Pike in October 1806 and October 2006

Brief by Central Staff

Pike Bicentennial – October 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine –

WHEN WE LEFT Lt. Zebulon M. Pike and his small party at the end of September, they were camped amid the Pawnee near present Red Cloud, Nebraska, on the Republican River.

Pike’s negotiations with the Pawnee were an important part of his mission. He was supposed to switch their allegiance from Spain to the United States, and get their assistance in reaching the Comanche (Pike often called them Tetaus) for the same diplomatic effort. The Comanche had made peace with Spain after Juan Bautista de Anza’s 1779 campaign, which took him through Central Colorado.

Along the way, Pike also needed to acquire some more horses for his journey to the source of the “Arkansaw River.”

Pike and his men camped with the Pawnee from Sept. 25 until Oct. 7, 1806. A little before Pike’s arrival, a large Spanish force of about 400 men from Santa Fé under Lt. Facundo Melgares had visited the Pawnee encampment. The Spanish goal was to maintain the friendship of the Pawnee, and to intercept, if possible, the Lewis and Clark expedition on its return to St. Louis in 1806. But Melgares was too early for Pike and too late for Lewis and Clark.

It makes for some interesting historical speculation, though. If Melgares’s timing had been a little different, he could have attacked American soldiers. Would President Thomas Jefferson have then led America to war with Spain? Pike’s commander, Gen. James Wilkinson in St. Louis, was in charge of American forces in the West — and he was also on the Spanish payroll. So would he have sabotaged the American campaign if war had erupted?

Back to what actually happened. Pike eventually persuaded the Pawnee to take down their Spanish flag, a present from Melgares, and put up a U.S. flag instead. The Pawnee were reluctant — Spain had visited with 400 soldiers and Pike had but 20 men — so Pike allowed them to keep the Spanish flag, “with an injunction that it should never be hoisted during our stay.”

Despite that diplomatic success, Pike could not persuade the Pawnee to lead him to the Comanche, and he almost had to fight his way out of the village. Further, the horse trading took some hard bargaining. The Melgares expedition did not help Pike deal with the Pawnee — but Pike could follow the expedition’s relatively fresh trail (he called it “the Spanish Trace”) south to the Arkansas River, which he struck on Oct. 16, 1806, near Great Bend, Kansas.

Pike and a few companions explored the area and suffered a tragedy. “Discharged our guns at a mark, the best shot a prize of one tent and a pair of shoes. Our only dog was standing at the root of the tree, in the grass; one of the balls struck him in the head and killed him.

Meanwhile other soldiers built canoes so that six men, led by Lt. Wilkinson (the general’s son), could leave the party to float down the Arkansas to civilization with “traverse tables of our voyage, and a draught of our route 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.”

They headed downstream on Oct. 28; Pike and the 15 other men followed the Spanish Trace upstream. On Oct. 31, they camped near what would someday become Kinsley, Kansas, between Dodge City and Great Bend. There was ice in the river, and they were still a long way from its headwaters.

Now, to October of 2006:

October 6-8: Explorers’ Encampment at Bent’s Old Fort, La Junta. The park’s main living history event moves from the summer to the fall, and this year celebrates the explorers who passed by the site of Bent’s Fort before, during and after the post’s existence. Camps from Pike to Long to Frémont will grace the site — joining the camps of plains tribes and Santa Fé traders. More than 60 living history volunteers bring the post back to life during this major event. Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for children under 12. Contact Bents’ Old Fort National Historic Site, 35110 Hwy. 194 East, La Junta, CO 81050, 719-383-5010 or www.nps.gov/beol/home.htm .

October 7: Penrose Apple Day Festival, Pike to Present.” The annual Apple Day Festival commemorates the Pike Expedition by featuring a parade, free apple pie, used book sale, Pike look-a-like contest, games and a dance. For more information log on to www.penrosechamber.com.

October 7, 14, 21: Picketwire Canyonland Auto Tours of La Junta will present information on Pike’s expedition and its influence on exploration and settlement of what is now the Comanche National Grasslands. For information and reservations contact Michelle Stevens, USFS Comanche National Grasslands, 719-384-2181. Tickets are $15 for adults and $7 for children. Participants must make advance reservations, and have a 4-wheel drive vehicle.

October 21: Free lecture at 2 p.m. at the Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum by John Murphy, a retired Colorado Springs lawyer who traveled back in time by physically following in Zebulon M. Pike’s footsteps along his 1806 southwestern trail. Murphy traced Pike’s route through meticulous research and by tramping through nearby mountains. He was able to identify campsites and geographic features described by Pike. This field research gave Murphy a feel for what the trail must have been like for Pike and his men. Murphy has devoted more than 20 years to Pike research. This is a free program but reservations are advised. Please call 719-385-5990.

October 27-29: A three-day seminar entitled “Rendezvous 2006” will be held in Larned, Kansas at the Santa Fé Trail Center. The theme is “Zebulon Pike and the Birth of the Santa Fé Trail. The seminar is sponsored by the Trail Center, Fort Larned National Historic Site, and the Santa Fé Trail Association. This years Rendezvous theme was chosen as a way to examine the preliminary explorations by Pike that laid the foundation for what would later become the Santa Fé Trail. For a registration packet, call the Santa Fé Trail Center at 620-285-2054 or e-mail trailassn@larned.net