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"For those men have served with me many a long year and notwithstanding- they are such Dam'd Rascals that you could keep no Ducks or fowls for them, yet I think them very clever fellows." On returning from his Mississippi River Expedition Pike described, in another letter, his men as being "perfectly capable of getting the job done, but all in all a set of dam'd rascals!" July 11, 1806 Letter to Capt. Daniel Bissell signature, Zebulon M. Pike
Zebulon Pike National Historic Trail Association

Zebulon Pike: Hard-Luck Explorer
by Bob Moore

"Nothing that Zebulon Montgomery Pike ever tried to do was easy, and most of his luck was bad,” noted Donald Jackson in his forward to the 1966 annotated edition of Pike's journals and letters. A pathfinder who got lost, Pike could have been as revered as Lewis and Clark, but instead remains an indistinct historical figure.

Born in New Jersey in 1779, Pike joined the U.S. Army at the age of twenty, following in the footsteps of his father, also named Zebulon, who was a veteran of the American Revolution and was still an active duty officer when young Pike joined.

Lt. Pike's early duties along the Ohio frontier consisted of supervising the transportation and distribution of supplies to the various frontier posts. Pike lamented his lack of formal education, carrying books into the wilderness and reading voluminously. A slim, blue-eyed, pompous young man with an odd habit of tilting his head to one side, Pike was highly ambitious and efficient.

Up the Mississippi

Pike soon became the protégé of James Wilkinson, the commanding general of the U.S. Army. Wilkinson, one of American history's worst scoundrels, was also secretly a double agent for Spain. In the summer of 1805, Wilkinson gave Pike the difficult assignment of conducting a reconnaissance of the upper Mississippi River. While Lewis and Clark were at the headwaters of the Missouri River far to the West, Pike left St. Louis with orders to explore the Mississippi, purchase sites from American Indians for future military posts, and bring a few important chiefs back to St. Louis for talks. He took a force of twenty men on a seventy-foot keelboat up the Mississippi, departing from Fort Bellefontaine on August 9, 1805. Pike and his men explored the river into modern-day Minnesota, traveling to Cass Lake, which they identified (incorrectly) as the river's source. The expedition returned to St. Louis on April 30, 1806. Pike was only modestly successful in his relations with the Indians, but brought back important geographical information about a little-known portion of the new Louisiana Territory.

To the Southwest

Pike's second expedition, 1806-1807, was designed to accomplish several goals, including providing an escort for fifty-one Osage Indians ransomed from the Potawatomi tribe and a delegation of Pawnees, Osages, and Otos returning from a trip to see President Jefferson; negotiating a peace between the Kansas and Osage tribes, and attempting to make contact with the Comanche people on the high plains. Pike was also to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas River, then to proceed south, locate the source of the Red River, and descend it to the Mississippi. As with Lewis and Clark further north, Pike was to closely study and report on natural resources and subjects of scientific interest, as well as the Indian inhabitants along the poorly defined southwestern border of the Louisiana Purchase. Pike brought along nearly all the soldiers from his Mississippi expedition, men he called a "Dam'd set of Rascels," but who, nonetheless, retained the confidence of their commander. Gen. Wilkinson's son, Lt. James Biddle Wilkinson, was to go part of the way and lead a small detachment back to St. Louis via the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers.

The Business of Espionage

Wilkinson launched Pike's expedition without the authorization of President Jefferson or the War Department, although it was approved retroactively. Tensions with Spain were high, and many Americans expected a war. Wilkinson, who was Governor of Louisiana during this period, was ordered to engage in intelligence operations against Spain, using army officers disguised as traders if necessary. What he was really up to, however, has remained a mystery. It appears that, in collaboration with Aaron Burr, he was planning a coup in the West. It has never been determined whether this was a traitorous movement designed to separate the western territories from the Union, or a plot to conquer Spanish territory without officially involving the United States Government. At any rate, Pike's expedition to the Spanish borderlands would serve the needs, both official and unofficial, of James Wilkinson. Pike almost certainly knew nothing of the Wilkinson/Burr intrigues, but was aware that his service to gather as much intelligence about the Spanish as possible for his country was important. A letter between Pike and Wilkinson written on July 22, 1806, leaves little doubt that Pike knew he was to scout as close as possible to Santa Fe, and that he might be captured by Spanish authorities. If discovered, he would use the cover story that he had become lost while en route to Natchitoches, Louisiana. Ironically, by the time he was captured, many scholars believe that he actually was lost.

