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The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike

Review by Ed Quillen

History – February 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike
Edited by Elliott Coues
Originally published in 1895
Reprinted in 1987 by Dover Publications
Paper, Two Volumes
Volume 1: ISBN: 0-486-25254-X
Volume 2: ISBN: 0-486-25255-8

WHENEVER I MENTION Zebulon Montgomery Pike in a Denver Post column, I get email asking where to find more information about the Pike expedition of 1806-07 — the first formal American expedition into Central Colorado.

In the reply, I steer people to the source: Pike’s own journals, available in a two-volume reprint from Dover, one of my favorite publishers (most of the old-fashioned artwork we use in this magazine comes from various Dover collections). I also advise that if you only have time for one of the two volumes, get the second. It covers Pike in Colorado and New Mexico; the first volume is about his expedition to find the source of the Mississippi River in 1805.

Alas, too many people seem to have taken this advice. A check of Dover’s website reveals that only the first volume remains available from the publisher, although various retailers and wholesalers may still have some of the second volume in stock, and there’s also the used-book market.

So, consider this partly a plea to Dover: get the second volume back into print.

But even if your primary interest is the trip to Colorado, the first volume is worth having. It offers some biographical information about Pike, as well as the editor’s explanation of how he organized the book from the jumble that Pike left behind after he was killed in battle during the War of 1812.

In editing the journals, editor Elliott Coues arranged them chronologically, and supplied copious footnotes to connect the route that Pike wrote about with the geography of 1895.

However, we are more removed from Coues (107 years) than he was from Pike (88 years). And so the modern reader also has to perform some detective work in tracing Pike’s route. For instance, Coues might locate a South Park Pike campsite near a siding on the Colorado Midland Railroad — which was abandoned in 1920, and thus the spot may not appear on any reasonably modern map.

BUT COUES DOES DO HIS BEST to figure out Pike’s precise route, parts of which are still subject to argument. In general terms, starting in late 1806, Pike went from Cañon City to South Park, then over Trout Creek Pass to spend Christmas near Salida. Then he ventured down the Arkansas and around the Gorge to return to Cañon.

From there, the 16-man expedition went up Grape Creek to the Wet Mountain Valley, across the Sangres (probably Medano Pass) to the San Luis Valley, where he built a stockade. A Spanish patrol found him there, trespassing on Spanish soil, and he was taken to Sante Fé, and then into Texas and Mexico, before being released to return to the United States.

The Colorado part of the trip was conducted in the dead of winter, with his men outfitted in light summer uniforms. Their horses faltered, and the hunters often had trouble finding meat.

PIKE COMES ACROSS as adventuresome and headstrong, as a leader who exerted strong discipline without turning into a martinet. He’s always speculating about what use the land might be put to — the High Plains seemed fit only for savages and wild beasts, while there are some rocks and clays in the mountains worthy of further study.

Despite those practical observations, he was at heart a romantic, as with his description of the San Luis Valley:

“… we ascended a high hill which lay south of our camp, whence we had a view of all the prairies and rivers to the north of us. The prairie, lying nearly north and south, was probably 60 miles by 45. The main river [Rio Grande] 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…. In short, this view combined the sublime and the beautiful. 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.”

No chamber of commerce could have put that more eloquently. The mountain that would bear Pike’s name was long known before he attempted to climb it, but he did provide the first known description of the Great Sand Dunes, in his journal entry for Jan. 28, 1807:

“We marched on the outlet of the mountains, left the sandy desert to our right, and kept down between it and the mountain… 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.”

PIKE’S JOURNALS can be enjoyed in many ways. It’s a great man-against-the-elements adventure story — a small detachment 800 miles from their base, high in the mountains during a hard winter, ill-equipped, men losing their feet to frostbite, yet never giving in to despair — although they did exercise the traditional role of privates, and grumble on occasion.

It’s also a spy story. Pike may have been spying for his commanding officer’s secret conspiracy (Gen. James Wilkinson was plotting with Vice-President Aaron Burr to set up their own domain in the West).

He may have been just gathering information for the United States about Spanish defenses, under the guise of an expedition to determine the sources of the Arkansas and Red rivers, and thus the southwestern boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase.

Or he may have been leading a straightforward geographic exploration, with the intent of informing the United States government about the resources of the territory just acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Editor Coues offers his opinions in the footnotes, and you can read the account and come up with your own theory as to Pike’s motives and the presence of the mysterious Dr. Robinson.

Pike can be read as environmental history, giving us an idea of what our territory looked like before the miners and ranchers arrived. Or it can be geopolitical history, as the infant United States, a growing power on the continent, pushes against the declining power of Spain. Or social history, with Pike’s observations of the Plains tribes he encountered on his way west and of Santa Fé: “There are two churches, the magnificence of whose steeples form a striking contrast to the miserable appearance of the houses.”

One common definition of history is “a written record of the past.” In that case, our history starts with two military diaries — Juan Bautista de Anza’s account of his 1779 campaign, and Zebulon Montgomery Pike’s journal of his 1806-07 expedition, which crossed Anza’s route at several spots — Pueblo, South Park, Salida, Alamosa, and Santa Fé.

They’re both good reading. Anza’s journal stays in print thanks to Ron Kessler of Monte Vista; let’s hope that Pike’s Colorado adventures remain as available and affordable ($12.95) as they were in 1996 when I bought my copies.

— Ed Quillen