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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
In the deepening snows of a high mountain valley, about where Salida, Colorado, now stands, a band of sixteen men were gathered on the day before Christmas, 1806. Earlier they had been separated into straggling parties to forage and explore, but now they were united. Earlier they had been wretchedly hungry, but now they had been so fortunate as to kill several buffalo cows. The timely appearance of these animals at a meaningful season must have seemed providential to the young leader of the band, but he was not a man to dwell for long upon such notions in the journal he was keeping.
“We now again found ourselves all assembled together on Christmas Eve,” wrote Zebulon Pike, “and appeared generally to be content, although all the refreshment we had to celebrate that day with, was buffalo meat, without salt, or any other thing whatever.”
Pike was in a far worse situation than he realized. Although he thought he was on the headwaters of the Red River, he actually was some three hundred miles to the northwest, high up the Arkansas; and before discovering his error he would spend agonizing days along the fro/en river bed and in the bottom of an incredible canyon now called the Royal Gorge. His men—some of whom had cut up their blankets to wrap around their feet—had every reason to believe that they were now to start for the more moderate climes of home. Yet they still were to face an ordeal of hunger and cold in the Wet Mountain Valley that would leave some of them forever maimed. Certainly neither Pike nor his men could have foreseen that they were about to mistake still another river for the Red, and that within a few weeks they all would be prisoners of the Spanish government in Mexico.
Could Pike have known that these misadventures would occur, it is altogether likely that he would have chosen to go on, for lie was not easily deterred by disappointment and physical discomfort. But it would have distressed him greatly to know that even at that moment, hack in the Fast, many of his countrymen were questioning the very aim of his expedition. Although Pike was officially performing a notable chore in the national interest, he soon would face the allegation that secretly his mission was a private one, somehow linked with the Aaron Burr conspiracy. Burr had been accused of plotting hostile inroads into the Spanish Southwest, and even of trying to divide the Union by separating the western states and territories. For at least a while, Pike’s reputation as an explorer would depend less upon his own skill and courage than upon the turn of events at home.
At the age of twenty-seven, Zebulon Pike was a man to whom reputation meant nearly everything. He believed that he would find it, and glory besides, in the United States Army. He would not duplicate the drab career of his father, Major Zebulon Pike, whose lifetime of military service had left him poor, lame, and occasionally addled. Even young Pike's own early years in the service, spent routinely in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, had not quelled his zeal. He attacked every assignment with enthusiasm, studied military tactics and taught himself French and Spanish, and kept a ready eye on the promotion lists sent out by the Secretary of War.
But making it alone in those times was very difficult for a young officer of modest background; it required all the help that a man could find, including the favors of influential men in the Army and the government. Pike knew this. “Send me inclosed some letters … to any friends of Influence you may have,” he once wrote his lather, “as I have Schemes in view that require every exertion in my power to accomplish.”
Such a man is a born protégé, wailing for a patron. Pike was lucky enough to come under the patronage of the one man in the world with whom it seemed that he could prosper most, the commanding general of the United States Army. In 1805, when Pike was still a first lieutenant whose most important previous assignment had been that of regimental paymaster, he was picked by this general for an expedition up the Mississippi that sent his career into a steep ascent. From that day until his death in the War of 1812, Pike’s heart, hand, and sword were dedicated to the service of Brigadier General James Wilkinson.
Saying that Wilkinson was profoundly a knave puts the historian in no danger of losing perspective; the General’s misdeeds throughout decades spent in public office, ranging from petty chicanery to treason, are now well documented. To some he was a charming gallant, but he impressed others as too cocksure and pompous: Washington Irving felt that had he not become a general he would have made “an admirable trumpeter.” He had been made a brigadier general during the Revolution, had engaged in various civilian enterprises in Kentucky, then had returned to military life. Upon the death of General Anthony Wayne in 1796, he found himself the ranking general of the Army. He was to serve in this status until his failure to take Montreal during the War of 1812 cost him his command. Not until years after his death was it proved that he had taken an oath of allegiance to Spain and had received an annual pension from that country during his service at the head of the United States Army.
