Conquest of the Far Southwest
And A Few Good Men
by Zebulon Pike

     Twenty-seven-year-old Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike was a natural dupe-earnest, ambitious, dutiful, and naive. As a result, his commanding officer, James Wilkinson, top-ranking general of the United States Army and governor of newly acquired Louisiana Territory, found him a most useful tool.

     Wilkinson had joined Aaron Burr in casting covetous eyes on New Spain's northern provinces. The script, it is generally supposed, went like this. War between the United States and Spain seemed imminent during the opening decade of the nineteenth century. If it came, Burr, who was busy raising a private army, would take advantage of the confusion to conquer the lightly defended Spanish possessions bordering on Louisiana Territory and set up an independent empire with himself as its head. Wilkinson was slated to play a principal part in the coup. Presumably Burr did not know that the nimble general was also in the pay of the Spanish government-a triple agent, pretending allegiance simultaneously to the United States, Spain, and Aaron Burr.

     One of Wilkinson's responsibilities in the Burr conspiracy was the gathering of data about Spanish defense capabilities on the frontier---primarily in New Mexico since that was the most populous province within Burr's reach.

     The mood of the times smoothed the path of the plotting. President Jefferson, eager for information about Louisiana Territory and abetted by Congress, had recently started a major expedition up the Missouri River under command of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Other parties were scheduled to explore the Red River on the assumption that when the boundaries of the Purchase were drawn, the stream would mark the dividing line between the United States and New Spain. Madrid, it should be noted, rejected the assumption, arguing that because Napoleon had broken his word about selling Louisiana to the United States, the deal was illegal and title had reverted to the original owners.

     To the expeditions that Jefferson and Congress had authorized, Wilkinson added more of his own. In 1805 he sent Zebulon Pike and a handful of men on a difficult winter trip to the sources of the Mississippi, to tell the Indians and British traders in the area that the American government now held sovereignty over the lands to the west of the river. Jefferson had approved of the trip almost automatically after its launching, and Wilkinson supposed, correctly as matters developed, that a similar expedition by the same lieutenant farther south would also escape close scrutiny.

     On its face the new project appeared innocuous. Pike was to complete certain errands among the Osage and Pawnee Indians and then continue west toward the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers. He was warned to give no offense to Spain. He thought the trip would be short and did not take along winter uniforms for the men or himself, although the party did not leave St. Louis until July 15, 1806. The oversight would cause great suffering later on.

     Just before his departure Wilkinson foisted off on him, as surgeon for the party, an energetic young civilian doctor recently arrived in St. Louis, John H. Robinson. As Pike soon learned, Robinson was also a bill collector---or at least was pretending to be one. In 1804 William Morrison, a merchant of Kaskaskia, Illinois, had staked a French trader, Baptiste Lalande, with $2,000 worth of goods for an experimental trading trip to Santa Fe. Two years had passed with no word from the fellow. Worried, Morrison hired young Robinson to go to Santa Fe, if opportunity allowed, and learn what he could about Lalande's doings.

     The doctor could hardly have expected to reach Santa Fe unless the expedition pressed close to the New Mexican capital, which would all but have nullified Pike's written instructions to stay away from Spanish territory. The lieutenant, moreover, must have soon realized that bill collecting was a guise: Robinson intended to spy out New Mexico's defensive capabilities while pretending to be looking for Lalande.

     How much Robinson knew of the uses to which Aaron Burr might put his deviously gained information is impossible to ascertain. Years later, when Mexico was revolting against Spain, the doctor fished happily in the troubled waters, and he may have developed his taste for conspiracy on the road to Santa Fe. It is unlikely, however, that Pike was guilty of treason even by association. Straightforward and naive, he would have assumed that the data he helped Robinson gather was for the use of his own country in the event of war with Spain, surely an honorable pursuit for a dedicated soldier.

