The Question Is: How Lost Was Zebulon Pike?


To find logs for a stockade and for building the boats he needed to descend the “Red River,” Pike took his men a few miles up a western tributary, the Conejos. Across the stream from a curiously isolated and barren hill, conveniently located for a sentinel’s post, they began to construct a small fortification-built of cottonwood logs and surrounded by a moat into which was diverted the water of the Conejos. They were about twelve miles southeast of what today is Alamosa, Colorado. As soon as Pike could get a flagstaff in the ground he unwittingly began to fly the American flag on the soil of His Most Catholic Majesty, the King of Spain.

There is a mistaken belief that Pike would have knowingly trespassed, even if he had actually found the Red River, once he crossed to the far side. But, although the boundary of the Louisiana Purchase was in dispute, the United States laid a firm claim to the Red River and all its waters.

The next episode in the tale belongs to Dr. Robinson. We have seen him thus far as a man with a good shooting eye, but he must have served Pike in other important ways. In a letter to a congressman, Pike later described him as “the right arm of the expedition.” The medical ethics of a physician who leaves three men exhausted and freezing in the mountains, while he pushes on with the healthy ones, is open to question; but Dr. Robinson had something on his mind. Armed with a document that gave him authority to collect a debt from an expatriate American near Santa Fe who owed a merchant in Kaskaskia, Illinois, the Doctor set out on foot in the direction of the Spanish settlements. He told Pike that he did not plan to identify himself as a member of the expedition, and that he would return in plenty of time to descend the river when the stragglers had been collected and the boats constructed.

When he reached Santa Fe, Dr. Robinson told Governor Alencaster that he had recently separated from a party of hunters and had come to collect a sum from one Baptiste Lalande. The Governor immediately reported the incident to his superior, Commandant-General Nemesio Salcedo, in Chihuahua, and he also sent out patrols in the hope of apprehending some of the Doctor’s companions. Later, when the Doctor was taken to Chihuahua, he asked General Salcedo for political asylum. He said he wanted to become a Spanish subject and a convert to Catholicism, and that he would repay the Spanish for their indulgence by exploring the lands lying to the north. He asked the General not to betray his wishes to Pike, who had be-friended him. Apparently the Spanish officials were suspicious, for he was not allowed to stay.

Pike, meanwhile, sent two relief parties back for the men and horses he had left behind. The detachment dispatched to recover his three crippled soldiers returned with Hugh Menaugh, the only one able to travel. The other two, Sparks and Dougherty, sent Pike bits of their gangrenous toe bones in a kind of macabre supplication not to be abandoned. “Little did they know my heart,” wrote Pike, “if they could suspect me of conduct so ungenerous.”

Now one of the patrols sent out from Santa Fe found Pike’s stockade: on February 26 he was informed by a young Spanish officer that he was encamped on a branch of the Rio Grande. He was surprised, but not ready to argue: “I immediately ordered my flag to be taken down and rolled up, feeling how sensibly I had committed myself, in entering their territory, and was conscious that they must have positive orders to take me in.”

After arranging to collect the stragglers, the Spanish patrol escorted Pike’s party to Santa Fe. Here his papers were confiscated, and after some questioning he was sent on to Chihuahua. Neither he nor his men were mistreated, but the members of the expedition were now permanently separated. Pike and a few of his men were back in United States territory by June 30, 1807, having been escorted to the border by their captors. Five of the men, for reasons not altogether clear, were detained two years longer, and Sergeant William C. Meek, after killing Private Theodore Miller in a drunken scuffle, was held for fourteen years.

From here on, the Pike story becomes mainly a wrangle between Spanish and United States officials over the boundary violation, and a long debate in the United States over Pike’s intentions. General Salcedo was reprimanded by his government after releasing Pike, for the King and his ministers felt that the exploring party should have been imprisoned until the United States acknowledged the incursion as a border violation. The officials in Spain somehow never corrected their original, erroneous impression that Pike was apprehended in Texas, near San Antonio, which would have placed him much farther into avowedly Spanish territory.

Pike’s return to his country received little notice, for by that time General Wilkinson had charged Aaron Burr with treason and the whole populace was caught up in the electrifying drama. Burr’s trial was in progress in Richmond when Pike got back. The Burr story is a complex one, but to consider it in connection with Pike we need to distill only two conclusions: first, that Burr’s operation seems to have been primarily a planned movement against the Spanish colonies in North America, especially Mexico, and was predicated upon an expected war with Spain; second, that General Wilkinson was surely a co-planner if not an originator of the scheme. The General later found it advisable to extricate himself—in the face of failure—by denouncing Burr.