Article by Ed Quillen
Local history – March 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine
This hard winter marks the 190th anniversary of the first winter spent in Central Colorado by American citizens. History knows this as the Pike Expedition, named for its commander, Capt. Zebulon Mont gomery Pike, who left his name on 14,110-foot Pike’s Peak, which, as the late historian Marshall Sprague put it, Pike “neither discovered nor climbed nor named.”
But there was much more to the 1806-07 Pike Expedition than one mountain he didn’t climb. Those men weren’t tourists; they were soldiers following orders, and their orders originated in Washington, D.C.
In 1803, the United States spent $15 million to acquire “Louisiana” from France. The transaction alone could fill a book, what with Napoleonic intrigues in Europe and President Thomas Jefferson doubting whether the deal was constitutional.
But here, the important fact is that none of the government officials involved knew quite where French territory (U.S. territory after the purchase) ended, nor where Spanish territory (everything to the south and west) began.
In theory, Louisiana consisted of all land drained by the Mississippi River and its western tributaries, such as the Missouri, Platte, Arkansas, and Red. Just find the sources of those rivers, map the dividing ridges, and Louisiana would be defined.
In actuality, though, the U.S. was acquiring Louisiana “as France possessed it.” Although French traders wandered far and wide, official France hadn’t bothered to “possess” much more than New Orleans and St. Louis. Away from the great river, there were no forts, roads, post offices, customs houses, or other symptoms of imperial attention.
The American negotiators in Paris, Robert Livingston and James Monroe, pressed the French minister for details on the extent of the territory. Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand offered an enigmatic reply: “Ah, messieurs, you have made a noble bargain for yourselves, and I suppose you will make the most of it.”
In other words, it was up to the United States to establish the limits of the Louisiana Purchase.
Since Louisiana was defined by the Mississippi and its tributaries, the United States needed to map those rivers to establish boundaries for Thomas Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty.”
The expeditions also established an American presence in areas where disputes might later arise, and informed various traders and Indian tribes that they now fell under the stars and stripes, rather than the fleur-de-lis.
In the Southwest, the important boundary river was the Red, the river that now forms part of the border between Oklahoma and Texas.
The Red was important because it is the last major stream to flow into the Mississippi from the West. The next drainages south or west of the Red’s would be Spanish, and the formal limits of the Louisiana Purchase would be known if the United States could determine the course of the Red.
The United States would have to enforce its claims, though. Spain saw the Arkansas (Rio Napestle) as a northern boundary to New Mexico province, and so the territory between the Platte (conceded by all as part of Louisiana) and the Rio Grande (definitely Spanish) was in contention.
The Comanche actually ruled much of this land, so both Spain and the United States sought alliances with the tribe, and this southwestern border between the two empires wasn’t settled until the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819.
But if the United States planned to “make the most of it” in 1806, the government needed to map the Red. Where might the Red begin?
The logic of the time offered a prediction. Baron Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist and mining engineer (and namesake of the 14,064-foot peak southwest of Westcliffe), spent the five years 1799-1804 exploring in South America.
On his way back to Europe in 1804, he stopped in Washington, D.C., to talk with President Thomas Jefferson, who shared his scientific interests and rationalist philosophy.
Humboldt was the eminent scientist of his day. Science, mathematics, and logic had combined to explain and predict remote matters like the course of the planets in the sky. With such tools, it seemed possible to predict more mundane matters, such as the course of rivers on the earth.
Humboldt’s reasoning about the American West, which he never visited, is reflected in a map he later published. The Red is the last major river to flow into the Mississippi from the West. The next-to-last is the Arkansas.
Humboldt knew that rivers must start in the snow-filled mountains. Thus the Arkansas and the Red must both begin in the legendary Shining Mountains of the West, and follow generally parallel courses across the Great Plains before joining the Mississippi.
And so, if an expedition found the source of the Arkansas, finding the Red’s headwaters should be simple. Just march south into the next drainage, and you’d be at the start of the Red. It occurred to no one that the Red might actually start in the panhandle of Texas, 200 miles east of any protuberance remotely resembling a mountain.