     So off they went, twenty-three men without winter uniforms. The lack still puzzles, for they could have anticipated cold weather even in those southern latitudes. What they could not know was that Spain, in its anxiety and anger over the American advance, was trying to stir up a few blizzards of its own by sending relays of prairie diplomats onto the plains to rouse the Pawnees against all Americans.

     The initial thrusts---three of them---were led by that aging trailblazer, Pedro Vial, in association with one Jose Javert, who passed in New Mexico as a Frenchman but was probably a wandering adventurer from Pennsylvania named Harvey. Their main target was the expedition being led up the Missouri River and on to the Pacific Northwest (where Spain still insisted she had claims) by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, the latter of whom the Spaniards persistently referred to as Captain Merry. For various reasons all three of the Vial-Javert missions failed, and in the spring of 1806 the anti-American maneuvers were assigned to a professional soldier, Lieutenant Don Facundo Melgares.

     A veteran of several skirmishes with the Apaches, Melgares was rich, amiable, competent, and stocky---in time he would grow very fat. Obedient to orders, he rode north from Chihuahua with 100 presidial soldiers. In Santa Fe he added as auxiliaries 500 reluctant Hispanos, genizaros, and Pueblo Indians. He requisitioned enough supplies from the New Mexican settlements to last the force six months and gathered together an enormous caballada ("horse herd") for carrying men and material---2,075 animals. Folklore insists that every common soldier rode a white horse and every officer a black one, which forms an interesting Spanish variation on the Anglo notion that the leader rides a white horse.

     More puzzles now arise. Was the target of this imposing force, by far the largest Spain had ever sent onto the Plains, still Lewis and Clark, as historian Warren Cook has recently argued? Or had attention shifted to Pike, as traditional interpretations would have it?

     Pike, who later came to know Melgares well, always believed that he was the Spaniard's quarry and in support of that belief gave a detailed description of the route by which Spanish spies in St. Louis sent word of his intentions through south Texas to Chihuahua. Denigrators of General Wilkinson amend this explanation, charging that the general himself let the Spanish know of Pike's destination. Their argument goes like this: Burr's scheme of an independent empire in the Southwest was collapsing and no reconnoitering of New Mexico was needed. Yet if Wilkinson canceled Pike's expedition, he would have to offer explanations to Washington. To avoid that situation, he let Pike go ahead and then ingratiated himself with his Spanish paymasters by hurrying word of the American "offensive" to Chihuahua, a double-dealing act that put his own men into acute danger.

     Impossible, retorts historian Cook. Logistics in backward New Mexico were such that Melgares must have begun putting his grand expedition together even before Wilkinson had ordered Pike to prepare for a trip west. Melgares's target, therefore, could only have been "Captain Merry"---plus, as a side issue, thirty-seven soldiers of another American expedition led by Captain Richard Sparks that was currently toiling up the Red River in two clumsy bateaux.

     Except that historians like to be tidy about their facts, there is not much point in debating the matter. What counts is this. Melgares did not need six hundred men to handle Lewis and Clark or Pike or Sparks or all three expeditions put together. The show was designed to impress the Indians. In spite of what any traveling Anglos might try to tell them, the red men were to realize that the King of Spain and not the President of the United States was their Great Father.

     Translated, this bluster really meant that only the Indians could now save Spain's overextended frontiers in North America.

     In pursuit of this impossible hope Melgares led his unwieldy column across the Llano Estacado and on to the Red River in what became the central part of the border between Oklahoma and Texas. There he learned from red visitors that the Sparks party had already been turned back by Spanish dragoons from the presidio at Nacogdoches, Texas. Relieved of that part of his assignment, the lieutenant swung north to treat with the Pawnees.

     Problems with discipline and with his horse herd led him to leave 240 of his men beside the Arkansas River in the southern part of today's Kansas. With the rest he continued north to the vicinity of the Nebraska border. There, beside the Republican River, he found a major Pawnee village---a huge circle of wooden houses sixty feet in diameter and covered with earth, so that each dwelling looked like a small hill.

