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      Close to Heaven… Down to Earth


Zebulon Pike
and the Search for the Source of the Red River

In 1803 the United States made the Louisiana Purchase and President Thomas Jefferson
sent Lewis and Clark on their famous mission to find out just what we got for our
money. Lewis and Clark and company spent two years palnning and staging before setting
off up the Missouri River. They spent the next 3 years making their way into the
history books. They explored a lot of the northern part of the Purchase and made
the journey to the Pacific coast and then back to St. Louis. They did a great job
of mapping and sorting out a lot of the geography along the way. But they stayed
completely away from the southern boundary of the Purchase.

In 1806, Jefferson sent Lt. Zebulon Pike with a company of soldiers to chart that
southern boundary by following the Arkansas River to its’ source. Once there, he
was to head south and locate the headwaters of the Red River, then follow that river
back to Louisiana. On their way out of Missouri, they were also given the task of
escorting 51 Osage Indians back to their homes in Kansas.

On July 15, 1806, Pike and crew sailed from a landing 14 miles north of St. Louis
on the Missouri River and headed west. Five weeks later they arrived at a village
of the Little Osage and had a meeting with the chiefs of the tribe. One aspect of
Pike’s mission was to establish peaceful relationships with different tribes and
encourage them to trade with Americans. After two weeks of negotiations, Pike and
his men moved on, looking for the Pawnee Nation villages. After three weeks, the
Pawnee were found and another week of negotiations happened. According to Pike’s
notes, he smoked the pipe of peace with Pawnee, Osage and Kansas Indians and felt
he was doing pretty good until it came time to leave. That’s when he discovered
the Pawnee didn’t want him to go any further west. After a show of force, Pike and
company moved on.

Eleven days later they found the Arkansas River and set up camp for a few days.
Here they hunted and stored up meat while some of the men constructed two canoes.
Then they headed upstream. Two weeks journey (about 15 miles per day) brought them
to their first view of the “Mexican Mountains,” (the Front Range around Pike’s Peak).
A few days later they built a breastworks near the confluence of Fountain Creek
and the Arkansas River. From here, Pike, Doctor Robinson and Privates Miller and
Brown set out to climb Pike’s Peak. They didn’t make the summit, having grossly
under-estimated the difficulty and the distance involved. They returned to camp
after a week’s absence and then the party headed upstream along the Arkansas. When
they came to the Royal Gorge, they tried to find some other way west. At this point
they began a series of journeys that basically, led them in circles. Finally, they
came to the Arkansas again (although they thought it was the Red River). From here,
Pike and a couple of his men went north to locate and map the headwaters of the
river while the rest of the party went south. Four days later Pike returned to the
main group and they spent Christmas somewhere near where Salida is now. Thinking
they were now following the Red River and the main parts of their mission were accomplished,
they started moving back downstream. Then they came to the Royal Gorge again and
realized their mistake. From here they turned south and fought their way up the
canyon of Grape Creek and entered the Wet Mountain Valley.

Early January, heavy winter, the Wet Mountain Valley: these guys weren’t prepared.
For twelve days, they made their way south, looking for a way to go west through
that great wall of mountains we call the Sangre de Cristo’s. We don’t know for sure
if they made their way through Medano Pass or through Mosca Pass, a bit further
south (both passes cross the spine of the mountains between Huerfano County and
Alamosa County), but we know they emerged from the mountains at the edge of the
Great Sand Dunes on January 28, 1807. They were in the San Luis Valley in the heart
of winter. They were really not prepared for it (although they fared better than
John Fremont would almost forty years later in the same valley).

For five days they travelled south in the valley, crossing the Rio Grande and continuing
until they came to the Conejos River at a place where warm springs flowed out of
the ground and kept the river free of ice right there. Here they built Pike’s Stockade
(just north of Manassa) and prepared to last out the winter.

On February 7, Doctor Robinson headed out on his own to visit Santa Fe. On the 16th,
a Spanish dragoon in the company of an Indian arrived and invited Pike to come to
Santa Fe. He respectfully declined, saying that his men had been scattered all over
the countryside and were now returning to continue their journey back to Louisiana.
On the 26th, a company of dragoons arrived and set about “inviting” Pike to accept
the Governor’s hospitality and visit him in Santa Fe. On the 28th, Pike and most
of his men left camp with the Spaniards and headed for Santa Fe. This is where the
formal Pike Expedition ended.

In Santa Fe, Pike’s baggage was searched and Governor Allencaster inspected his
commission and orders. Then Pike and his men were taken to Chihuahua, Mexico, to
meet with His Excellency, Commandant General Salcedo, where his papers and records
were again inspected and reviewed. Pike says that never was he under arrest on this
journey and he was actually able to learn quite a bit about the military forces,
geography, and political sentiments and dispositions of the local people he met
along the way.

The Spanish returned Pike and his men to Natchitoches, Louisiana on July 1, 1807.
In 1810 he published his final report of the expedition as a book. It was filled
with much valuable information and was widely read. But he never did locate the
headwaters of the Red River.