Captain Zebulon Pike’s 1807 entry point into the Spanish province of Texas was probably not anywhere he had originally planned, and his traveling companions were probably not who he had expected. As scholarly debate continues to color the Pike expedition with the tinge of espionage; he was either extremely lucky, or haplessly unlucky, depending on one’s interpretation of his ultimate mission. Either way, it had far-reaching consequences for the future of the American and Spanish Southwest.
A major component of Pike’s mission involved locating the headwaters of the Red River and following it back to U.S. territory and the military post at Natchitoches , Louisiana. Since that river formed the ostensible boundary with Spanish Texas after the Louisiana Purchase, this would involve skirting Texas’ northern boundary until finally arriving at Natchitoches. Despite the extraordinary rigors that the expedition had endured on their 1806-1807 mid-winter odyssey through the Rockies, they could reasonably expect to bask in the afterglow of the vaunted Lewis and Clark expedition that had preceded them.
Instead, Pike and his men entered Texas almost as far south of the Red River as geographically possible, fingered as principal characters in an incident with potentially serious international consequences, and accompanied by a contingent of Spanish dragoons who were turning the interlopers over to the nearest American cantonment. Ironically, it would be the post at Natchitoches.
Pike’s sojourn through Texas, however, had less of a sanguine tenor than might be imagined—and much more profound consequences than the temporarily triumphant Spanish might have envisioned. Prior to 1807, Spanish Texas was largely hidden from the westward gaze of citizens of the burgeoning United States, and foreigners of all stripes seeking to penetrate its territory when captured remained Spanish prisoners in one degree or another to thwart filibustering and military or economic intelligence-gathering.
Pike’s Texas trek, and his subsequent published report on the province, proved to be a vast canvas on which the alert and observant officer painted revealing portraits of people and cultures, landmarks and landscapes, of a rich land ripe with promise.
The Spanish knew very well the value of such a report for their U.S. neighbors, and had confiscated portions of the expedition’s notes and other documents prior to their entrance into Texas. Captain Pike was likewise warned by this Spanish escort that he was forbidden to take written notes or take navigational bearings on their trip from Chihuahua through Texas. The canny Captain circumvented this problem, however, by daily making a “pretext to halt” on the march, where he would repair to the bushes and make his notes on the sly. As insurance that they wouldn’t be discovered and confiscated, the pages were rolled up and either secreted in the men’s clothes, or tapped down the cavernous barrels of their smoothbore muskets.
The Anglo-Spanish contingent crossed into Texas on June 1, 1807, at a point on the Rio Grande either some ninety miles above Laredo or at Presidio del Norte de San Juan Bautista. After leaving Chihuahua, they had made a wide swing to the east around the Bolson de Mapimí, a vast and inhospitable area notorious as the lair of hostile Indian war parties, and then headed north to the crossing point. Their bearing would now be northwest across Texas toward the provincial capital of San Antonio de Béxar. More precise navigational bearings, however, would henceforth disappear from Pike’s secret daily logs, because on June 2, his compass mysteriously went missing.
The natural wonders of the province soon drew his attention, particularly in light of some of the sere landscapes he had just emerged from to the south. The day after the compass incident, Pike’s journal records seeing the first of Texas’ legendary mustang herds swarming the plains—along with the accompanying swarms of pesky horseflies. The Captain encountered his first javelina, a wild hog “very different from the tame breed,” a few days later. At the Nueces later on that same day, Pike and his men gazed on the first “woodland” that they had seen in the eventful year since leaving Osage country in eastern Kansas.
On this final leg of a journey marked by a panoply of provincial capitals and their officials, Pike’s sojourn in what he referred to as “Saint Antonio” must have seemed slightly incongruous. The Texas-Louisiana boundary served as an uneasy and sporadically militarized borderland between the Spanish and United States Southwest. Only the year before Pike’s arrival, the two had almost come to blows on the Sabine River frontier, and former Nuevo León governor (Simón de Herrera) was still posted to San Antonio with a detachment of troops to assist Texas Governor (Antonio Cordero) in anticipation of trouble. Given the circumstances, the appearance of a detachment of U.S. soldiers might be expected to meet with a chilly reception.
That notion vanished in the dust of Governor Cordero’s carriage, which met the party just outside of town on June 7. Pike recorded that the ragged Americans were received “like their children.” That evening, a bailé was held on the public square in their honor, and a bemused Pike observed that governors Cordero and Herrera, who he described as men of “super-excellent qualities,” danced with people of social stations who “in the day time would approach them with reverence and awe.” During the following week filled with a welter of dinner parties, sightseeing, and socializing, the simmering tensions on the Sabine must have seemed at least a bit more distant.
As the Anglo-Spanish contingent marched through Nacogdoches and ever eastward after leaving San Antonio on June 14, evidence of the polyglot U.S.-Spanish borderlands culture grew, and by the time the party reached the banks of the Trinity, traffic included French and Irish frontiersmen, and slaves fleeing Louisiana plantations for the freedom of Spanish law. And in the astonishingly small world of a deceptively immense western frontier, Pike first learned here of the safe return of the detachment under Lieutenant Wilkinson that he had sent back to U.S. territory some eight months previous.
On June 29, only a few weeks shy of a year since the expedition took to the field, the Americans crossed the Sabine River into U.S territory and bid farewell to their Spanish escort. Significantly, Pike’s first house call on friendly soil turned up a cabin full of smugglers. The following day at 4:00 p.m., returning on a path no one could have envisioned twelve months before, the expedition entered Natchitoches.
Pike’s report on Texas was in many ways a revelation for Americans, particularly since his status as an American officer lent an “official” air to its publication. His observations of the sweep and richness of the land, with its prairies teeming with game and wild horses, became a primary document in the bibliography of America’s nascent march toward the Texas Republic and Manifest Destiny. But Pike’s commentary also provided one of the first literary snapshots of the human side of Spanish Texas written by an American citizen. Although colored at times by cultural prejudices, the Captain’s account populated the province with men and women great and small, good and bad, wise and foolish. Across Pike’s pages, “super-excellent” men like Cordero and Herrera partner with everyday folk as they dance the night away on a dusty square in honor of a bunch of ragged foreign interlopers whose odyssey will soon change both of their worlds in ways they could never have imagined.