explored both branches for a short distance. Apparently they did not believe that a main branch could extend very far into the surprising canyon from which the Arkansas actually issues. An added argument for following the north fork was the indication that a party of horsemen had recently ascended it. Whether the horsemen were Spanish troops or a band of Comanches, Pike now wanted to get in touch with them, for he was beginning to feel quite uneasy about his location. In his words, “We determined to pursue them, as … the geography of the country, had turned out to be so different from our expectation; we were some what at a loss which course to pursue, unless we attempted to cross the snow cap’d mountains, to the south east of us which was almost impossible.”
The expedition followed north along Four-Mile Creek for two days and then chose its western fork. But the branch finally dwindled—and so did the hoof-marked trail they had been tracing. The party then headed straight north. Pike was leading his men toward a high plateau that would later become known as South Park; and there he was surprised to find, on December 12, a river flowing to the east. “Must it not be the head waters of the river Platte?” he wrote in his journal. He was correct; he had found the south fork of the South Platte.
Pike now became convinced that he must head southwest once more and contrive to find the Red River. He had lost the Spanish trail completely and seemed to believe that he had somehow passed above all possible sources of the Arkansas—which actually rises a little farther north, near what later became Leadville. His principal map, and indeed the contemporary map that any sensible explorer would have been delighted to have, was one left in Washington in 1804 by Baron Alexander von Humboldt, the great German naturalist, as one result of a year spent in Mexico. It had been handed down to Pike at the instigation of Wilkinson, and was a remarkable early portrayal of Mexico and the North American Southwest. But among its many departures from actuality was its handling of the Red River. Humboldt showed this stream rising in the Rocky Mountains, near Santa Fe, when in truth it rises on the plains of northwestern Texas. Pike thought that he could find it by proceeding southwest across the towering ranges.
Abandoning the South Platte, Pike made for a low pass in the mountains, now called Trout Creek Pass and traversed by U.S. Highway 24. His crossing of the pass was not difficult, even in winter—he was still east of the Continental Divide—and when he reached the western foot he made a discovery which sent a shout of joy through the whole command. At a spot just below the present location of Buena Vista, Colorado, they came upon what they assumed was the Red River. It was their highway to home, they thought, for it would lead them to the broad reaches of the Mississippi.
Actually, they were back on the Arkansas, some seventy miles upstream of where they had left it a fortnight earlier. Pike marched northward with two men to probe somewhat deeper into the sources of the river, and sent the rest of his party downstream with urgent instructions to forage for game. The date was December 21 ; the snow was deep, and the command was short of food, clothing, and ammunition. Pike and his two partners ascended the river to the Twin Lakes region south of Leadville. Here he decided that his “Red River” had nearly played out. Hungry, cold, and separated from his men, he easily convinced himself that he could see the approximate head of the stream where it disappeared into the distant mountains; and, in fact, he was now not far from the source of the Arkansas. He turned back, and on the broadening valley floor where the town of Salida would later appear, beside the carcasses of the buffalo cows which may have saved their lives, he and his men spent Christmas in 1806.
Now they started down the river, seeking a convenient place to await better weather, build boats, and make more side trips before descending to civilization. They worked their way down the valley between towering white peaks, past the present sites of Coaldale, Cotopaxi, and Parkdale. The river was frozen solidly enough to support horses—a fact indicating an extraordinarily low temperature—but Pike had great difficulty moving the animals down the narrow channel among the many rocks impacted in the ice. “Had frequently to cross the river on the ice, horses falling down, we were obliged to pull them over on the ice. … We had great difficulty in getting our horses along, some of the poor animals having nearly killed themselves falling on the ice … one horse fell down the precipice, and bruised himself so miserably, that I conceived it mercy to cause the poor animal to be shot. Many others were nearly killed with falls received.…”