The sheer magnitude of Wilkinson’s shoddy undertakings is one of the marvels of his time; another is the ease with which he duped such men as Thomas Jefferson and repeatedly escaped disclosure and punishment. It would have been impossible, however, for Wilkinson to serve so long as the commanding general of the Army if he had been completely a charlatan. He ran the military affairs of his country, including the many problems of a lengthening frontier, not brilliantly but at least not disastrously. He had a keen interest in geography and natural history, and like most other Americans he was eager to know just what the United States had acquired in 1803 in the vast tract of land called the Louisiana Purchase. Lewis and Clark were already in the Northwest, encouraged by Jefferson’s intense and highly personal interest in their success, when Wilkinson was appointed as governor of the territory of Louisiana in 1805. Upon reaching his headquarters in St. Louis, Wilkinson began at once to carry out Jefferson’s wishes in regard to further exploration.
But was Wilkinson interested in what lay to the west for his country’s sake or because he had private schemes to develop? Here was a large part of the General’s secret of success: his private designs so often overlapped those of the country that they could be easily concealed and implemented.
Neither Pike’s expedition up the Mississippi in 1805–6 nor his second to the West in 1806–7 was specifically authorized by Jefferson. But Wilkinson kept the President and Secretary of War Henry Dearborn fully informed of Pike’s progress, and both expeditions were later approved.
About the Mississippi River expedition there was no air of mystery and no suspicion of scandal. Pike was sent by Wilkinson to explore the headwaters of the Mississippi, to purchase sites from the Indians for future military posts, and to assert both to Indians and to Canadian traders the authority of the United States over the lands it had recently acquired. He was also to bring some influential chiefs back to St. Louis for talks with Wilkinson. Leaving St. Louis in August in a single keelboat with twenty men, Pike worked his way to the vicinity of Little Falls, Minnesota, by the onset of winter. Here he built a stockade for the protection of his party, then pushed on with a few men-travelling on foot and by dog sled to visit various furtrading establishments. The uppermost point of his journey was Cass Lake in northern Minnesota.
Pike returned to St. Louis in April. He had not found the ultimate source of the Mississippi but had tome within a few miles of it. In carrying out the rest of his mission he was only moderately successful. The success of the venture, however, must be judged not on the basis of Wilkinson’s extravagant expectations, but on what might have been expected from a small party with an inexperienced leader. The trip seasoned Pike and his men for their more substantial foray into the West, and it produced a notable map and journal.
Upon his return, Pike found that Wilkinson was already planning to send him on a second expedition. Some Osage prisoners taken from the Potawatomis, and a few junketing Osage chiefs, needed to be escorted to their homes in what is now western Missouri. Also, a party of Kansas Indians had recently come down and asked for help in making peace with the Pawnees in the Kansas-Nebraska area. Wilkinson wanted, furthermore, to establish contact with the Comanches farther to the west, because their close association with the Spanish made them seem a dangerous threat to the frontier. And, finally, there was the ever-present need to know what the Spanish themselves were doing along the poorly defined western border of the Louisiana Purchase.
In 1806 almost every American citizen expected a war with Spain, which had not reacted happily to France’s sale of Louisiana to the United States. The Secretary of War had instructed Wilkinson to engage in intelligence operations, using army officers disguised as traders if necessary, to find out what Spain was up to. and to get an idea of the terrain “to the west of Louisiana.” The Secretary had even hinted that a military expedition against Mexico might become necessary. Some of the government’s apprehensions about the Spanish had originated with Wilkinson himself, and even though they were now merely being fed back to the General, the official concern gave Wilkinson a freer rein.
It would soon develop that Wilkinson and Aaron Burr had been planning a coup in the West. Was it a traitorous movement to separate the western states and territories from the Union, or merely a plot to conduct filibustering operations against Spanish-dominated Mexico? The question is still disputed by historians. In either case, the expedition to the Spanish borderlands would serve Wilkinson well. His orders to Pike instructed him to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers, which were presumed to lie just within the western limits of the Louisiana Purchase. When he had completed his reconnaissance he was to descend the Red to Natchitoches. In a separate letter Wilkinson told the young explorer, “you must indeed be extremely guarded with respect to the Spaniards—neither alarm nor offend them unnecessarily.”
