The Question Is: How Lost Was Zebulon Pike?


Almost certainly Pike was not a party to the Aaron Burr movement. His vigorous denials, upon returning from the West, seem to have sprung from a genuine ignorance of the Burr-Wilkinson plan. There is no evidence that he knew of the conspiracy until he read of it in the Gacetas de Mexico while in that country.

It is not quite accurate to say that Pike planned to be “captured” by the Spanish. Perhaps it is better to say that he hoped to fall in with a Spanish party and get a chance to visit Santa Fe. Long before he had arrived in the area, word had somehow reached Chihuahua that his expedition was on the way. It is quite possible that Wilkinson himself originated the message. (On the other hand, the Spanish were also quick to learn of the Lewis and Clark expedition and of an abortive American exploration up the Red River, during the same period. Salcedo’s orders were to terminate all such expeditions into disputed territory.) It would have been most ingenuous of Pike to suppose that Dr. Robinson’s visit to Santa Fe would not alert the Spanish garrison there. Yet it does not seem likely that he foresaw his own detention and the loss of his papers.

Besides the lingering suspicion that Pike was in league with Burr and Wilkinson, another charge has lived on—the charge that Pike was never really lost. Historians who build too solidly upon Pike’s letter to Wilkinson written in July, 1806, (quoted on page 14) have a difficult task. They must show that Pike—who travelled with defective maps and no true mental image of western geography—conducted an elaborate campaign to convince the Spanish that he was lost. According to this theory, we must believe that Pike knew there was no Red River as far west as the Rockies, despite the information he had from such authorities as Baron von Humboldt; that when he and his men were freezing and starving in the Wet Mountain Valley he was engaging in deliberate subterfuge; and that when he was confronted by a Spanish officer and was told he was encamped on the west side of the Rio Grande, his plea of ignorance was a long-planned lie. Given the faulty knowledge of the West that Pike possessed, the thing is impossible.

Pike published his letter to Wilkinson (with that significant deletion) for all the world to see. To him it was not a damaging letter, for it only projected a plan to pretend he was lost if the need should arise. When the time came he actually was lost. And, to one who had undergone those awful days along the base of the Sangre de Cristos, the difference was substantial. Apparently Pike thought that the reading public would believe so, too.

Among the papers the Spanish took from Pike was a notebook filled with sketch maps, accompanied by his faithfully made tables of course and distance. These remained in the archives of Mexico for a century before their rediscovery in 1907; later representations by the American government caused them to be transferred to the National Archives in Washington. The documents show the attempt of an earnest and brave but sometimes inept explorer to make a useful record of his travels. When he found that he had mistaken the Arkansas for the Red River, he corrected his maps and tables. Later, when he learned from the Spanish that he was again mistaken, he deleted in one instance the words “Red River” and wrote in “Rio del Nord.”

Pike’s erratic ramblings, his journal entries, and the evidence revealed by his manuscript maps leave little doubt that he was truly lost—not once, but twice.

While Pike was encamped at the Pawnee village, early in the course of the expedition, word reached him that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had returned safely from their journey to the Pacific. They had gone up the Missouri, crossed the Rockies, and descended the Columbia. In Pike’s correspondence he referred often to Lewis and Clark, sometimes jealously, for he ardently hoped to rank with them as an explorer. His achievement does not quite measure up to theirs, although there is no doubt that he was their equal in courage and endurance. Together, the two undertakings were of vital importance, representing the first extensive probing of the new Louisiana Purchase. Pike’s An Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi, and Through the Western Parts of Louisiana , published in Philadelphia in 1810, was rich in information and became required reading for those whose eyes were turned to the new lands. Along with his “Dam’d set of Rascels,” Pike had found a place high on the roster of notable explorers who first revealed the American West.