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Captain Pike’s visit

Essay by Ed Quillen

History – February 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

THIS YEAR AND NEXT are the bicentennial of the first official American visit to our part of the world: the 1806- 07 expedition led by Capt. Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Before we look at what Pike accomplished, we might look at what he did not accomplish.

Most famously, he did not climb 14,110- foot Pike’s Peak. Nor did he name it. He called it the “Grand Peak,” and the Spanish knew it as “Sierra Amalgre” (Reddish Mountain, on account of its pink granite). The first recorded climb was led by Dr. Edwin James, a botanist with the 1820 military expedition led by Maj. Stephen H. Long. The prominent mountain was afterward called James Peak by some Americans.

But John C. Frémont, who led several trips to the West in the 1840s, called it Pike’s Peak in his popular accounts, as with this entry from the Castle Rock area on July 10, 1842: “Snow fell heavily in the mountains during the night, and Pike’s peak this morning is luminous and grand.” And so it has been Pike’s Peak ever since.

(Officially, it is Pikes Peak, since the U.S. Board on Geographical Names abhors apostrophes. Most publications follow the Board’s style. But this is our publication and we can use the proper punctuation for the genitive case, rather than simplifications promulgated by bureaucrats.)

To honor Dr. James, the state put his name on a 13,228- foot summit in the Front Range, which more or less sits over the Moffat Tunnel. Dr. James had no connection to this peak. His boss’s name is likewise on a summit that Maj. Long never climbed.

The first recorded ascent of 14,245- foot Long’s Peak was led by Maj. John Wesley Powell in 1868 — but Mt. Powell is in the Gore Range, 60 miles southwest of Long’s Peak. This thread could continue indefinitely, and pursuing it is kind of fun, but it’s also a distraction here.

Back to Pike. His was not the first written account of Central Colorado. That account was written 27 years earlier, in 1779, by Juan Bautista de Anza. Anza had a fairly good map when he left Santa Fé that summer to campaign against the Comanche, so we can be reasonably certain that he was not the first Spaniard to venture into this part of La Frontera del Norte.

Nor was Pike the first American to venture into these mountains. That distinction may belong to James Purcell, a trapper and trader from Kentucky. In 1807, Pike met Purcell, who was then working as a carpenter in Santa Fé. Pike recorded his name as Pursley, who “assured me that he had found gold on the head of La Platte in 1805.”

[Pike’s map of our part of the world]

NOR DID PIKE lead a southern counterpart to the Lewis and Clark expedition, which ascended the Missouri and descended the Columbia to reach the Pacific Ocean before returning to civilization in 1803- 06. Meriwether Lewis had extensive scientific training; Pike did not. The true southern counterpart — the Freeman and Custis expedition of 1806, which barely got into present- day Texas before being turned back by Spanish soldiers — was led by men with scientific training. Freeman and Custis, like Lewis and Clark, were under direct orders from President Thomas Jefferson. Pike’s orders came from Gen. James Wilkinson, although Jefferson later ratified them.

Freeman and Custis were supposed to ascend the Red River and descend the Arkansas. Under orders from Jefferson not to start a war, they turned around when they met Spanish soldiers just inside present- day Texas.

Pike was supposed to ascend the Arkansas and descend the Red. Pike thought he was on the Red when he was up near the headwaters of the Arkansas, and never got to the Red. A year earlier, he was supposed to find the source of the Mississippi, and missed it by a Few miles. Little wonder that one of his biographies is called The Lost Pathfinder.

To sum up what Pike did not do: He didn’t find the source of the Red. He had some scientific instruments, and he observed several new species, but he did not have training as a naturalist. He was not the first American in these parts. He did not leave the first written account. He neither discovered nor climbed nor named Pike’s Peak.

So what did Pike accomplish? Why are we celebrating the bicentennial of this venture? Where does Pike fit in the American epic?

Most historians will tell you that the pivotal event in American history is the Civil War (or, for our readers in the Old Confederacy, the War of Southern Secession). The southern states attempted to secede because Abraham Lincoln had been elected president in 1860. Lincoln had pledged not to interfere with slavery where it was legal. But he also pledged to oppose any expansion of slavery into the territories, where the Federal government, rather than state governments, made such determinations. The territory in question at that time was acquired in the Mexican War of 1846- 48.

So we can argue that the Mexican War led to the Civil War. In other words, if there had been no Mexican War, there might never have been a Civil War, because there would not have been new territories to argue about.

And we can also argue that Pike’s expedition led directly to the Mexican War, 40 years after his visit to our part of the world. To see how, let’s start with the international situation in the summer of 1806, when Gen. James Wilkinson ordered Pike to venture west. In Europe, Napoleon had just forced Spain to “retrocede” the Louisiana Territory (in theory, all Mississippi drainage west of the Mississippi River) to France. And Napoleon, in turn, had sold Louisiana to the United States for $15 million — that’s the Louisiana Purchase.

SPAIN FEARED the expansionist tendencies of the United States. Spain also kept its colonies isolated from the world. Few outsiders ever had a chance to visit and return. So in 1806 there was a mysterious “forbidden realm” in the mountains of the West, controlled by an empire that had no use for the United States.

In other words, America and Spain were rubbing against each other, and they did not agree on the boundary of the Louisiana Purchase. President Jefferson said the land extended all the way to the Rio Grande. Spain claimed it was more like present- day Louisiana and Arkansas. Tensions built and war seemed imminent.