This was not Jefferson’s only attempt to impose a rational order upon a jumbled landscape. He also established the grid system for American surveying — the rectilinear network of sections, townships, and ranges that remains to this day. The regular shapes of everything from the Back 40 to Colorado are a legacy from Thomas Jefferson’s intellectual passions.
Jefferson also jumped to rational conclusions. In many places, the Appalachian Divide between Atlantic rivers and the Mississippi drainage was a reasonable gap. A small boat might ascend the Potomac, make a short portage, and begin descending an Ohio tributary that led to New Orleans.
Jefferson reckoned that the continent must be arranged symmetrically, so that the same held in the West, with a short portage between the Missouri and Columbia river drainages. This “scientific” belief led to all manner of trouble for Lewis and Clark, just as the “scientific” belief that the Red must head just south of the Arkansas led to trouble for a contemporary expedition, Pike’s.
Lewis and Clark operated directly under Jefferson’s authority, though. Pike’s orders came from Gen. James Wilkinson, governor of Louisiana Territory in St. Louis. Pike’s orders were multiple, but primary among his duties was to ascend the Arkansas to its source, then find the source of the Red and return down it.
But there may have been more to this than merely establishing the limits of the Louisiana Purchase.
Wilkinson’s loyalty to the United States was worse than suspect. It is documented that he was also on the Spanish payroll, at a time when tensions between the United States and Spain were high and war seemed imminent.
Further, there was Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s vice-president, and the only man to hold such high American office ever tried for treason. Burr was charged with conspiring with Wilkinson to create their own empire after separating the West from the United States.
Burr’s 1807 trial revealed few specifics. But sufficient grounds remain for speculation about Wilkinson’s real motives.
Was he really working for the United States, whose uniform he wore? For Spain, which sent him gold? Or for his and Burr’s schemes of their own trans-Mississippi empire?
And if Wilkinson’s motives were less than honorable, did he give secret orders to Pike? Was Pike merely supposed to trace some rivers, or was he also supposed to spy to learn the extent of the defenses on Spain’s northern New World frontier?
But then again, Wilkinson, as the American army commander, had solid military reasons for wanting information about Spain’s military presence in Santa Fé and environs. War could break out any day, and if it did, Wilkinson would have to attack those defenses, or defend against attacks from that area.
Of course, Wilkinson would also want to know that if he planned to set up his empire with Burr. They may have planned to raise a small army of frontiersmen, conquer the northern part of the Spanish Empire (the Arkansas and Rio Grande headwaters), and use that as a base to grab the Louisiana Purchase.
Thus you see the complexity of unraveling Wilkinson’s loyalties, and the futility of determining the motivations of his lieutenant, Zebulon M. Pike. Unless hitherto unknown documents come to light, we will never know the truth about Wilkinson, and by extension, Pike.
But there is no real evidence that Pike was anything other than a loyal and energetic soldier of the United States, and my examination of his blundering course through Central Colorado persuades me that Pike was acting honorably, if not always prudently.
Zebulon Montgomery Pike was born Jan. 5, 1779 in Lamberton (now part of Trenton), N.J., into a military family. His father, also named Zebulon, fought with distinction in the Revolutionary War, and later, against Indians in the Ohio Valley.
The boy joined the U.S. Army when he was only 15 years old and rose quickly, gaining his commission as a second lieutenant before he turned 21. His career took him ever westward, and in 1805, he was assigned to Gen. Wilkinson in St. Louis.
Given the recent American purchase of the territory drained by the Mississippi, Pike’s first major assignment was quite logical — find the source of the river. Along the way, he informed the traders, mostly French and British, that they were now on American soil. He also needed to convey this information to any Indians he met, and ally their tribes to the United States.
The timing wasn’t so logical. His expedition — one sergeant, two corporals, and 17 privates, all poling a 70-foot keelboat — left St. Louis on Aug. 9, 1805, as the days grew shorter and a north country winter loomed.
Details of that expedition aren’t important here, except that it was in many ways a precursor of his trip west. He and his men suffered horribly, nearly freezing to death as starvation threatened, and Pike failed at his expedition’s main goal — he had the Mississippi starting at Cass and Leech lakes in Minnesota, rather than the real source at Lake Itasca, 40 miles away.
