Many events in history have an element of mystery attached and the expeditions of one of the early explorers, Zebulon Pike, are included. While November 15, 1806 marks the first sighting of Pikes Peak in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the mountain summit was not reached on that day. There is some concern about Pike's abilities as an explorer as records indicate he was not of the same caliber as the early explorers Lewis and Clark. Pike was a military man who though intelligent enough to teach himself French, Spanish, elementary science and mathematics, had little experience as an explorer. Still, when the governor of the Louisiana Territory requested a military expedition to explore the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River, Pike was picked by General James Wilkinson to lead the expedition.
The First Expedition of Zebulon Pike
Pike's expedition began before Lewis and Clark returned from their exploration of the Missouri River. While Lewis and Clark were ordered to their missions by President Jefferson; Pike's expeditions were unknown to the president. Pike carried none of the exploratory tools that were evident in the camp of Lewis and Clark nor did he receive any special training such was given Lewis and Clark. This might be because General Wilkinson's agenda was quite different than President Jefferson's.
General Wilkinson was one of history's scoundrels. He was an American officer who was a double agent for Spain. General Wilkinson accepted the transfer of the Louisiana Territory from France and sold information about U.S. military arrangements to Spain for a fee of $12,000. Vice President Aaron Burr helped General Wilkinson become the governor of Upper Louisiana Territory and the two later conspired to separate the western half of the U.S. from the eastern by military force.
Pike's first expedition was an assignment to find the source of the Mississippi River, purchase lands from Native Americans for military posts and bring back some important chiefs to St. Louis for talks. He was given 20 men and a 70-feet keelboat. The only tools he was given were a thermometer, a watch and a device to determine latitude called a theodolite. Pike met with Dakota Sioux at what is now the Minneapolis-St.Paul area in Minnesota. He purchased 155,000 acres on credit from the Indians. While he declared the land worth $200,000, apparently Wilkinson did not share that appraisal as he indicated to the secretary of war that Pike was a better soldier than he was a negotiator. Congress did not pay the Indians until 3 years later and then only $2,000.
Pike's party was hit with the full force of the winter weather and several of his men suffered ills from the harsh cold. Pike ended up splitting his men, leaving some in a rude stockade near what is now Little Falls, Minnesota and taking the other half onward. Their supplies dwindled and the party was most likely saved by the hospitality of British trading posts that were scattered throughout the area. Regardless of their help, Pike informed the British they were no longer wanted in the area as he was concerned that the British were influencing the Native Americans to rally with them and in addition were on American soil and not paying any revenues to the U.S. government. The confrontations, however, made little impact on the British traders in the region.
Upon reaching the Leech Lake Post, Pike ordered the British trader there to lower the British flag and when he refused, Pike ordered of his soldiers to shoot out the pin holding the flag in place. Despite this, the British trader sent two of his men with Pike and a private to Cass Lake which Pike incorrectly identified as the source of the Mississippi River. Pike left the remainder of his men at the stockade while he made this journey.
During this expedition, Pike made numerous attempts to convince Indian chiefs to accompany him back to St. Louis, but his efforts were futile. He returned to St. Louis empty-handed in the spring of 1806. He had traveled about 5,000 miles and had accomplished very little.
Zebulon Pike Spots Pikes Peak
Despite the failure of this first expedition, General Wilkinson quickly sent Pike on a second mission. The assignment was to escort some Osage Indians back to their home villages, negotiate peace between the Kansas and Pawnee tribes, and make contact with the Comanches of the high plains. Furthermore, he was to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas River and find the source of the Red River. However, the true goal of the mission was for Pike to spy for Wilkinson. Pike was to find out what the Spanish were doing along the southwestern border of the Louisiana Purchase. Although the initial order was not authorized by President Jefferson or the War Department, it was later approved. As Wilkinson was a double agent, providing the Spanish with information; historians are at odds as to what was the true purpose of this expedition.
This expedition, beginning on July 15, 1806 took Pike across what are now the states of Kansas and Colorado. Pike's correspondence reveals he knew he was being sent out as a spy for the United States and the work was important. Wilkinson let the Spanish know that Pike was going to travel through their territory. There are several theories as to why he did this; one that Pike's capture would bring about valuable information regarding the Spanish territory. Pike was ordered to scout as close as possible to Santa Fe and if captured, he would claim he had become lost on the way to Natchitoches, Louisiana.