Wilkinson, as the commanding American general, must have wanted to know what Spain had out here — in the way of soldiers, forts, roads, settlements, etc. In 1806, Wilkinson certainly couldn’t order aerial surveillance or satellite images. So there’s a legitimate military reason for him to send Pike west to reconnoiter and get as close as possible to the legendary city of Santa Fé, capital of northern Mexico.

As for illegitimate reasons, Wilkinson’s conduct suggests several, for he was one of the great scoundrels of American history. He was on the Spanish payroll then as a double agent. On that account, he might have sent Pike west on some sort of secret mission. So secret, in fact, that Pike might not have known about it. Wilkinson’s agent could have been Dr. John H. Robinson, who was supposedly accompanying Pike west so he could go to Santa Fé to collect a bill that had been assigned to him. This was allowed by the commercial treaty between Spain and the United States, but it could have merely been a cover story.

And then there’s the Burr- Wilkinson conspiracy, which brings us to another great American scoundrel, Aaron Burr. Burr was more than ambitious. The president and vice- president were chosen difFerently in 1800 than they are now. The one who got the most electoral votes became president; the runner- up became vice- president.

The understanding in the Republican Party of the day (Jefferson’s party, and the ancestor of today’s Democratic Party, just to make things more confusing) was that Jefferson was supposed to get the most votes, and Burr second- most. But the presidential electors didn’t heed the party. Jefferson and Burr tied in the Electoral College, and Burr refused to concede. Eventually the House of Representatives — thanks to some work by Jefferson’s political antagonist Alexander Hamilton — chose Jefferson. (This may be one reason that Burr hated Hamilton, and eventually killed him in a famous duel. It’s also why the 12th Amendment to the Constitution changed the method of electing presidents, so that electors voted for both offices.)

At any rate, Burr was vice- president of the United States from 1801 to 1805. The party picked another candidate in 1804 (George Clinton, who was the only vice- president to serve under two different presidents). While losing a bid to become governor of New York, Burr began conspiring with Wilkinson with the goal of setting up their own empire in the West. Wilkinson later turned on Burr, but in 1806, Wilkinson might have sent Pike west to gather information, not for the United States, but for himself and Burr and their plan to conquer some territory for their own purposes.

WHETHER Pike was a knowing participant or not, their scheme never came to fruition. Wilkinson turned on Burr, who was then tried — and acquitted — on a charge of treason.

So the political situation of 1806 in the United States, both domestic and foreign, was complex and confusing. Much that might have happened — a war with Spain, a new nation in the West — did not happen.

But recall that Spain tried to keep its New World empire sealed from outsiders. Even if Spain and the United States were technically at peace, there was no commerce between St. Louis and Santa Fé.

Remember the trader James Purcell of Kentucky, whom Pike encountered in Santa Fé? Purcell was not imprisoned, but it’s clear from Pike’s journal that the Spanish would not let him leave the territory.

Little wonder, then, that Americans were curious about what lay west of St. Louis in the remote Rocky Mountains, or that Pike was sent west to learn what he could. Historians still argue about whether Pike planned to get captured by the Spanish (at Pike’s Stockade near La Jara in the San Luis Valley on Feb. 26, 1807), or if he just blundered into it.

Either way, Pike got a guided tour of Santa Fé and a trip down the Rio Grande to Chihuahua. Thanks to military courtesy, the Spanish returned him and most of his men to the United States in 1807.

Pike published his journal in 1810, and it was a best- seller of the day (although he received no royalties because his publisher went bankrupt). From Pike, Americans learned that there was an overland route to Santa Fé and that the people of New Mexico would be eager buyers for American goods; they also learned that the New Mexicans had silver and wool to trade. Pike published a list of prices for flour, salt, cloth, mules, etc. “which will show the cheapness of provisions and the extreme dearness of imported goods.” American merchants were inspired by this opportunity to sell high and buy low.

Pike even speculated about an American invasion of northern Mexico: “I would not be afraid to march over a plain with 500 infantry and a proportionate allowance of horse artillery of the United States army, in the presence of 5,000 of these dragoons … it would eventuate with glory to the American arms.”

As long as it was Spanish territory, however, the Spanish authorities did their best to keep Americans out and maintain their monopoly on the old trade route along the Rio Grande. They weren’t always successful, though. And the demand for more trade with the United States became so appreciable that when Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, one of the new government’s first acts was to legalize commerce with the Americans. Those early traders followed much of Pike’s route between St. Louis and Santa Fé and thus arose the Santa Fé Trail.

Once New Mexico became commercially tied to the United States in the 1820s, the political connection was inevitable. It came by warfare, but without much violence. The American Army of the West, under Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny, entered Santa Fé and raised the Stars and Stripes over the Palace of the Governors without firing a shot on Aug. 16, 1846. Just 15 years later came the violent part of the bitter American political dispute over how to organize its new territories — as slave or free.

And Pike, to some degree, helped start it all by leading the first American military expedition into Mexico. One can argue that most of this would have happened anyway, with or without Pike. But Pike was a poetic diarist and his prose fired the imagination of the Americans.

And there’s another distinction that can’t be argued: Pike was the first to write about the Great Sand Dunes, which he encountered on Jan. 28, 1807. “The sand- hills extended up and down the foot of the White mountains about 15 miles, and appeared to be about five miles in width. Their appearance was exactly that of the sea in a storm, except as to color, not the least sign of vegetation existing thereon.”

There is considerable controversy about whether Pike’s expedition was successful. And militarily, that question seems legitimate. But Pike was the first travel writer in our region with a flare for description and emotional expression. And to quote an expert on the road less taken: “that has made all the difference.”

— Ed Quillen