A few weeks prior to Zebulon M. Pike's expedition to the Southwest in 1806, Spanish Lieutenant Facundo Melgares led some 600 troops from New Mexico into Kansas. Pike and his 20 soldiers became aware of the Spanish mission to the Great Plains when they arrived at the Pawnee village on the Republican River in present Nebraska, where Melgares had recently visited. Pike's party followed the return route of Melgares south to the Arkansas River and along that stream into present Colorado to the point where the Spaniards left that river to head back to Santa Fe. Interestingly, almost everything known about Melgares's 1806 trip is obtained from Pike's journal, for the records of that Spanish expedition have not been found.
The tale of these two expeditions and their respective leaders became more intertwined after the capture of Pike's exploring party near the Rio Grande in present southern Colorado and detention in Santa Fe and Chihuahua, during a portion of which time Lieutenant Melgares was Pike's guard, overseer, and guide. The two enemies, for such they were as military officers of nations competing for the region through which they both traveled at a time when both nations feared war between them might break out any time, became friends. Pike learned much about the Great Plains and the provinces of northern New Spain from Melgares, and that information along with Pike's own astute observations of the people and culture of the region, published in his journal of the expedition in 1810, sparked increased interest in the United States to attempt to open trade with New Mexico. Those trading efforts were thwarted so long as Spain retained control of the colony of New Spain (later Mexico) but bore fruitful economic results for both the United States and northern Mexico following Mexican independence from Spanish rule, when Governor Facundo Melgares welcomed the first successful U.S. trade expedition, led by William Becknell, to Santa Fe in 1821.
Both Pike and Melgares were sent by their respective governments in 1806 with a major purpose to secure friendship, trade relations, and alliances with several Indian tribes of the region, including the Osage, Kansa, Pawnee, and Comanche. Indian allies were considered to be the key element to establish effective control and eventual domination of a vast region of the Louisiana Purchase, including present Kansas.
A critical issue in this pursuit of control was the establishment of the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase. Spain refused to recognize the sale of Louisiana to the United States by France, claimed almost everything west of the Mississippi River, and prohibited U.S. citizens from entering the territory. The United States wished to push that boundary as far west as possible, certainly to the Rocky Mountains and hopefully all the way to the Rio Grande in the Southwest and the Pacific Ocean in the Northwest. The boundary issue was not settled until 1819. For all these reasons, the expeditions led by Melgares and Pike comprised an important round of an expanded contest for a huge portion of North America between those two nations.
General James Wilkinson, head of the U.S. Army and also a paid agent for the Spanish government, sent a secret warning to Spanish officials in the late winter of 1804 about the Lewis and Clark expedition and suggested ways that Spain could protect her claims from U.S. intrusions. From 1804-1806, four expeditions were sent from Santa Fe to try to find and arrest Lewis and Clark, without success. The fourth of those was led by Lieutenant Melgares. It was the largest Spanish force to visit the Plains. Melgares set out on June 15, 1806, with 105 soldiers, 400 New Mexican militia, 100 Indian allies, and more than 2,000 horses and mules. They were supplied for six months. The size of this force was designed especially to impress the Pawnees, whose loyalty to Spain seemed to be wavering, and secure their cooperation against U.S. citizens.
Melgares was born in 1775 in Villa Carabaca, Murcia, Spain, and received an education and was trained as a military officer. He had served with distinction in the army of northern New Spain, having defeated the Apaches on several occasions. He was a man whom Pike clearly admired. Pike was of similar background, born in New Jersey in 1779, son of a career army officer and himself a career officer.
Melgares left Santa Fe on June 15, 1806, led his troops down the Red River where he met some bands of the Comanches, and held council with them. He then headed northeast to the Arkansas River, where 240 of the command and many worn out horses were left in camp on the south side of the river a few miles southwest of present Larned, Kansas. Melgares took the remaining troops and proceeded to the Pawnee village on the Republican River southwest of present Guide Rock, Nebraska, where he met with leaders of the Republican and Grand Pawnees. The Pawnees opposed Melgares's plans to proceed to the Missouri River, or so Chief Sharitarish (White Wolf) told Pike. The Spanish troops returned to the Arkansas, picked up the remaining soldiers, and continued upstream until they left the river to return to Santa Fe, where they arrived October 1, 1806.
They brought with them the ten-year-old, half-Pawnee son of José Jarvet, who had earlier served as an interpreter for Spanish troops on the Plains, and two Frenchmen (Andrés Sulier and Henrique Visonot) whom they met at the Pawnee village. Jarvet's son was sent to live with his father, and the Frenchmen were sent to meet General Nemesio Salcedo in Chihuahua. The Melgares expedition, as with the three previous attempts to find Lewis and Clark, had failed in that mission. He may not have accomplished his mission to the Indians either. His experiences and observations, however, would prove valuable to Pike and his reports.
Warren Cook, who has written the best account of the Melgares expedition in his book Flood Tide of Empire, offered a cogent evaluation, noting that the attempt to apprehend Lewis and Clark was "one purpose of the huge Spanish force that advanced northward toward the Missouri but was hamstrung by horse thieves and stalemated by determined Pawnee opposition." The large force would impress the Plains tribes, but "it was too unwieldy for a surprise attack on Lewis and Clark. . . . It was overkill, in the modern sense, and that proved a part of Melgares's undoing." As it turned out, "His force was too big to travel swiftly, live off the land, keep from offending Indian allies, and succeed in its hypothetical objective." Cook concluded, "With 240 of his men in one spot and 360 in another, his lines of supply were nonexistent, and it would have been difficult for him to push on to the Missouri, fend off the Pawnee, and remain there for a protracted time." How effective Melgares's appeal had been to the Pawnees was tested a few weeks later by Lieutenant Pike, who pushed on despite Pawnee opposition. He met Melgares later in New Mexico, on March 8, 1807. Melgares was described as "a gentleman, a soldier and one of the most gallant men you ever knew."
The two men became friends almost immediately and during daily contacts until May 6, when Melgares was replaced as Pike's guard. Pike presented Melgares a shotgun, and they parted with pledges of friendship. Pike wrote, "Our friend Malgares accompanied us a few miles, to whom we bad[e] an eternal adieu, if war does not bring us together in the field of battle opposed as the most deadly enemies, when our hearts acknowledge the greatest friendship." Pike's party, after being held in Chihuahua for several weeks, continued across Texas and arrived at Natchitoches, Louisiana, on July 1, 1807, completing the Southwest Expedition. His journal of the expedition was first published in 1810, bringing information about the Great Plains and northern New Spain, much of it gleaned from Melgares, into public view. Pike's reports encouraged trade with New Mexico, which came with Mexico's independence. His maps showed potential traders how to reach New Mexico. In time, the forces set in motion by Pike's reports led to the addition of portions of ten states to the nation. Today Zebulon Pike does not receive the recognition he deserves and very few people have ever heard of Facundo Melgares, two enemies who became friends and altered the course of history of North America.
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