Pike returned to St. Louis on April 30, 1806, with little time to rest and compile his journals before he got orders for the next expedition:
1. Return 51 Osage and Pawnee Indians, who had been to Washington, to their homes on the Osage River in central Missouri.
2. Negotiate a peace between the Kansas and Osage tribes.
3. Persuade the Comanche (then allied with the Spanish), and the Teton and Yankton Sioux (friendly with the French), to ally with the United States.
4. Ascend the Arkansas to its headwaters, then descend the Red.
This order would take Pike near “the settlements of New Mexico,” Wilkinson wrote, where “it will be necessary you should move with great circumspection, to keep clear of any hunting or reconnoitering parties from that province, and to prevent alarm or offense….”
Pike was also supposed to “remark particularly upon the geographical structure, the natural history, and population of the country through which you may pass, taking particular care to collect and preserve specimens of everything curious in the mineral or botanical worlds.” Pike carried a few instruments — telescope, watch, thermometer, quadrant.
There was a military aspect to this, too. The Spanish had recently dispatched an expedition to the Plains, into what was definitely U.S. Territory, under Lt. Don Facundo Malgares. Spain had arrested some American traders, and treated with several plains tribes. Pike’s expedition was also a military demonstration of American determination.
Just before the expedition departed St. Louis on July 15, Pike received more orders from Wilkinson. They came with 24-year-old John Hamilton Robinson, a volunteer who would serve the expedition as physician and surgeon, but who wasn’t formally attached to it.
Robinson carried a bill owed to William Morrison, a merchant in Kaskakia, Ill. In 1804, Morrison had advanced goods to a Creole trader named Babtiste La Lande, who was supposed to head west, cut some good deals, and return to share his profits with Morrison.
La Lande made it to Santa Fé, and Pike wrote that “Finding that he sold the goods high, had land offered him, and the women kind, he concluded to expatriate himself and convert the property of Morrison to his own benefit.”
Pike was supposed to escort Robinson to the border with Spain’s New Mexico province. Pike, as a soldier, could go no further without committing an act of war. But Robinson, as a civilian acting as Morrison’s agent, had the bill as an excuse for a trip to Santa Fé — where he might do some spying for Wilkinson.
At least, that makes the most sense to me. Pike was certainly aware that Wilkinson wanted information about Santa Fé and New Mexico in general, but as I’ve pointed out earlier, Wilkinson had good American reasons for espionage.
Here we can quickly move Pike (and Robinson, and the 16 men under his command) across Missouri and Kansas, where he left off the Indians and began ascending the Arkansas, to present-day Cañon City on Dec. 5, 1806. Their effort to climb the “Grand Peak” to the north had just failed. It was bitter cold and the snow was falling — they were clad in thin summer uniforms, for Pike had “not calculated on being out in that inclement season of the year.”
They sought the source of the Arkansas that flowed past their tents.
One possibility was Grape Creek, descending from the Wet Mountains to the southwest. But it was too small to be the main river. The other was the main stem emerging from the Royal Gorge.
“The doctor and myself followed the river into the mountain,” Pike reported, “where it was bounded on each side by the rocks of the mountain, 200 feet high, leaving a small valley of 50 or 60 feet.”
The next day, Pike sent men to penetrate further into the gorge. They said “they had ascended until the river was merely a brook, bounded on both sides with perpendicular rocks.” One suspects that these privates, already cold and miserable, weren’t about to trace the Arkansas any farther.
Certainly that canyon must be the start of the Arkansas, Pike reasoned. They’d found it. Now, just get to the Red, and they could escape this awful winter.
Pike’s men had also found evidence of Spanish passage — campsites and horse trails. As an army officer on the frontier, Pike had good reason to investigate Spanish incursions onto American soil, and that probably explains why he didn’t immediately head south, toward where he assumed the Red would be.
Instead, he rode northwest, following a Spanish trace. Besides, for all he knew, the Red could start in the mountains behind the Royal Gorge, already established as the head of the Arkansas.
