Ascending the Mississippi. A second expedition westward. Hostile Spanish influence. Into Colorado. The first glimpse of Pike’s Peak. On the upper Arkansas. Disappointment and privation. In Spanish territory. Captured by the Spaniards. Pike’s return and death.

While the Lewis and Clark expedition was struggling across the mountains in 1805 another explorer was on his way from St. Louis northward. Lewis and Clark were sent by the President, and theirs was the first governmental exploration of the Louisiana territory. The second exploration was a military one, and was the first military expedition sent into the new country. It was commanded by Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike, a young army officer, born in Lamberton, New Jersey, in 1779.

In 1805 General James Wilkinson, the commanding officer of the army, ordered Lieutenant Pike to ascend the Mississippi to its head waters. He was to make the sovereignty of the United States known to the Indians and Canadian traders. He was to observe the country, and to ascertain if possible the sources of the Mississippi.

It was on August 9, 1805, that Lieutenant Pike left St. Louis with twenty men to carry out his orders. They traveled in a keel boat seventy feet long. Provisions for four months were carried, but as it turned out nearly nine months passed before they returned. They ascended the river with few adventures and on September 22 they camped near the site of the present city of St. Paul, where they held a council with the Sioux.

From this point, undeterred by cold and scanty supplies, they made a plucky winter journey to Leech Lake (Minnesota), which Pike supposed, erroneously, to be the main source of the Mississippi. He overlooked the real source, Lake Itasca. They reached Leech Lake on February 1, but after various explorations and some negotiations with the Indians, which included a treaty with the Sioux, they turned back. Of the Falls of St. Anthony, Pike gives a vivid picture, and his journal is full of interest, although less detailed than that of Lewis and Clark. On April 30 the expedition returned to St. Louis. The lieutenant had learned much about the upper river, although he was mistaken as to its source, and his expedition had succeeded in proclaiming the dominion of the United States.

More important and more closely associated with our narrative was Pike’s second expedition. In July, 1806, he left St. Louis with a military party numbering twenty-three, under orders from General Wilkinson to travel westward into the interior of Louisiana, to reach the sources of the Arkansas River, and to explore the mountains of the present state of Colorado. He also escorted to their homes fifty-one Osage and Pawnee chiefs and their people who had visited Washington.

The first part of Pike’s route was by water up the Missouri, and then up the Osage to the villages of the Usage Indians. Thence he traveled overland through Kansas to a Pawnee village.

The cession of Louisiana with its indefinite boundaries had already caused complications with the Spaniards, who held the southwest, including the present state of Texas. They had heard of Pike’s expedition and had sent an armed force to turn him back from any territory which they claimed, or to make him a prisoner. Out of this grew trouble later.

The Spaniards had held a council with the Pawnees and had made them presents of flags. Even after Pike had explained to them the American ownership of the country, and an old Pawnee warrior had obediently brought out a Spanish flag and taking it from its staff replaced it with the American flag, the Pawnee chief tried to keep the Americans from continuing westward, saying that he had promised the Spaniards to intercept them. But Pike kept resolutely on.

As they crossed the plains they saw the old camps of the Spanish troops who had preceded them. Buffalo, wild horses, and prairie dogs furnished variety to the journey, but between the Indians on the one hand and Spaniards on the other the march was not a cheerful one.

They turned southward and reached the Arkansas River near the present town of Great Bend, Kansas. There Pike sent some of his men down the river, while with the others he ascended into Colorado and camped at the site of the later city of Pueblo.

On November 15, while on the Purgatory River and about a week before they reached Pueblo, Pike made the discovery which has served in a sense as his monument. He writes: "I thought I could distinguish a mountain to our right which appeared like a small blue cloud; viewed it with the spyglass and was still more confirmed in my conjecture; . . . in half an hour they [the mountains] appeared in full view before us. When our small party arrived on the hill they with one accord gave three cheers to the Mexican Mountains."

This was the main range of the Rocky Mountains, and the "blue cloud" is known to this day as Pike’s Peak.

On the 24th Pike and a few companions left the camp which they had made at Pueblo, in the hope of climbing the peak. He was not accustomed to mountains like these or to the rarefied air, which makes the distance seem much less. The peak was really fifty miles away in an air line and a hundred by land. They traveled many miles and climbed lower mountain ridges, only to find the summit of the "Grand Peak" still towering distantly above them. What with snow, thin clothing, and scanty food, the party were in a wretched condition, and on the 27th they turned back to the camp. Thus ended the first attempt to climb Pike’s Peak.1

Continuing their ascent of the Arkansas, the party reached the present site of Cañon City, where the Grand Cañon withheld a passage yielded years later to the railroad.

Pike's Peak trail

Turning aside they ascended Oil Creek to South Park, passed along the South Platte, and, continuing, again reached the Arkansas. In spite of the bitter cold of a Rocky Mountain winter. Pike ascended the Arkansas to its sources near Leadville, and descended it to Cañon City. This was another disappointment, for he had thought himself on the Red River, whose sources he had been instructed to discover.

On January 14, 1807, notwithstanding the midwinter weather, Pike pluckily started out to find the Red River. He made his way up Grape Creek, which flows into the Arkansas, and through the Wet Mountain valley. Food was scarce. The men were frost-bitten and some of them crippled for life. But they kept on over the Sangre de Cristo Range into the San Luis valley. There he descended the Rio Grande. On reaching the entrance of the Rio Conejos on January 31, he built a stockade and encamped. He was now in southern Zebulon M. Pike Colorado, and his search for the Red River had led him into Spanish territory. As a matter of fact this river was really the Canadian, which rises not far from Santa Fé in New Mexico.

Pike himself was carrying out Wilkinson’s orders, but just what these orders were is doubtful. Wilkinson was implicated in the plot attributed to Aaron Burr to found a new empire in the valley of the Mississippi. The historian McMaster thinks that Pike was ordered to descend into Mexico as a part of this plot. But Pike himself denied any knowledge of such motives, and it seems certain that whatever Wilkinson’s intentions were, Pike was entirely innocent. There is a certain mystery over the reasons for this invasion of Spanish territory.

Whatever the exact facts were, the result was the arrest of Pike and his party on February 26 by a Spanish force. It was done under the guise of a polite invitation to visit the Spanish governor at Santa Fé. Pike was taken into Mexico as a prisoner, but after many journeys he was escorted through Texas and delivered to his countrymen at Natchitoches, Louisiana, on July 1, 1807.

Thus the expedition had an unfortunate ending. But the value of Pike’s explorations of the central part of the Purchase will always be an honor to his memory.2

1 The motto of the later gold seekers in the fifties was "Pike’s Peak or Bust." Some of them were forced to change it to "Busted." Pike might have done the same.
Return to text.

2In the War of 1812 he was made a brigadier general. He died in battle, killed when storming the batteries of York, the capital of Upper Canada.

Chapter 21

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© 2001, Lynn Waterman