After some delay because his Osage charges were ill in St. Louis, Pike got his entourage moving on July 15, 1806. The main portion of his command was an assortment of eighteen enlisted men from the First Infantry Regiment, most of whom had been with Pike on his earlier expedition. “A Dam’d set of Rascels,” he called them, “but very proper for such expeditions as I am engaged in.”
Besides the enlisted soldiers, three other men accompanied Pike. His second in command was Lieutenant James B. Wilkinson, the General’s son. The Lieutenant was largely untried, though he had earlier led an unsuccessful Missouri River expedition attempting to reach the mouth of the Platte. His new assignment was to accompany Pike through what is now Missouri and Kansas, as far as the Great Bend of the Arkansas River, then to return down that river and provide the government with a detailed chart and topographic description of the route.
Accompanying the group as interpreter was Baronet Vasquez, usually called Barney by his American friends. He was a young resident of St. Louis, fluent in both French and Spanish, at home among the Indians, and accustomed to living in the wilds. The most mysterious person in the command, a man whose complex motives are still not entirely clear, was Dr. John H. Robinson. He had lately moved west to St. Louis, where he was serving as acting army surgeon, and when he learned of the expedition he is said to have entreated Wilkinson repeatedly for permission to go along as a volunteer.
In the sultriest days of a midwestern summer, the soldiers and Indians moved up the mosquito-ridden Missouri. The supplies and most of the soldiers were in boats, and the Indians kept to the shore—afoot and on horseback. They left the Missouri for the smaller, more tortuous channel of the Osage River—part of which is now the Lake of the Ozarks—and had reached the two villages of the usages in western Missouri by August 20. Here the Osage prisoners and chiefs were returned to their people; the party rested, counselled, tried with some success to recruit horses, and then moved on.
Now the expedition veered to the northwest, travelling diagonally across Kansas toward a band of Pawnees then living on the Republican River. The exact spot has long been disputed by Kansans and Nebraskans, since the river flows close to the border between the two states for several miles and there are remains of Pawnee villages on both sides of the line. Kansans were sufficiently convinced that Pike raised the flag over their soil to erect a monument near Republic in 1901. But Pike’s tables of course and distance, and his manuscript map of the route, plainly show that he was above the boundary, near Red Cloud, Nebraska. There, in the very center of the Louisiana Purchase, he talked the Pawnee chiefs into hauling down their Spanish flag and running up the Stars and Stripes. His success in persuading them to do so was all the more satisfying to Pike because the village had recently been visited by a contingent of Spanish cavalry. The glitter and dash of the Spanish horsemen, some three hundred of them, no doubt made a stronge contrast to Pike’s ill-equipped little command. But Pike was a dogged negotiator if not a gifted one, and the King’s ensign came down, at least temporarily. The explorer noted in his journal: “I did not wish to embarrass them … for fear that the Spaniards might return there in force again, I returned them their flag, but with an injunction that it should never be hoisted again during our stay.”
After making a tenuous peace between some Kansas chiefs and the Pawnees, and trying in vain to get some of the Pawnee men to lead him to the Comanches, Pike set out again. He had two chores remaining: lie must try to find and proselyte the Comanches, and he must explore the sources of the Arkansas and the Red.
By this time Pike had sent a letter to the General-carried by special messenger—which was to become the theme of every discussion of Pike’s motives for years to come. On July 22 he had written:
With respect to the Ietans [Comanches], the Genl. may rest assured I shall use every precaution previous to trusting them—but as to the mode of conduct to he pursued towards the Spaniards I feel more at a loss: as my Instructions lead me into the Country of the Ietans—part of which is no Doubt claimed by Spain—although the Boundary’s between Louisiania & N. Mexico have never yet been defined—in conséquence of which should I rencounter a [Spanish] party … in the vicinity of St. Afee [Santa Fe]—I have thought it would be good policy to give them to understand that we were bound to join our Troops near Natchitoches hut had been uncertain aboute the Head Waters of the Rivers over which we passed—but that now, if the [Spanish] Commandt. [at Santa Fe] desired it we would pay him a visit of politeness —either by Deputation, or the whole party—but if he refused: signify our intention of pursuing our Direct rout to the posts below— this if acceded to would gratify our most sanguine expectations; but if not [would] … secure us an unmolested retreate to Natchitoches. But if the Spanish jealousy, and the instigation of traters, should induce them to make us prisoners of War—(in time of peace) I trust to the magnaminity of our Country for our liberation—and a Due reward to their opposers for the Insult, & indignity, offer’d their National Honor.