His exact route from Cañon City remains unknowable, but he probably climbed Fourmile Creek (a/k/a Oil Creek), pursued its west fork, and crossed Thirtynine Mile Mountain on Dec. 13, 1806. (He might have taken Currant Creek — today’s Colo. Hwy. 9.)
After setting up camp, Pike walked “about two miles north, fell upon a river 40 yards wide, frozen over; which, after some investigation, I found ran northeast. This was the occasion of much surprise, as we had been taught to expect to meet with the branches of Red River, which should run southeast. Query: Must it not be the headwaters of the river Platte?”
He got that right — he was in South Park near present Elevenmile Reservoir on the South Platte. Pike, though, never knew of the Platte’s major tributary, the North Platte. But he had found the source of one river, although it wasn’t any river on his orders.
“We had determined to pursue them [Spanish and Indian trails],” Pike write, “as the geography of the country had turned out to be so different from our expectations.” They also had equipment troubles — another rifle burst, making three to explode, and five others had broken along the way.
Some wandering took Pike to where he could see across Trout Creek Pass, where a river flowed south below the highest peaks in the Rockies. That river, he decided, had to be the Red. On Dec. 18, they crossed Trout Creek Pass and on Dec. 19, set up camp near present Johnson Village, sure that they were on the long-sought Red River.
All they had to do before leaving was establish its source. Game was scarce at Johnson Village, so Pike told most of his men to go downriver until they found something to kill and eat, and wait there for his return.
From Johnson Village, Pike and two privates — John Montjoy and Theodore Miller — “ascended 12 miles and encamped on the north side. The river continued close to the north mountain, running through a narrow rocky channel…” That sounds like the Granite area, and the next day they “Marched up 13 miles, to a large point of the mountain, whence we had a view at least 35 miles, to where the river entered the mountains.”
Satisfied that he had found the source of the “Red,” Pike and his crew hastened downstream to find the rest of the expedition. “Our clothing was frozen stiff and we were considerably benumbed” when they arrived at camp on Dec. 24.
The exact site is unknown, but it had to be near the mouth of Squaw Creek and thus near the present roadside historical marker which notes the first Christmas celebration in Colorado.
Their fortunes had changed, now that they’d killed eight buffalo.
“We now again found ourselves all assembled together on Christmas Eve, and appeared generally to be content, although all the refreshment we had to celebrate that day with was buffalo meat, without salt, or any other thing whatever….” Pike wrote, and on Christmas Day, “here, 800 miles from the frontiers of our country, in the most inclement season of the year — not one person clothed for the winter — many without blankets, having been obliged to cut them up for socks, etc., and now lying down at night on the snow or wet ground, one side burning whilst the other was pierced with the cold wind — such was in part the situation of the party, whilst some were endeavoring to make a miserable substitute of raw buffalo hide for shoes …”
On Dec. 26, they marched downstream and camped at Salida where “a large stream [the South Arkansas] enters from the south.” The river’s channel must have been more shallow then, for Pike observed that “On this piece of prairie the river spreads considerably, and forms several small islands.”
It is Pike’s course here that convinces me that he was honestly trying to follow his “Red” down to the Mississippi, rather than spy on New Mexico.
Suppose that Pike’s real intention was to get to Santa Fé, and that he believed, at his Salida camp, that he was on the Red. His Humboldt logic told him that the next river to the south was the Rio Grande. The path to the Rio Grande, Poncha Pass, was certainly visible as a low point between Methodist Mountain and Mount Ouray as Pike headed downriver from Squaw Creek to Salida.
The path over Poncha was an established Ute route, and the Spanish had used it in Anza’s expedition of 1779. If Pike had been looking for a way south to spy on the Rio Grande settlements, he certainly would have noticed Poncha Pass. He didn’t. He wasn’t even looking for it. He took exactly the course he would take if he honestly believed he was on the Red.
After Salida came a week and more of what sounds like hell. They were descending the frozen Arkansas, which they supposed to be the Red. Horses stumbled and died on the ice, and there were no workable ways around the canyons.
Pike did contribute to science, with the first recorded sighting of a bighorn sheep on Dec. 29, and on Jan. 1, Dr. Robinson shot one. Perhaps that explains why somebody recently decided to call that area “Bighorn Canyon.”