Getting Underway

Zebulon Pike set out on July 15, 1806 with an assortment of nineteen enlisted men and N.C.O.s from the First Infantry Regiment; his second-in-command, Lt. Wilkinson; a volunteer physician, Dr. John H. Robinson; and Baronet Vasquez, an interpreter from St. Louis. The group made their way across Missouri, returning the Osage people to their villages (in the area of today's Lake of the Ozarks), and moving out diagonally across Kansas. To read more about Pike's adventures on the Osage River, click here.

map of pike's routes

Pike talked a band of Pawnee Indians into hauling down a Spanish flag which flew above their village, and replacing it with the Stars and Stripes, despite the fact that a troop of Spanish cavalry 300 strong had recently visited.

Upon reaching the Arkansas River, Lt. Wilkinson left the party with five men, returning successfully to St. Louis despite three desertions. Pike and the fifteen others started up the Arkansas on October 28, following the trail of a troop of Spanish cavalry. On November 11, Pike made a bold decision; despite the fact that his party did not have the clothing, equipment or supplies for a winter expedition, they would press on. Proceeding nearly due west, they reached the site of modern-day Pueblo, Colorado on November 23.

 

The climbing party surveys a distant Pikes Peak in this E. Camron painting.
The climbing party surveys a distant Pikes Peak in this E. Camron painting.

 

Zebulon Pike National Historic Trail Association

The Blue Mountain

Fascinated with a blue peak in the Rocky Mountains to the west that he had first sighted on November 15, Pike set out to explore it with two soldiers and Dr. Robinson, leaving the bulk of the men at a base camp. Pike spent several days in trying to reach the peak (which would later bear his name), but the lack of winter clothing and food eventually drove him back to the base camp.

Zebulon Pike never set foot on Pike's Peak, although in their attempt to reach their goal the group scaled 11,499-foot Mt. Rosa, becoming the first Europeans to complete a high-altitude alpine ascent of a North American mountain.

Pike decided to follow the trail of the Spanish cavalry and head up the north fork of the Arkansas, called Four-Mile Creek. This branch soon dwindled, as did the Spanish trail, so Pike turned overland due northward, discovering a river on December 12 which he correctly determined was the south fork of the South Platte.

Pike decided to follow the trail of the Spanish cavalry and head up the north fork of the Arkansas, called Four-Mile Creek. This branch soon dwindled, as did the Spanish trail, so Pike turned overland due northward, discovering a river on December 12 which he correctly determined was the south fork of the South Platte.

Crossing over a mountain pass, he came to another river which he thought was the Red. In reality, the expedition was back on the Arkansas, seventy miles upstream from where they had left it two weeks earlier. Snow began to deepen, and Pike was disappointed that he could not reach the source of the river. The men spent Christmas eating buffalo meat near the modern-day city of Salida, Colorado. They worked their way down the river, the ice solid enough to support their horses, the huge vertical walls of the Royal Gorge towering above them on both sides. They were soon frustrated to find that they had traveled in a big circle. In order to reach the Red River, the mountains would have to be crossed on foot.

The interpreter Vasquez and Pvt. Patrick Smith were detailed to stay with the horses in a small wooden stockade on the Arkansas, while Pike set out with the others on January 14, 1807, through the Wet Mountain Valley and howling blizzards to find the Red River. Nine men soon suffered from frostbitten feet, including Pike's best hunters. Pressing on, wading through sometimes waist-deep snow, Pike left three men behind who could not continue. Crossing the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Pike found the area of present-day Great Sand Dunes National Park and the headwaters of the Rio Grande, which he mistakenly thought was the Red River. A small stockade was built near modern Alamosa, Colorado.

The interpreter Vasquez and Pvt. Patrick Smith were detailed to stay with the horses in a small wooden stockade on the Arkansas River.

