To Spare No Pains, from the Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum

Review by Ed Quillen

Pike – October 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

“To Spare No Pains” Zebulon Montgomery Pike and his 1806-07 Southwest Expedition
Edited by Tim Blevins, Matt Mayberry, Chris Nicholl, Calvin P. Otto, and Nancy Thaler
Published in 2007 by the Pikes Peak Library District with the Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum
ISBN 1567352243

IF YOU RETRACED Zebulon Montgomery Pike’s 1806 route along Colorado’s Front Range, you might well find that he never set foot in what is today’s Colorado Springs. If he did cross the city limits, he was just passing through on his way to and from the mountain that he neither discovered, nor climbed, nor named.

Pike and his men did spend some time, and even built primitive stockades, in today’s Pueblo and Cañon City. But it is Colorado Springs, rather than Pueblo or Cañon, that “owns” Zebulon Pike in our state, doubtless on account of the nearby 14,110-foot mountain that dominates the city.

While the historical connection between Pike and Colorado Springs is thus rather tenuous, the cultural connection means that we had a large city with considerable cultural resources to commemorate the Pike Bicentennial in 2006. Two Colorado Springs institutions, the Pioneer Museum and the Library, joined forces for special displays and presentations through the year. Displays included Pike’s original papers that had been confiscated by the Spanish, and the topics ranged from a military analysis of Pike’s leadership to how Pike’s Peak has been used in marketing.

This book is a result of that effort; it’s an anthology of Pike presentations in Colorado Springs. If you’re not “Piked out” after a year or so of Pike bicentennial activities, you’ll find much to enjoy here, as well as an abundance of information about the Pike expedition.

Also, I was relieved after reading several articles. Over the years, I’ve tried to understand the Wilkinson-Burr Conspiracy, even to the extent of reading and re-reading an extremely tedious 1954 book, The Burr Conspiracy, by Thomas Perkins Abernathy. And try as I might, I’ve never figured out exactly what was going on.

My relief came after reading the excellent presentation in this book by John M. Hutchins, who has pondered and researched this for years. He, too, still finds it baffling. In other words, it wasn’t some simple matter that I was just too dense to understand.

Hutchins’s chapter is “Aaron Burr, James Wilkinson, Zebulon Pike & the Great Louisiana Conspiracy,” and as he states near the beginning, “if one is a young historian looking to make a name for oneself with a lifelong challenge, if one is a frustrated middle-ager looking for an affair with an unclimbable mountain, if one is slipping slowly into madness and wishes to accelerate the descent, then the Burr Conspiracy is for that person. There is an almost-unlimited amount of evidence, whether direct, circumstantial, material, relevant, obscure, or collateral. And, by the way, the best evidence probably is long gone. Or, tantalizingly, the best evidence may yet be awaiting discovery, perhaps in the form of a misfiled letter deep in the mildewy vaults of Castro’s Cuba.”

The two major players here are Aaron Burr, vice-president of the United States from 1801 to 1805. After his departure from office, he started organizing a quasi-military force to invade what is now the American southwest. For that, he was tried for treason — and acquitted.

The other principal is Gen. James Wilkinson, commander of the U.S. Army in the west. He may have conspired with Burr; he did rat out Burr. Pike was a protégée of Wilkinson’s, and it was Wilkinson who ordered Pike’s expedition to the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers. Wilkinson was also on the Spanish payroll and informed the Spanish colonial government about American expeditions into the West.

The exact nature of the conspiracy, and whether Pike had secret orders as part of it, has provided nearly two centuries’ worth of speculation. As Hutchins points out, after examining all possible players from President Thomas Jefferson down to two of Pike’s sergeants, it’s likely we’ll never know exactly what happened. This is the clearest explanation of the Conspiracy that I’ve ever read, and if you want to learn more about this abiding American mystery, this is the place to start.

That’s only one of the many fine pieces in this anthology, which looks at Pike from many historical angles, among them the scientific, military, and national (in the sense of American expansion).

There’s a good piece on the relationship between Pike and Facundo Melgares, a Spanish commander who might have been Pike’s mortal foe — he led a force onto the Great Plains that just missed Pike’s by a few weeks — but became his friend as he escorted Pike in New Mexico, Mexico, and Texas. Alas for history, no Melgares journal or report has yet surfaced, but one can always hope that it will someday emerge from the copious files of Spain’s New World bureaucracy.

“To Spare No Pains” also examines Pike from modern perspectives, such as popular culture. Today Pike is best known for his Southwestern Expedition of 1806- 07, rather than his Mississippi River Expedition of 1805-06, or his heroic death at the Battle of York in 1813 during the War of 1812. But it was the last that made him a star at a wax museum in the early 19th century.

Another interesting essay examines “Marketing the Mountain: Pikes Peak in the Popular Imagination,” and it includes a product I vaguely recall from years ago: “Pikes Peak Ale” from the old Walters Brewery in Pueblo. (For a Walters relic, check out the clock inside Salida’s Victoria Tavern sometime).

There’s a detailed account of the 1906 Pike Centennial Celebration in, of course, Colorado Springs, and a look at artists’ renditions of the mountain.

Indeed, only two things came to mind that this fine collection does not address. One is the question of the apostrophe. I prefer Pike’s Peak, not Pikes Peak, since it was named (probably by John C. Frémont) for Pike, not Pikes, and it should be a genitive, not a plural. That’s simple grammar, but the U.S. Board on Geographic Names abhors apostrophes and with rare exceptions (Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts is one) strips them from our maps. Most publications follow the Board, and thus the Pikes.

The other issue not addressed in this book is one that comes up in hall conversations during Pike presentations and conferences. Pike was headstrong and ambitious and drove his men hard, causing unnecessary suffering and hardship. One sometimes wonders why one or more of them didn’t just shoot him. It speaks well of American military discipline, perhaps, that this did not happen, but the more you read of that trek, the more you wonder about his men’s views.

But as this anthology makes abundantly clear, there will always be mysteries around Zebulon M. Pike. Few, if any, are solved in these pages, but “To Spare No Pains” is a great place to learn more about an important expedition that in many ways produced more questions than answers.