Jan. 2, between Spikebuck and Parkdale, may have been the worst day in this stretch: “Labored all day, but made only one mile; many of our horses were much wounded in falling on the rocks. Provision growing short … almost impossible to proceed any further with the horses by the bed of the river, ascended the mountain and immediately after were again obliged to descend an almost perpendicular side of the mountain; in effecting which, one horse fell down the precipice, and bruised himself so miserably that I conceived it mercy to cause the poor animal to be shot.”
The expedition got strung out, and on Jan. 4, Pike “marched about five miles on the river, which was one continued fall through a narrow channel, with immense cliffs on both sides.” He found an icy ravine, worked his way around this canyon, and on Jan. 5, caught sight of the Great Plains and of the river emerging from the canyon.
“[F]rom some distant peaks I immediately recognized it to be the outlet of the Arkansaw, which we had left nearly one month since. This was a great mortification…. This was my birth-day, and most fervently did I hope never to pass another so miserably.”
No sign of the Red River, and Pike was at a loss. His few horses were in no condition to proceed, and most of his men suffered likewise.
He finally decided to built a small fort at Cañon City, caching most of his gear there along with an injured soldier. The others would proceed on foot with 70-pound packs in the dead of winter, climbing Grape Creek into the Wet Mountains, until they found the source of the Red. They’d establish a route, then go back for their stuff, then descend the Red. Pike certainly believed in following orders.
If the week going down the Arkansas was hell, the days after Jan. 14 were even worse. His route is hard to determine from his journal, but they did some circling in the Wet Mountain Valley, and apparently camped near Silver Cliff on Jan. 17, 1807.
He left men behind with frostbitten feet, and had other soldiers not encountered a few buffalo, the whole party would have died of exposure and starvation.
As they approached the Sangre de Cristo range west of Gardner, Private John Brown exclaimed that “it was more than human nature could bear, to march three days without sustenance, through snows three feet deep, and carry burdens only fit for horses.”
Pike refrained from discipline until that night, when he told Brown that “it was the height of ingratitude in you to let an expression escape which was indicative of discontent.” Pike mercifully said he would pardon Brown this time, “but assure you, should it ever be repeated, by instant death I will avenge your ingratitude and punish your disobedience.”
The horrible march continued, up into the Sangres. He must have crossed either Mosca or Medano pass. Elliott Coues, in his notes with Pike’s journals, argues for Medano.
Ron Kessler of Monte Vista, our regional expert at finding old routes, says it had to be Mosca. Kessler has found evidence of regular Spanish use before Pike arrived in 1807, and Pike reported that, as he descended the west side on January 28, “there had been a road cut out; on many trees were various hieroglyphics painted.”
Pike also saw the San Juans across the San Luis Valley, and nearby, a future national monument: sand dunes which “extended up and down the foot of the White [Sangre de Cristo] 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 thereon.”
The valley floor held a river flowing south, and the Humboldt logic said it simply had to be the Red. They descended it for a few miles, then went up its Conejos tributary, where they built a fort of sorts so they could lay over for the winter and collect their stragglers and gear.
Pike climbed a hill and observed the San Luis Valley: “one of the most sublime and beautiful inland prospects ever presented to the eyes of man…. The main river, bursting out of the western mountain, and meeting from the northeast a large branch which divides the chain of mountains, proceeds down the prairie, making many large and beautiful islands, one of which I judge contains 100,000 acres of land, all meadow ground, covered with innumerable herds of deer…. The great and lofty mountains, covered with eternal snows, seemed to surround the luxuriant vale, crowned with perennial flowers, like a terrestrial paradise shut out from the view of man.”
There are reasons to suspect the veracity of a man who said he saw flowers there in February, but Pike wasn’t under oath, and he’d been through a terrible ordeal — he’s entitled to some slack.
From this spot, now reconstructed by the state historical society as Pike’s Stockade, Dr. Robinson decided to meander down to Santa Fé. When he left on Feb. 7, Robinson may have known or suspected they were actually on the Rio Grande, not the Red, but Pike’s journal gives no indication. Of course, if Pike was in cahoots with Robinson and Wilkinson on a spy scheme, it wouldn’t. More problems for the historian here.
