Lt. Zebulon Pike
Zebulon Pike's Expedition To The Southwest 1806-1807

      "Tuesday, July 15,1806. We sailed from the landing at Belle Fontaine about 3 o'clock p.m., in two boats. Our party consisted of two lieutenants, one surgeon, one sergent, two corporals, 16 privates, and one interpreter. We had also under our charge chiefs of the Osage and Pawnees, who, with a number of women and children, had been to Washington. These Indians had been redeemed from captivity among the Potowatomies, and were now to be returned to their friends at the Osage towns. The whole number of Indians amounted to 51."

      With this entry in his journal, Zebulon Pike registered the start of his expedition to the Southwest; an expedition with apparently straightforward objectives as outlined by General James Wilkinson, commander of the Army and Pike's immediate superior. Wilkinson directed Pike to travel to the villages of the Osage and Pawnee Indians and work to build alliances between these tribes and Americans, no easy task considering the tribes' firmly entrenched allegiances to the Spanish and French at the time. Pike was also to seek every opportunity to meet, develop relationships with, and influence the Comanche. (neither the Spanish or French had enjoyed much success attempting the same). Furthermore Wilkinson ordered Pike to seek the sources of the Arkansas River, and lastly gave Pike the orders whose execution by Pike would give rise to much speculation as to the real objectives of the expedition among historians over the almost 200 years since Pike's foray…ordering Pike to seek the elusive sources of the Red River.

      Pike's companions traveling up the Missouri River in the summer of 1806 after shoving off from Fort Bellefontaine (located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers) included Lieutenant James B. Wilkinson (the Generals son), interpreter Baronet Vasquez, and the ever interesting Dr. John Hamilton Robinson, added to the expedition at the order of General Wilkinson as a "volunteer surgeon"; in fact Robinson was actually General Wilkinson's eyes and ears in the foreign Spanish lands that the Pike expedition would ultimately find themselves in. Pike traveled up the Missouri river to the mouth of the Osage River, where he continued upriver on the Osage with his Indian charges, seeking the villages of the Osages in present day Vernon County, Missouri, in the southwest corner of the state. By the middle of August Pike was at the villages, having successfully returned to their homeland influential chiefs Chevaux Blanche (White Hair) and Sans Oreille (No Ears) and their people.

      Zebulon Pike's party struck their tents at the Osage villages on September 1, 1806, crossing within several days into present day Kansas, entering the state near present Fort Scott. The mission that would now carry him northwest across Kansas was to seek the Pawnee village on the Republican River in present extreme southern Nebraska. Pike's general northwest course across Kansas in route to the Pawnee village took him across the waters of the Neosho, Verdigris, Cottonwood, Smoky Hill, Saline, and Solomon rivers, his course somewhat skewed by a circuitous jaunt far to the west led by his Indian guides who were trying to avoid the hunting grounds of the Kansa Indians. On September 25, 1806, the expedition neared the Pawnee village, as described in Pike's journal. . . . .

      "When we arrived within about three miles of the village we were requested to remain". . . . . . . . . ."The Pawnees then advanced within a mile of us, halted, divided into two groups, and came on each flank at full charge, making all the gestures and performing the maneuvers of a real war charge. They then encircled us around, and the chief advanced in the center and gave us his hand; his name was Caracterish."

      Pike spent several weeks at the Pawnee village. In an exchange that took place on September 29, Pike persuaded a Pawnee chief to remove the Spanish flag that he so proudly displayed and replace it with the American flag that Pike provided to the chief, with the understanding ". . . . .that for fear the Spaniards might return there in force again, I returned them their flag, but with an injunction that it should never be hoisted during our stay. At this there was a general shout of applause and the charge particularly attended to."

      The Pike expedition left the Pawnee village on October 7 and moved south back into Kansas, ironically following southward the recent trace of the Spanish forces, over 350 troops led by Lieutenant Fecundo Melgares, who had visited the same Pawnee village in a show of force just weeks before. On October 12 Pike reached the Smoky Hill River. . . . . ". . . . . .we passed two camps where the Spanish troops had halted. Here they appeared to have remained some days, their roads being so much blended with the traces of the buffalo that we lost them entirely. This was a mortifying stroke, as we had reason to calculate that they had good guides, and were on the best route for wood and water. We took a southwest direction, and before night were fortunate enough to strike their roads on the left; and at dusk, much to our surprise, struck the east [Smoky Hill] fork of the Kans,. . . . . . ."

      By October 15 Pike and his party were at the area of the Cheyenne Bottoms northeast of present Great Bend, Kansas. Pike recorded. . . ."In the morning rode out in search of the south trace, and crossed the low prairie, which was nearly all covered with ponds. . . ." That same afternoon the expedition came to Walnut Creek, just above the mouth of Dry Walnut Creek. Pike directed Lieutenant Wilkinson to a spot of woods in the distance to make camp, while he and Dr. Robinson left the group to ascend Walnut Creek in search of the trace of Melgares troops. Upon their return that afternoon Pike and Robinson could not find the rest of the party, and it was only after several days of anxiety and a fruitless foray up Dry Walnut Creek that they were all reunited where Wilkinson had made camp on the Arkansas River, near the mouth of Walnut Creek.

      Preparations continued for the next week to send Lieutenant Wilkinson with a small party down the Arkansas. On October 23, Pike and Dr. Robinson struck out once again to find the Spanish trace. "We ascended the river about 20 miles to a large branch on the right.", Pike recorded in his journal, "Just at dusk gave chase to a buffalo and were obliged to shoot 19 balls into him before we killed him. Encamped on the fork" The "large branch" and the fork Pike was encamped upon was the Pawnee River, near its mouth at present day Larned, Kansas.