Pike's party included 17 men from the first expedition in addition to two new volunteers, Lt. James Biddle Wilkinson who was Pike's second in command, a physician and an interpreter. The party was ill prepared for the expedition. Pike did not believe they would encounter cold weather, thus they wore summer uniforms. Once again, they had little scientific tools though Pike did bring a telescope on this trip.
The Pike party traveled west along the Missouri River, returned the Osage to their villages and stayed with them for a time. They next traveled across the Kansas plains to a Pawnee village that was flying a Spanish flag. Pike talked the Pawnees into removing the flag and replaced it with the Stars and Stripes. At the time, a Spanish cavalry unit of 300 was looking for the Pike expedition and had recently visited the village. Pike apparently was favorable to the idea of his party being sought by the Spanish as he reported that the Spanish expedition to find his party was the most important mission of New Spain. Upon leaving the Pawnee village, Pike followed the tracks of the Spanish cavalry down the Santa Fe Trail as it was later known.
When the Pike expedition reached the Arkansas River, Lt. Wilkinson departed with five others to explore the lower areas of the river. Pike and the remaining 15 others of his party traveled west up the Arkansas River. On November 11, 1806 Pike pressed on despite not having winter clothing or other supplies for a winter expedition. Much of the few supplies they did have were taken by a Pawnee party unhappy that Pike did not offer them enough presents.
The party continued west and stopped in what is now Pueblo, Colorado. At that point, Pike spotted a blue peak in the Rocky Mountains. He thought it a "blue cloud" and set out with two men and a doctor to explore the mountain, leaving the rest of the party at the base camp. Pike spent several days attempting to reach the peak. He made it to the top of a mountain within a few miles of Pikes Peak; historians differ on which peak he actually climbed. Pike then realized it would take another day to arrive at the base of the peak and as they were already up to their waists in snow and dressed in summer uniforms in 28F degrees weather, Pike decided to return to the base camp. Pike never climbed Pikes Peak and did not even name the peak. It was not until 1844 that John C. Fremont popularized the name Pike's Peak.
The weather conditions, low food supplies and lack of winter clothing and cover continued to plague Pike and his men. Many of the men suffered frostbite and sickness yet Pike pressed onward. He determined they would have to cross the mountains on foot and proceeded to walk across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains through waist deep snow. When one of the men complained, he was derided and the men were threatened with a firing squad should they voice further concerns. When men were too sick to continue, Pike left them and continued his journey with the men who were able. Finally reaching what is now the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado, Pike set up a small stockade on the Rio Conejos, which he mistakenly thought was the Red River.
Zebulon Pike the Spy
At the end of February, 50 Spanish cavalry entered the stockade and confronted Pike. He stuck to his cover story of being lost and immediately took down the American flag. The Spanish escorted the men, who by that time appeared more scraggly mountainmen than military men, to Santa Fe. Pike's papers were confiscated and when translated, revealed the true nature of his mission. The men were taken to Mexico and Pike made notes on his observations of the existing forts and communities along the route.
The Spanish Governor, not wanting to antagonize the Americans, decided to have Pike and his men escorted back to the U.S. border and released. Pike and six of his men were escorted through Texas and released at the border of Louisiana in July 1807. Though Spain officially protested the trespass, the U.S. government denied that Pike was a spy. The two nations broke off diplomatic relations.
Pike resumed his military career. Attempts to publish his findings from the expedition were a failure as his book was poorly organized and difficult to understand. Pike achieved personal glory in the war of 1812 and was promoted to brigadier general in 1813.
While Zebulon Pike never set foot on the peak that carries his name, he was able to give the U.S. government valuable information about the Spanish lands. His biographer called him "The Lost Pathfinder" and the editor of Pike's letters and journals say that nothing Pike tried to do was easy and most of his luck was bad. Zebulon Pike died in battle at the age of 34 in the spring of 1813, remembered in history not for his military skills, but for the lack of his exploratory skills.
Today, the peak that bears Pike's name is well known for Pikes Peak Hill Climb, the annual car race to the summit of the mountain. Visitors do not have to worry about trekking through snow as Zebulon Pike and his men would have done; there is Pikes Peak Cog Railway that ascends the slope and offers breathtaking views to all who dare to ride.
The copyright of the article "November 15 1806 Zebulon Pike Spots Pikes Peak" is owned by Cheryl Weldon. Permission to republish "November 15 1806 Zebulon Pike Spots Pikes Peak" in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.