At any rate, Pike’s presence was soon known to the Spanish military. On Feb. 16, two dragoons appeared, and on Feb. 28, more Spanish soldiers arrived with news that Pike was camped on the Rio [Grande] del Norte, not the Rio Rojo, and that he had been invited (with no possibility of refusing the invitation) to visit the territorial governor in Santa Fé.
On April 1, 1807, Don Joachin Allencaster, governor of New Mexico, filed a report. It starts with Dr. Robinson appearing in Santa Fé on Feb. 15. Allencaster invites him to dinner and asks about how he arrived.
“I did not believe him, and suspecting the truth of his statement as to the nature of his escort, I sent out a small regular detachment and some provincial troops to reconnoitre.” They found “a first lieutenant [Pike, who was a captain by then, but news of his promotion hadn’t arrived] with six soldiers in an excellent fort built on the Conejos not far from its junction with the Del Norte, two days’ journey from the capital of this province.”
Allencaster calls it an “excellent fort.” Pike noted that “Our mode of getting in was to crawl over the ditch on a plank, and into a small hole sunk below the level of the work near the river for that purpose.”
To continue with Allencaster, on March 2, “the above-mentioned lieutenant, whose name is Mungo-Meri-Paikem [a transliteration, apparently, of Montgomery Pike] came in with six men of his detachment, and on the 18th the remainder of his men. Without any resistance they acquiesced in the notification made them, that being in my territory it was absolutely necessary that they should appear before me….
“I conclude distinctly that the expedition of July was specially designed to conciliate two Indian tribes in behalf of the U.S. Government, to make them liberal presents, and drawing them into friendship, treaty, and commerce, to place them under the Anglo-American protection — all this referring especially to the Comanche tribe, the most powerful of our allies.”
So Allencaster had good reason to be disturbed — Pike was trying to turn the Comanche from Spanish allies (as they had been since Anza’s success in 1779) into enemies.
Further, from the Spanish vantage, the United States had extravagant notions about the extent of Louisiana. The “Anglo-American government considers as included within the boundaries of Louisiana all the rivers that empty into the Mississippi, and all the territories that extend to the head waters of the Red River.”
The authorities in Santa Fé didn’t know what to do with Pike. If he was a spy, they should just arrange a firing squad for him, but if he was indeed merely a lost soldier, that would be an act of war, and the officers in a remote province didn’t want to be responsible for starting a war with the new nation to the east.
So they sent this diplomatic problem down to Chihuahua, administrative center for the north part of the empire. Pike’s papers were confiscated, but he and his men were conveyed across Texas and back to the United States on July 1, 1807, at Natchitoches, Louisiana. He wrote his journals, popular books in their day, and pursued his military career by fighting against the British in the War of 1812.
He led an assault against a fort at York, Ontario (today’s Toronto). He was seriously wounded when a powder magazine exploded, and died on April 27, 1813.
One cannot doubt Pike’s courage, nor his leadership skills in moving ill-equipped men through hard and hostile territory. But what were his real accomplishments? After all, he didn’t know where he was during much of his expedition, as is reflected in the title of W. Eugene Hollon’s biography of Pike: The Lost Pathfinder. Pike’s papers were confiscated by the Spanish, so his journals rely on memory, not observations at the time.
He added little to contemporary knowledge of the West, and his fanciful maps reflect that — he has the Yellowstone starting somewhere near Breckenridge, and the Gulf of California is a mere leap west of Santa Fé.
Comparing his expedition with Anza’s is fair. Both were career military men in the service of empire, and they entered the same territory, Central Colorado, during the same general time period — Anza in 1779 and Pike in 1806-07.
Anza led a huge force, 800 men and 2,400 horses, and equipped them well. Their guns didn’t explode, and they were never in danger of starving or freezing. He succeeded in his goal of defeating the Comanche in a pitched battle.
Pike had 14 men, ill-equipped, starving, freezing. He failed to find the source of the Red, and when he found the start of the Arkansas, he thought it was the Red. He was captured by foreign soldiers, who confiscated his specimens and observations.
By almost any measure, Pike’s expedition was a miserable failure, while Anza’s was a resounding success. So why did Pike’s empire eventually conquer the territory, while Anza’s empire receded?