      The next day Pike and Robinson continued five miles west on the Pawnee, turning back near the later location of Fort Larned to return to Wilkinson's base camp on the Arkansas. On October 27 Pike "Delivered to Lieutenant Wilkinson letters for our general and our friends, traverse tables of our voyage, and a draught of our route to that place complete, in order that if we were lost, and he arrived in safety, we might not have made the tour without some benefit to our country." On October 28, Wilkinson started his descent down the Arkansas and back to civilization; a party of Wilkinson, three soldiers, and an Osage in a buffalo and elk skin "canoe"; their baggage, a soldier, and an Osage in a wooden canoe, and one soldier walking the shore. Having sent most of his westbound party ahead while he and a few others stayed to see Wilkinson off downriver, Pike, Robinson, Vasquez, and a soldier turned to the west and traveled fourteen miles along the Arkansas River catch up with the main party.

      On October 29 the Pike expedition continued west along the Arkansas River, passing the Pawnee River at or near Pike and Robinson's camp of the 23rd at present Larned. In the afternoon they once again struck the Spanish trace; Pike and Robinson forded the Arkansas to the south side, where they discovered evidence of a large and long term Spanish camp. . . . ."It evidently appeared that they had halted here some time, as the ground was covered with horse-dung for miles around." A light snow fell in the afternoon and evening. Camp was on the north side of the Arkansas, some five miles from Larned.

      October 30. . . ."In the morning sent out to kill a buffalo, to have his marrow-bones for breakfast, which was accomplished. After breakfast the party marched up on the north side; the doctor and myself crossed with considerable difficulty, on account of the ice, to the Spanish camp, where we took a large circuit in order to discover the Spanish trace, and came in at a point of woods south of the river, where we found our party encamped." Pike's camp for the night was on the Arkansas near present Garfield, Kansas. From this point on, the Pike expedition traveled west following the Spanish trace on the south side of the Arkansas River, entering present day Colorado on November 12.

      Proceeding almost due west, the expedition came to the location of present Pueblo on November 23, where Pike first sighted the mountain that would be his namesake, Pikes's Peak, that Pike called "Grand Peak". He set off with Dr. Robinson and two others to climb the "Grand Peak", but they never made it. Zebulon Pike was never actually on the mountain that was to carry his name into history.

      As Pike continued his investigation of the Arkansas River, food was beginning to run low, and the men, most outfitted in light clothing not made for winter travel, were starting to suffer from the cold. Pike took the group up the north fork of the Arkansas River seeking its main source, but this branch soon petered out. Turning due northward, by December 13 he struck the south fork of the South Platte River. Soon he came to another river that Pike thought was the Red. Actually, Pike had found his way back to the Arkansas River, some 70 miles upstream from where he had left it two weeks before. In freezing weather they worked their way along the Arkansas, ultimately finding themselves shadowed by the towering walls of the Royal Gorge through which the Arkansas flowed. It was discovered, when they returned to their camp of a few weeks earlier, that they had traveled in a large circle. Two men were detailed to stay with the horses in a quickly constructed crude stockade, and Pike and the rest of the party set off again to find the Red River on January 14, 1807. Traveling through a blizzard, most of the men soon had frostbitten feet. Three men who were exhausted were left behind. The cold was so intense that the mens shaking hands would barely allow them to shoot a rifle. Finally, miraculously, a buffalo was shot and brought down. Meat was left for the three exhausted men; Pike continued on with the ten who could still carry on, pursuing a route through and near the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

      On February 6, Pike reached the Conejos River, where he built a substantial stockade (near present day Alamosa, Colorado) for the protection of the men. The next day Dr. Robinson headed for Santa Fe, ostensibly to collect a debt there for an Illinois merchant. In the meantime Pike sent relief parties out to bring in the three men left behind because of exhaustion and the two left with the horses. On February 26 Spanish troops arrived at the stockade, and the Pike expedition was taken into custody. At Santa Fe Pike was questioned by Governor Alencaster about his mission. He was sent south to Chihuahua to remain under "house arrest" until he was returned to Natchitoches in U. S. territory. Pike and his men were treated well while in the custody of the Spanish, although many of Pike's notebooks and papers were confiscated. (he was able to secrete some of his papers in the barrels of the expeditions rifles, and thus keep them undetected).

July 1, 1807
      "We arrived at Natchitoches about 4 p.m. . . .Language cannot express the gayety of my heart when I once more beheld the standard of my country waved aloft. "All hail!" cried I, "the ever sacred name of country, in which is embraced that of kindred, friends, and every other tie which is dear to the soul of man!" Was affectionately received by Colonel Freeman, Captains Strong and Woolstoncraft, Lieutenant Smith, and all the officers of the post."

      At the time of his return, the legacy of Pike and his expedition was somewhat overshadowed by the young nations captivation with the intrigues of General Wilkinson and his role in the Aaron Burr conspiracy, and by the selective championing by Thomas Jefferson of the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Northwest that had returned to civilization the previous year. With the publication of his journal in 1810, however, Pike's contribution to the stimulation of trade and settlement of what would become the American southwest began, and Pike's expedition and its attendant publicity contributed to the opening, just over a decade later, of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821.
Used With Permisssion of the Author:
C. C.
November, 2005

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