The Question Is: How Lost Was Zebulon Pike?

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Pike was no literary man. Even with an unusual imagination and a flair for words, both of which qualities he lacked, he could hardly have done justice in his journal to the monstrous cleft in the earth which he and his men were entering as they unknowingly approached, once again, the site of Canon City. He reported that they “encamped at the entrance of the most perpendicular precipices on both sides, through which the river ran and our course lay.” So much for the Royal Gorge. Neither Pike nor any of the several parties into which he had divided his men actually descended the whole length of the canyon. Pike travelled about halfway before climbing out.

And now, of course, they had come full circle. Surely in anguish, when he reached the place where the Arkansas left the mountains and recognized it as their old camp, Pike crossed “Red River” off his charts and tables, and penned in the word “Arkansaw.”

He had brought his men through a considerable hell, but all was not lost. According to his views of geography, reinforced by Baron von Humboldt’s map, he could still find the head of the Red River by working his way through the “white, snow-cap’d Mountains, very high” that lay to the southwest—the Sangre de Cristos. Clearly, it would be a cruel journey.

Because the horses were bruised, exhausted, and sick, Pike now decided to attack the mountains on foot, carrying packs and leaving the horses behind to recuperate. A small stockade was built on the north bank of the Arkansas, within the present limits of Canon City, and Interpreter Vasquez and Private Patrick Smith were detailed to stay with the horses until sent for.

The fourteen-man party left the new stockade on January 14, 1807, and headed up a branch of the Arkansas, now called Grape Creek, which came from the south and offered promise of a route into the mountains. Three days later Pike stood looking across a valley that was to be the scene of his greatest ordeal of cold and hunger, the Wet Mountain Valley. It is a pleasant enough place in fair weather, and today the yellow school buses speed down the middle of it to gather up the ranchers’ children; but Pike was entering it with inadequate food and clothing, and he had the bad luck to reach it just before a severe snowstorm.

Where Pike entered the valley there is little vegetation. To find firewood and the shelter of trees, the expedition marched west, to the opposite slope, on January 17. When they camped that night, nine of the men had frozen feet. Two of the victims were Pike’s hunters, so designated because of their proficiency in obtaining game, and the party spent a hungry night.

Pike wrote in his journal the next day: “18th January, Sunday.—We started two of the men least injured [to hunt]; the doctor and myself, who fortunately were untouched by the frost, also went out to hunt something to preserve existence, near evening we wounded a buffalo with three balls, but had the mortification to see him run off notwithstanding. We concluded it was useless to go home to add to the general gloom, and went amongst some rocks where we encamped and sat up all night; from the intense cold it was impossible to sleep. Hungry and without cover.”

The next day, Pike and Dr. Robinson found and killed a buffalo. They slaughtered it hastily, loaded themselves with meat, and arrived at the camp after midnight. Their men had not eaten for four days.

It now appeared that Privates John Sparks and Thomas Dougherty had been too badly frostbitten to continue. Pike decided to leave them, with some of his supplies, and march on. “I furnished the two poor lads who were to remain with ammunition, made use of every argument in my power to encourage them to have fortitude to resist their fate, and gave them assurance on my sending relief as soon as possible. We parted, but not without tears.”

Pike knew that the heights of the Sangre de Cristo range were insurmountable to men so ill-equipped and hungry. He was determined to continue southeast along the base of the range until he encountered a pass. But after marching for a couple of days more, he found his food situation again serious. The snow was waist deep, making hunting almost impossible, and in any case it appeared that the buffalo had quit the valley. He wrote: “I determined to attempt the traverse of the mountain, in which we persevered until the snow became so deep that it was impossible to proceed; when I again turned my face to the plain, and for the first time in the voyage found myself discouraged.” Dr. Robinson killed a buffalo the next day, but by this time Private Hugh Menaugh had “froze and gave oute” and had to be left temporarily behind.

A pass now presented itself, and Pike lost no time in entering it. In two days of marching it led him across the Sangre de Cristos and down into the San Luis Valley. At the western foot of the pass he found that unique collection of dunes that has now become the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, and coursing down the middle of the valley was the river then commonly called the Rio del Norte and now named the Rio Grande.

Pike, however, was now lost again. Mistakenly jubilant, he wrote in his tables of course and distance for January 30: “To ye Banks of Red River.”