The phrase italicized here for emphasis was not included in the version of the letter published in the 1810 edition of Pike’s journals; it appears only in his retained copy, captured with him and kept by the Spanish. Discovery of this version makes some things quite clear: Pike was eager for firsthand information about the territory around Santa Fe, he had discussed the matter with Wilkinson before his departure, and he would not mind being apprehended by Spanish soldiers in order to gain his objective. Furthermore, this prior understanding—not spelled out in the General’s written orders—was a point sufficiently sensitive to call for deletion of the passage before publication.
Actually the letter tells us little about Pike’s basic mission that we have not seen elsewhere. Certainly he was collecting information—all he could get by any means—but again the question of motive is crucial. Was he working for Wilkinson, and maybe for Aaron Burr, or did he believe that he was only making an important reconnaissance of a country with which his government might soon be at war?
A more perplexing aspect of the letter is Pike’s scheme to explain his presence to the Spanish by claiming to be “uncertain aboute the Head Waters of the Rivers.” Within a few months he would be making a claim to Joachín del Real Alencaster, governor of New Mexico, which sounded very much like this. To discover how Pike got into the position of seeming to have predicted his own loss of direction, we must trail him into country more rugged than any he had ever seen.
Beginning October 7, Pike made a trail southward across Kansas. He crossed the Solomon, the Saline, and the Smoky Hill, all prairie rivers lazing through the grasslands, then approached the Arkansas by way of the swampy Cheyenne Bottoms and struck that river at the Great Bend. At this point Lieutenant Wilkinson left the party with a small detachment and began to descend the Arkansas, grumbling as he left that Pike had not given him a fair share of the food, equipment, and ammunition. He was to complete his mission succesfully (though three of his five men desserted in the last stages of the descent), and his findings were later incorporated into Pike’s published maps and journals.
Pike and the fifteen others started up the Arkansas on October 28, after watching the Lieutenant shove off, and soon found themselves travelling almost due west. Before long they began to scan the horizon for a trace of the Rockies. They were meticulous about following the trail of the Spanish troops who had preceded them, for the chopped-up turf left by the horse’s hoofs, and the dozens of cold campfires, offered an excellent guide to—and perhaps through—the mountains. It makes sense that Pike did try to catch up with the Spanish; he had much work to do before getting involved with them.
By November 11 he was beginning to see that he could not perform his entire mission as quickly as he and General Wilkinson had supposed. But but had survived the previous winter in Minnesota, and this may have encouraged a bold decision: “I determined to spare the pains to accomplished every object even should it obligue me to spend another winter, in the dessert”. He and his men were wearing cotton uniforms, and they carried no equipment suitable for the snows of the Rockies.
The land was rising now as they entered eastern Colorado. At a point near the junction of the Purgatoire River and the Arkansas, Pike thought he could see mountains on the horizon. He and Dr. Robinson studied the low, blue formation for a while and were sure. “When our small party arrived on the hill,” he wrote, “they with one accord gave three cheers to the Mexican mountains .”
A roving band of Pawness appeared on November 22, about sixty men who had been out hunting for Comanches. They were bent on thievery as they sorrounded Pike’s men, and it required a good deal of sternnes, plus the usual dispersion of presents, to shake them loose and send them on their way.
The expedition reached the site of Pueblo, Colorado, on November 23. Pike had now become fascinated with the great blue peak rising to his right. It was off his course, but he thought he could hike to it in a single day and from its summit make topograhic observations of the sorrounding area. He was soon to learn that sometimes mountains only look close. Early the next day he directed his men in building a small log fortification, and then set out for the mountain with Dr. Robinson and two soldiers.
