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The Pike Expedition: December 1806 and 2006

Article by Ed Quillen

History – December 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN WE LEFT THE Pike party at the end of November, 1806, the soldiers were camped along the Arkansas River between Pueblo and Cañon City, looking for the headwaters of the river in accordance with Pike’s orders to find the source of the Arkansas, then go south to the start of the Red River and follow it down to the Mississippi.

Before we get to details about Pike’s wanderings in Central Colorado two centuries ago, it should be noted that portions of his exact route remain a matter of speculation. He was in unfamiliar territory and he tried to follow Indian and Spanish trails as much as possible.

The winter began to hit hard. On Dec. 1, a foot of snow fell, and “Our horses were obliged to scrape it away to obtain their miserable pittance, and to increase their misfortunes the poor animals were attacked by the magpies, which, attracted by the scent of their sore backs, alighted on them, and in defiance of their wincing and kicking, picked many places quite raw.”

The night was clear, and of course it got colder, Dec. 2 “being three times as cold as any morning we had yet experienced.” The men had no winter clothing, and “I wore myself cotton overalls, for I had not calculated on being out in that inclement season of the year.”

With his survey equipment, Pike over-estimated the height of the mountain he had failed to climb in November. He put its top at 10,581 feet above the “level of the prairie,” which was fairly close, but he reckoned the prairie at 8,000 feet above sea level, instead of 5,000, which threw his calculated 18,581 elevation way off. He noted that the mountain “was so remarkable as to be known to all the savage nations for hundreds of miles around, to be spoken of with admiration by the Spaniards of New Mexico.”

He camped near Florence on Dec. 4. On the next evening, “I walked up to the mountains. Heard 14 guns at camp during my absence, which alarmed me considerably; returned as quickly as possible, and found that the cause of my alarm was their shooting turkeys. Killed two buffaloes and nine turkeys.”

By Dec. 6, Pike and his crew were at Cañon City, where the main stem of the Arkansas comes out of the Royal Gorge. Nearby, Grape Creek comes in from the south, and several streams from the north: Currant, Sand, and Fourmile creeks.

He needed to ascend one of them to pursue the source, but which one? They looked up Grape Creek and the Royal Gorge and found narrow rocky canyons “where the river was merely a brook.” So they tried another tack, heading generally north along a Spanish or Indian trail on Dec. 10, and striking an Arkansas tributary on Dec. 11. It was probably Fourmile Creek, but this is a matter of some contention.

Continuing north, they left Arkansas drainage and crossed into South Park on Dec. 13. Pike knew they had crossed a divide. He expected to find the Red River flowing south, behind the supposed headwater brooks of the Arkansas at Cañon City. Instead, he “fell on a river 40 yards wide, frozen over; which, after some investigation, I found ran northeast. This was the occasion of much surprise. Query: Must it not be the headwaters of the river Platte?”

It was — he was at the top of Elevenmile Canyon on the South Platte. They marched up the South Platte the next day, where “the prairie, being about two miles wide, was covered for at least six miles along the banks of the river with horse-dung and the marks of Indian camps, which had been made since cold weather, as was evident by the fires which were in the center of the lodges. The sign made by their horses was astonishing, and would have taken a thousand horses some months. As it was impossible to say which course the Spaniards had pursued, amongst this multiplicity of signs, we halted early, and discovered that they or the savages had ascended the river. We determined to pursue them, as the geography of the country had turned out to be so different from our expectations.”

Indeed it had. Pike expected to climb north from Cañon City and find a river flowing south which would be the Red. Instead, he found the South Platte flowing northeast. On Dec. 16, “from a high ridge we reconnoitered the adjacent territory, and concluded to bear our course southwest to the head of Red River.”

This South Park wandering by Pike is one of the factors that inspired questions about whether he was less interested in finding the Red River than in spying on the Spanish — why was he following a possible Spanish trail when it led away from what he thought was the Red? It appears that he and Dr. Robertson were discussing alternatives, rather than directly going toward the Red, or what they thought was the Red.

After deciding to go for the Red, they crossed Trout Creek Pass on Dec. 18, and followed Trout Creek “through narrows in the mountains for about six miles. Found many evacuated camps of Indians, the latest yet seen. After pointing out the ground for the encampment, the doctor and myself went on to make discoveries, as was our usual custom, and in about four miles’ march we struck what we supposed to be Red river [but was the Araknsas] which here was about 25 yards wide, ran with great rapidity, and was full of rocks. We returned to the party with the news, which gave general pleasure.”

It was snowing and stormy, and game was scarce. On Dec. 21, Pike and two men went north, the rest went south. Pike got closest to the head of the Arkansas on Dec. 22 when he reached a point near the Chaffee-Lake county line. Remember, though, that the river flows south in this area, and Pike thought he was on the Red.

In three days, their hunting had produced only a turkey and a hare, and starvation threatened. But on Christmas Eve, the combined party killed eight buffalo. They were camped a few miles north of Salida near the mouth of Squaw Creek. There’s a historical marker along the highway, and nearby, Salida will honor Pike’s visit with a buffalo barbecue on Dec. 24.

“We now again found ourselves all assembled together on Christmas Eve, and appeared to be generally content, although all the refreshment we had to celebrate that day with was buffalo meat, without salt, or any other thing whatever.”

On Dec. 26, they “made 7½ miles to the entrance of the mountains. On this piece of prairie the river spreads considerably, and forms several small islands; and a large stream [South Arkansas] enters from the south.”

The river Pike describes — wide and braided — is very different from the river of today, which flows in a narrow channel through Salida. The difference is likely the result of the railroad dumping a lot of fill dirt to make room for its yard and its real-estate development known as Salida.

The going got rougher. Pike was sure that horses, buffalo, and Indians did not ever “take this route, to go from the source of the river out of the mountains; but that they must cross one of the chains to the right or left, and find a smoother tract to the lower country. Were obliged to unload our horses and carry the baggage at several places.”

Things looked better for a while on the 28th as they reached Pleasant Valley and “from the appearance before us, concluded were were going out of the mountains.” But then came “the entrance of the most perpendicular precipices on both sides, through which the river ran and our course lay.”

They made only five miles on the 29th and the horses were giving out in impossible terrain. They made a sled for their gear that the men pulled. They tried going over the ice on the river, but it kept breaking. On Dec. 31, “The river turned so much to the north as almost induced us to believe it was the Arkansaw.”

And now, to Pike events this year:

November 24 “Parade of Lights with Zebulon Pike” in downtown Salida, starts about 6 p.m.

December 2 The Buena Vista Chamber will sponsor the Zebulon Pike Equine Parade that will open the Christmas season in Buena Vista. Folks will gather around 4:00 pm for a horse and carriage parade through the downtown area.

December 24 Christmas Dinner with Zebulon Pike, on the Arkansas River 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., at the actual site Pike and his expedition camped for two days. Pike and several soldiers will be there. Colorado Mountain Men and Beddin’ Down Bar-B-Q will host the Buffalo Christmas Dinner at a modest charge. Off U.S. 285 at the AHRA site on CR 165. Contact the Chaffee County Pike Information Center at 719-539-6744 or the Salida Chamber of Commerce, 719-539-2068.