The Question Is: How Lost Was Zebulon Pike?

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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.

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.