- 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, 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.…”
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.”