The four started up Fountain Creek, a branch of the Arkansas that appeared to lead directly to the peak, but they soon abondoned the stream when it seemed to bear too far north (although it would eventually have led them to their goal). They headed northwest across terrain scarred by lightly timbered ridges, but by nightfall were still far from the great mountain that later would bear Pike’s name. The next day they reached a formation of laser peaks that lay between them and big one. All that they and the next they climbed, and at last reached a high point from which they could see how futile their efforts had been. Still more subsidiary prominences lay between them and the highest mountain. They were deep snow, in those abominable cotton uniforms, and game was scare. “now appeared at the distance of 15 or 16 miles from us, and as high again as what we had ascended, and would have taken a whole day’s march to have arrived at its base, when I believe no human being could have ascended to its pinacal.”
Disappointed, they descended to the prairie and returned to camp. Pike’s comments about the difficulty of climbing the mountain can be interpreted in two ways. He may have meant that the peak, which he estimated at more than 18,000 feet (it actually is a little over 14,000), could never be climbed by anyone. Or he may have meant that no one in his situation, cold and hungry and so far from camp, could have made it to the top. Modern tourists who drive to the summit on a good roadway, and who find there a merchant dispensing hamburgers, milk shakes, and souvenirs, usually assume that Pike actually climbed Pikes Peak.
The next significant stop was on the present site of Cannon City. Here Pike made one of those crucial decisions that shaped the future of his expedition. He had been following the Arkansas for many days, past several forks, and now he found that it forked again. One branch seemed to reach into the very heart of the mountains, between steep cliffs (the Royal Gorge), and the other veered northward through easier country. This branch, now called Four-Mile Creek, is a sizable affluent of the Arkansas which rises high in the north, at the extremity of the Arkansas River watershed. Pike and Dr. Robinson explored both branches for a short distance. Apparently they did not believe that a main branch could extend very far into the surprising canyon from which the Arkansas actually issues. An added argument for following the north fork was the indication that a party of horsemen had recently ascended it. Whether the horsemen were Spanish troops or a band of Comanches, Pike now wanted to get in touch with them, for he was beginning to feel quite uneasy about his location. In his words, “We determined to pursue them, as … the geography of the country, had turned out to be so different from our expectation; we were some what at a loss which course to pursue, unless we attempted to cross the snow cap’d mountains, to the south east of us which was almost impossible.”
The expedition followed north along Four-Mile Creek for two days and then chose its western fork. But the branch finally dwindled—and so did the hoof-marked trail they had been tracing. The party then headed straight north. Pike was leading his men toward a high plateau that would later become known as South Park; and there he was surprised to find, on December 12, a river flowing to the east. “Must it not be the head waters of the river Platte?” he wrote in his journal. He was correct; he had found the south fork of the South Platte.
Pike now became convinced that he must head southwest once more and contrive to find the Red River. He had lost the Spanish trail completely and seemed to believe that he had somehow passed above all possible sources of the Arkansas—which actually rises a little farther north, near what later became Leadville. His principal map, and indeed the contemporary map that any sensible explorer would have been delighted to have, was one left in Washington in 1804 by Baron Alexander von Humboldt, the great German naturalist, as one result of a year spent in Mexico. It had been handed down to Pike at the instigation of Wilkinson, and was a remarkable early portrayal of Mexico and the North American Southwest. But among its many departures from actuality was its handling of the Red River. Humboldt showed this stream rising in the Rocky Mountains, near Santa Fe, when in truth it rises on the plains of northwestern Texas. Pike thought that he could find it by proceeding southwest across the towering ranges.
Abandoning the South Platte, Pike made for a low pass in the mountains, now called Trout Creek Pass and traversed by U.S. Highway 24. His crossing of the pass was not difficult, even in winter—he was still east of the Continental Divide—and when he reached the western foot he made a discovery which sent a shout of joy through the whole command. At a spot just below the present location of Buena Vista, Colorado, they came upon what they assumed was the Red River. It was their highway to home, they thought, for it would lead them to the broad reaches of the Mississippi.
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.”
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.
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.
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.