A Guest Of the Spanish

Dr. Robinson begged leave to contact the Spanish officials in Santa Fe, as he had a document which gave him authority to collect a debt there for a merchant in Kaskaskia, Illinois. Pike gave his permission, and Robinson hiked overland to reach his objective, telling Spanish Governor of New Mexico Joaquín Alencaster on his arrival that he had recently left a party of hunters. Suspicious, Alencaster reported the incident to his superiors and sent out patrols in the hope of apprehending some of the doctor's companions. Pike sent back two relief parties to bring up the three scattered men left behind with frostbite, as well as the two left on the Arkansas with the horses. Only one of the three frostbite victims could be brought back; the others, too sick to move, actually sent bits of gangrenous toe bones to Pike in a macabre appeal not to be abandoned.

On February 16, 1807, Pike and a hunting companion were discovered by a pair of Spanish cavalrymen. On February 26, a large troop of Spanish soldiers rode up to Pike's stockade and informed him that he was in Spanish territory. "I immediately ordered my flag to be taken down and rolled up," Pike wrote. He agreed to accompany them to Santa Fe with those of his men not still afield, and they departed the stockade two days later. Spanish patrols rounded up the frostbitten stragglers, and eventually escorted the rest of the party to Santa Fe. After being questioned about his mission by Governor Alencaster, Pike was sent south to Chihuahua to be examined by the Commandant General of the Internal Provinces, Nemesio Salcedo. Although Salcedo confiscated a number of Pike’s papers and notebooks, neither Pike nor his men were mistreated, and the majority were returned to U.S. territory at Natchitoches on June 30, 1807. Dr. Robinson claimed asylum in Mexico, but was not allowed to stay. Five of the men were held by the Spanish for two years, and one, Sgt. William Meek, was imprisoned until 1821 after killing Pvt. Theodore Miller in a drunken scuffle. By sending Pike south to Chihuahua, Alencaster inadvertently gave Pike the opportunity to gather much valuable intelligence about largely unknown regions of northern New Spain for the United States, and he was reprimanded for it by Salcedo. Salcedo, in turn, was reprimanded by the King of Spain for releasing Pike before receiving an apology from the U.S. Government for trespassing.

Zebulon Pike was suspected of having a role in the "Burr Conspiracy" upon his return to the United States; although untrue, this tainted his career for some time. Pike was not received with a glowing welcome by President Jefferson, who considered him a competent military man but not an explorer/scientist on the level of Lewis and Clark. Unlike Lewis and Clark, neither Pike nor his men received extra pay or grants of land for their service.

A Hero’s End

Pike's chance for personal glory came when war was declared on Great Britain in 1812. While leading a successful attack on York, the capital of Upper Canada (today's Toronto) on April 27, 1813, now-Brig. Gen. Pike was fatally wounded by flying debris when a powder magazine exploded. Throughout an amazing life, this stubborn and persistent man performed extraordinary feats on behalf of his country, but luck was never with him. Unlike his contemporaries Lewis and Clark, he is relatively obscure today, save for the use of his name on a mountain he never climbed.

Members of the second Pike Expedition, 1806-07:

Capt. Zebulon Pike
Lt. James B. Wilkinson
Antoine Baronet Vasquez (civilian interpreter)
Dr. John H. Robinson
Sgt. Joseph Ballinger (sent back with Wilkinson party)
Cpl. Jeremiah R. Jackson
Cpl./Sgt. William C. Meek (killed Pvt. Theodore Miller while captive in Mexico)
Pvt. John Boley (was also on Lewis and Clark expedition; sent back with Wilkinson party; deserted)
Pvt. Samuel Bradley (sent back with Wilkinson party; deserted)
Pvt. John Brown
Pvt. Jacob Carter
Pvt. Thomas Daugherty (Pike's waiter; one of those who sent toe bones to Pike)
Pvt. William Gordon
Pvt. Solomon Huddleston (sent back with Wilkinson party; deserted)
Pvt. Henry Kennerman (deserted in Missouri)
Pvt. Hugh Menaugh (frostbitten but returned to stockade)
Pvt. Theodore Miller (killed in Mexico by Meek)
Pvt. John Mountjoy
Pvt. Alexander Roy
Pvt. Patrick Smith
Pvt. John Sparks (hunter; one of those who sent toe bones to Pike)
Pvt. Freegift Stout
Pvt. John Wilson (sent back with Wilkinson party)

This article is a contribution to the Zebulon Pike Bicentennial by Bob Moore, Park Historian of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial National Park, St. Louis, MO.

 

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