The Pike Expedition in September 1806 and 2006

Article by Ed Quillen

History – September 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN WE LEFT Zebulon Montgomery Pike and his party at the end of August, 1806, they were camped in Vernon County, Missouri, near the Kansas line about 80 miles south of Kansas City.

There Pike abandoned his boats and acquired horses for the rest of the trip.

On that account, historians have trouble reconstructing his Kansas route that September, since he did not have to follow a river, and the rivers he mentions often have different names now.

In general, he went about 350 miles, going generally west until he reached Florence in Marion County, Kansas, then swinging northwest through Bridgeport to cross a few miles into modern Nebraska near Red Cloud, where he halted for nearly two weeks to treat with the Pawnee at a village with 400 warriors.

This diplomatic detour was part of Pike’s mission. His main job was to ascend the Arkansas River to its source and descend the Red River. Also he was supposed to return some Osage Indians who had been taken captive and recovered by the federal government, and to treat with two major Plains tribes, the Pawnee and Comanche (called “Tetaus” in Pike’s journal).

Spain and the United States had a similar “foreign policy” for Indians at the edge of their realms. The idea was to establish friendly trade relationships, and have the tribe serve as a “buffer state” to repel, or at least report, incursions from the other power.

It often worked well, as evidenced later in Pike’s trip, when the Utes (allied with the Spanish) saw him in Colorado and sent word of the incursion to the governor in Santa Fé, who then dispatched soldiers.

Pike wanted to get the Pawnee on America’s side, and thus the trip into their Nebraska village. They were flying a Spanish flag, because they had recently been visited by Lt. Facundo Melgares leading 600 soldiers. The Spaniards had been tipped off by Pike’s double-agent commander, Gen. James Wilkinson, that they might also be able to intercept the returning Lewis and Clark expedition by heading northeast from New Mexico then.

Along the way to treat with the Pawnee, Pike admired the scenery: “The prairie rising and falling in regular swells, as far as the sight can extend, produces a very beautiful appearance.” A few days later, while “My feet blistered and very sore,” he “stood on a hill, and in one view below me saw buffalo, elk, deer, cabrie [antelope], and panthers.”

At first, hunting was good, but “I prevented the men shooting at the game, not merely because of the scarcity of ammunition, but, as I conceived, the laws of morality forbid it also.”

On a rainy day that they spent in camp, it appears that they tattooed themselves: “we employed ourselves in reading the Bible, Pope’s Essays, and in pricking our arms with India ink some characters.”

Now, to September of 2006. Both the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum (719-385-5631) and the El Pueblo History Museum in Pueblo (719-583-0453) have special exhibits on Pike running through December.

September 2, 9, 16, 23, 30 – 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.

September 9 is Early Settler’s Day in La Junta. Join the celebration in La Junta as the community discovers Pike with all sorts of fun events. The day starts out with breakfast served by the Kiwanis, followed by a parade and plenty of entertainment and shopping for everyone throughout the day. Starts at 8:00 a.m. at 110 Santa Fe Avenue. Contact for more information.

September 16 – The Second Annual Frontier History Encampment at Lamar Community College in Lamar, Colorado. From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. members of the public are invited to tour camps of historical reenactors covering Southeast Colorado history from 1800 to 1900. At the Pike camp, meet members of Pike’s “band of rascals.” The event is free but a lunch can be purchased at the campus student center featuring frontier food and pie for $5. Call Lamar Community College, 719-336-2248.

September 16 – The Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum – 2:00 p.m. Public lecture by Lane Brunner Ph.D., Director of Numismatic Outreach at the American Numismatic Association. Dr. Brunner will discuss “The Currency of Exploration and Empire.” The area through which Pike traversed belonged at one time or another to sovereign American Indian nations, France, Spain, and the United States, each with their own currency. What can money teach us about a nation’s identity and pursuit of empire? Free, but reservations are required. 719-385-5631.

Opening September 22 – The Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo will join the celebration of Pike’s expedition by featuring the exhibition “Different Perspectives: Views of Pike’s Peak” in the King Gallery. Free public opening reception on Thursday, Sept. 22 from 5-7 p.m. Daily admission to the Arts Center is $4 for adults and $3 for children. The galleries and children’s museum are open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 719-295-7200 or go online to

September 22 – Pre-race bike party for bicycle racers and the public at the Cow Palace Inn of Lamar. From 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. a barbecue dinner will be served for a nominal fee (free for registered racers) and live entertainment will be provided. This is also a great chance to sample the limited “Bike with Pike” beer from Pueblo’s Shamrock Brewery. Contact Deanna Callahan at 800-678-0344 for details.

September 23 – At 6 a.m. those registered for the first-ever Bike with Pike Century Ride will leave the John Martin’s Reservoir Visitor Center near Hasty, Colo., for a 100-mile ride along Pike’s Trail to Pueblo — just in time for the Chile Festival. Registration includes a Bike with Pike T-shirt, entry to the Chile Festival, a barbecue dinner at the Cow Palace Inn, and other goodies along the way. The cost is $50 per rider or $40 per each member of a team. Registration information at 719.583.8631.

September 23 & 24 – Holly Gateway Fair Commemorating Zebulon Pike in Colorado’s lowest town.