I think the answer lies in their journals. My copy of Anza’s campaign report, even with interpretation and maps, runs all of 40 pages.
It is a military report and no more. Not from Anza’s hand will you read about what plants grow, or what minerals one might find. It’s plain and simple and to-the-point, and it was not published or distributed in Anza’s day.
By contrast, Pike’s journal was a best-seller in its day, and it comprises two thick volumes — about 950 pages all told. Even if you extract Pike’s account to parallel Anza’s course from Cañon City to Santa Fé, Pike spreads across 84 pages.
It reads like an adventure, written in the sort of heroic and romantic prose that inspired young men to heroic and romantic deeds. Further, it teems with observations about plant life, about what might grow in various spots, and the presence of minerals like sulfur and salt.
Recall Pike’s observation at the site of Salida on Dec. 26, 1806, about the Arkansas flowing wide with islands. Contrast that with Anza’s journal from Aug. 28, 1779: “… after little more than a league [from Poncha Springs] we crossed to the Rio de Nepestle which comes in from the northwest.”
Pike even made the first American report of gold in Colorado. In Santa Fé, he met a fellow American, a trapper named James Purcell (known to Pike as Pursley) who had wandered around the West from 1802 to 1805 before getting captured by the Spanish, who deemed him a trespasser and hauled him to the territorial capital.
Pike wrote that Purcell “assured me that he had found gold on the head of La Platte [apparently somewhere near Fairplay], and had carried some of the virgin mineral in his shot-pouch for months, but that, being in doubt whether he should ever again behold the civilized world, and losing in his mind all the ideal value which mankind have stamped on that metal, he threw the sample away. He had imprudently mentioned it to the Spaniards, who had frequently solicited him to go and show a detachment of cavalry the place; but, conceiving it to be in our territory, he had refused….”
That didn’t provoke a gold rush when his journals were published in 1810, but Pike’s mention that cloth and hardware fetched high prices in Santa Fé did inspire American traders to start finding their way to Santa Fé, despite the opposition of Spanish authorities. Once St. Louis was linked to Santa Fé by commerce, American domination was merely a matter of time.
Pike, even though he had little in the way of military power, managed to lead a conquest.
His surveys still tied a remote region to known latitudes and longitudes — made them part of Jefferson’s idealized rectilinear world, rather than the fragmented Spanish meets-and-bounds territory.
Pike’s scientific efforts represented the American desire not merely to pass through a territory, as Anza had, but to comprehend the landscape and then to use science to put it to work with mines and reservoirs and plowed fields.
As the saying goes, “knowledge is power,” and Pike acquired and disseminated knowledge, inaccurate though much of it was.
Pike thus inspired his countrymen to look west, where the game and adventure might be as abundant as the profits of the Santa Fé trade. In the short term, his expedition looked miserable compared to Anza’s, but in the long term, Pike’s empire overwhelmed Anza’s.
Anza died in 1788, long before Pike ventured west, so they never could have met. It’s a pity, for they had much in common — career officers from military families serving their empires on a hard and remote frontier.
Thus, I like to imagine an old soldier’s home somewhere in the sky, where one afternoon Pike strolls into a sitting room, spouting romantic bombast about his adventures.
Relaxing in a comfortable chair is Juan Bautista de Anza, tough and hard as boot leather. He fixes Pike with a a wordless glare.
The American officer knows the real thing when he sees it, so General Pike quietly and respectfully sits down next to Governor Anza.
“Hell, I knew it was the Napestle [Arkansas] soon as we crossed Footpath [Poncha] Pass,” Anza says. “Even knew where it headwatered, up in the sierras to the northwest. How in tarnation did you get so turned around out there?”
“Those damned maps from Baron von Humboldt,” Pike replies. “That bastard had me convinced the Red had to come out of the Shining Mountains.”
Anza snaps his fingers at a steward, who fetches a bottle of madiera and two glasses. They begin an eternity of swapping tales about old times on the Western Frontier/la frontera del norte.
Ed Quillen decided not to attempt to retrace Pike’s route after looking at pictures of Grape Creek.