- 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
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.”
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.