     At that point the Spaniards were within 140 miles of the Missouri, and if they had continued their march they would have reached the river in time to apprehend Lewis and Clark on their homeward journey to St. Louis. Melgares, however, halted. No word of Lewis and Clark's position had reached the Pawnee village. His draftees were mutinous, his horse in bad shape. The Pawnees were suspicious---and winning the Pawnees was, basically, his purpose. So he called the chiefs into a grand council, handed out gifts, and persuaded them to accept Spanish flags. Impressed, the Pawnees agreed to eject any Americans who ventured onto their part of the plains. Melgares then obtained additional horses, picked up his men on the Arkansas, and took the long trail back to Santa Fe, satisfied that he had fulfilled his mission. Actually, as soon became evident, he had simply made things easier for the Americans by leaving what amounted to clear road directions westward.

     Pike came across the Spaniards' tracks out on the Kansas plains. Trespassers on American soil! Although it was evident that he was heavily outnumbered---he had sent five men back to Wilkinson with dispatches---he followed the trail to the Pawnee town, arriving there late in September 1806, when there was already a bite in the morning air.

     The Indians were truculent. Pike faced them down, saying that if anything happened to him and his friends, "the great American father" (as Pike underscored the words in his journal) would send out myriads of young warriors "to gather our bones and revenge our deaths." He maintained this show of confidence until the Indians, who admired courage and in any event saw no gain in risking casualties for the Spaniards' sake, caved in and let the Americans pass.

     Up to that point Pike had relied for guidance first on his hired interpreter, trader Antoine Baronet Vasquez, and, second, on the tracings of a map recently prepared in Mexico City for the Spanish government by a famed German scientist, Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt, who had never visited the northern provinces, had drawn his data from such sparse frontier sources as were available in the archives, and there was some doubt about his accuracy. It was comforting, therefore, now that the Americans had passed beyond the area of Vasquez's knowledge, to be able to follow Melgares's tracks back to the Arkansas and then on west into an increasingly cold and unfriendly land.

     On November 23, 1806, the shivering explorers reached the site now occupied by the city of Pueblo, Colorado, near the eastern foothills of the Rockies. For several days they had been eyeing a tall, round-topped peak to the northwest. (Their lieutenant called it Grand Peak; later explorers changed the name to Pikes Peak.) In the hope of obtaining a comprehensive view of the country ahead, Pike, Robinson, and two soldiers tried to climb it. Snow and altitude defeated them. After a four-day struggle they fell back for guidance on the tracks of Melgares's little army.

     Diverted by an Indian trace, they ended up lost in the shaggy hills. On finally reaching a frozen river amid snow-heaped mountains, they followed it downstream on the assumption that it might be a tributary of the Red. Actually it was the Arkansas and brought them back to the Pueblo site they had left weeks before.

     What next? Some horses had died and the remainder were incapable of further exertion without a chance to recuperate. But the men could still move, and Pike, casting himself in an intrepid role, determined to find the real Red. According to the Humboldt map, which was his only aid now, its headwaters were close to Santa Fe, Robinson's goal and perhaps Pike's, too, for all we can tell now. In any event, Santa Fe was certainly the closest possible point of succor.

     Pike and his men built a shelter for the two soldiers who were delegated to stay with the horses and then struck west on foot, each walker laden with seventy pounds of provisions and arms. The trip turned into a nightmare of snow, exhaustion, and near starvation relieved by the fortuitous killing of an occasional buffalo. Along the way they dropped off in various improvised shelters men whose feet had frozen, promising to return for them as soon as possible. Finally, at the end of the month they reached the San Luis Valley and another river. Surely, Pike thought, this was the Red. In truth it was the Rio Grande.

