In 1806–7, Captain Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779-1813) led a US Army expedition to the southwestern region of the Louisiana Purchase, including the area that is now Colorado. Along with Lewis and Clark’s famous journey to the Pacific in 1804–6, Pike’s was one of many Jeffersonian-era expeditions of discovery that made the new territory known to Americans.
Pike was born in New Jersey during of the American Revolution, the son of a Continental Army officer. As a child growing up around frontier military posts, Pike developed an intense desire to achieve public acclaim, an ambition he came to believe could be best advanced through physical sacrifice for the nation. With this background, he eagerly embraced orders from General James Wilkinson (Governor of the Louisiana Territory) to explore the upper Mississippi River in 1805–6. Within days of his return, Wilkinson ordered him to prepare for a second journey, this one to the West.
Pike’s party departed from St. Louis on July 15, 1806. After paying diplomatic visits to Osage and Pawnee villages, Pike’s party followed the Arkansas River toward the Rocky Mountains. On November 15, west of present-day Lamar, Pike spied what he described as a small blue cloud on the horizon. It turned out to be a mountain. A few days later, with three of his men, he left the river to climb to the summit of what he called the Grand Peak. Later, that peak would bear his name, Pikes Peak. Slowed by rough terrain and inadequate supplies, the climbers never reached the top. On Thanksgiving Day, they saw it from a smaller mountaintop to the south, probably Mount Rosa, and decided to turn around.
Resuming their march up the Arkansas, Pike and his men were plagued by problems. Frostbite, hunger, and exhaustion dogged them as they turned north into South Park from the vicinity of present-day Cañon City, crossed back into the Arkansas watershed near Buena Vista, and stumbled down the Royal Gorge, only to discover they were still on the Arkansas. In early January, Pike decided to cross the forbidding Sangre de Cristo Range, which caused still more suffering. Twice the party went several days without food before straggling across one of the passes above what is now Great Sand Dunes National Park. Pike had to leave five men and all of his horses behind. From the safety of a small stockade the soldiers built in the southern San Luis Valley, he sent rescue parties back to retrieve the men left in the mountains.
Captured by the Spanish
Before the rescuers returned, a Spanish military party from Santa Fé arrived at the stockade and demanded that Pike come and explain himself to the New Mexican governor. The Spaniards took him first to New Mexico, then south to the provincial capital, Chihuahua. Along the route, Pike enjoyed parties and conversation with Spanish priests and officials that enabled him to gather considerable information on the region’s geography, population, economy, and military defenses. In private, he wrote down this information and smuggled it out in the barrels of his men’s rifles. A Spanish military party escorted him across Texas and deposited him on American soil near Fort Claiborne in Louisiana. All of his soldiers except William Meek, who was murdered by a member of the party north of Chihuahua, eventually made it home.
On the surface, the purpose of Pike’s expedition was to meet with Native Americans and to explore the rivers of the Louisiana Purchase. His lifelong embrace of nationalism and the timing of his expedition make it unlikely that, as some have thought, the journey was connected to former vice president Aaron Burr’s mysterious conspiracy. The expedition was, however, the idea not of Jefferson but of General James Wilkinson, who, it turned out, was a paid agent for the Spanish crown. It is possible that Pike’s travels, perhaps without his knowledge, were tied up with Wilkinson’s private commercial schemes or his secret efforts to supply information to Spaniards.
Whatever shameful motives Wilkinson may have had, Pike disavowed any disloyalty for the rest of his life. He submitted a detailed report of his findings to the US Congress in 1808 and published the journals and correspondence of his expedition in 1810. Subsequent explorers and other visitors to Colorado and the Southwest often carried his maps and writings to guide them. After he died in the Battle of York during the War of 1812, he was eulogized in poems and biographies. Thus in death he achieved the national stature he had coveted in life.