     Because no timber grew where the party intersected the stream, they crossed it and moved five miles up a tributary, the Conejos, to a grove of cottonwoods. There they built a stout stockade. That done, Robinson, who throughout the journey had been the strongest and most dependable of the group, started for Santa Fe. An indication that he and Pike were really lost, which some commentators have doubted, is that he headed west up the Conejos, the direction in which the faulty Humboldt map said that Santa Fe lay. Actually the New Mexican capital was about 125 miles due south. Pike meanwhile sent all but five of his soldiers along their back trail to pick up the men who had been left behind.

     Robinson probably would have perished of hunger and cold if Ute Indians had not picked him up. They took him to Taos, and from there that ancient of days, Pedro Vial, blazer of the Santa Fe Trail, escorted him to the New Mexican capital. Under questioning the doctor revealed the site of Pike's stockade, whereupon dragoons sallied forth, and in due time Pike and the men with him were in Santa Fe. (Eventually all of the stranded soldiers except for one killed in a quarrel with a fellow trooper were brought to the capital and from there sent back to the United States by various roundabout routes.)

     Now that the authorities had their quarry, they did not know how to handle him. The governor of New Mexico first and then the Comandante-general of the Provincias Internas at Chihuahua tried without, success to shake his story that he had strayed across the Rio Grande only through inadvertence. As a uniformed officer of a country with which Spain was at peace, he could hardly be imprisoned. In the end the disgruntled officials confiscated his papers but, yielding to his insistence, let his men keep their arms as a point of honor. All (Robinson included, but without Lalande's money) were then escorted across the deserts of Chihuahua to the southeastern border of Texas. There, on June 29, 1807, they were turned loose.

     In 1810 Pike published an account of his trips up the Mississippi and across the plains to New Mexico. Because of Meriwether Lewis's death in 1809 and William Clark's involvement in other affairs, his book was, to the author's great satisfaction, the first account of the huge lands west of the Mississippi to reach the general public.

     It is an easy book to criticize. The writing is undistinguished and the editing obtuse. In important instances the author let preconceptions get in the way of his judgment. For instance, the Spanish told him that at least one of the major tributaries of the Missouri headed near Santa Fe. That mistake led Pike to declare flatly that from a snowy point near the source of the Arkansas he had seen the headwaters of the Yellowstone, though in fact the Yellowstone rises several hundred miles to the north. As a result of Pike's error, the central part of the Rockies vanished from men's thinking, north-south distances shrank, and fur traders with posts on the upper Missouri were thoroughly bedeviled during the course of the next several years in their efforts to reach "nearby" New Mexico.

     Another mistake had to do with the ease of reaching the Pacific. Lewis and Clark had found the crossing of the northern Rockies far more difficult than they had anticipated. It was another satisfaction to Pike, accordingly, to be able to assert confidently on the strength of statements "from Spanish gentlemen of information" that a land carriage of only two hundred miles separated the navigable waters of the Arkansas River from those of the Rio Colorado. As a consequence, his route afforded "the best communication on this side of the Isthmus of Darien between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans." Having marched beside the Arkansas for many miles, he should have been more restrained in his definition of "navigable." As for the Colorado, his Spanish gentlemen of information obviously had never read the descriptions of its awesome canyons left by Francisco Garces and the Dominguez-Escalante party.

     But to emphasize such errors is to depreciate unduly the value of Pike's accounts. Once he got his preconceptions out of the way, he observed New Mexico's people, landscape, and scanty resources lucidly and reported them accurately. He noted the high cost of merchandise brought north from Chihuahua, a point certain to be noted by frontier merchants in Missouri. But mostly his book, like the subsequently published journals of Lewis and Clark, was an embodiment of the spirit later known as Manifest Destiny. He helped bring continental awareness to the United States. For years no literate trader, military man, diplomat, or private traveler ventured toward Mexico's northern provinces without a copy of Pike's book in his baggage. With him and his handful of men the conquest of the Far Southwest can be said to have begun.

Zebulon Pike Memorial Plaza




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