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

The United States acquired the Louisiana territory in 1803, and soon afterward, Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on the famous mission to explore the northern part of the purchase.

Jefferson sent Lt. Zebulon Pike and a company of soldiers to explore the southern boundary of the purchase in 1806. These men were to follow the Arkansas River to its source, head south and locate the headwaters of the Red River, and then follow the Red River back to Louisiana. On top of this, they were also tasked with escorting 51 Osage Indians back to their homes in Kansas.

Cool fact; Zebulon Pike married Clarissa Harlow Brown in 1801. They had one child who survived to adulthood, Clarissa Brown Pike, who later married President William Henry Harrison’s son, John Cleves Symmes Harrison.

On July 15, 1806, Pike and his 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, where Pike encouraged a peaceful relationship and trade with Americans.

After two weeks of negotiations, Pike and his men moved on to the Pawnee Nation villages, where another week of negotiations took place. According to Pike’s notes, he smoked the pipe of peace with Pawnee, Osage, and Kansas Indians and felt he was doing well until he discovered the Pawnee didn’t want him to go any further west. After a show of force, Pike and company continued with their mission.

Eleven days later, Pike found the Arkansas River, set up camp, hunted and stored up meat, and constructed two canoes. Soon, they were heading upstream and two weeks later, they caught their first view of the “Mexican Mountains,” or the Front Range around Pike’s Peak.

Cool fact: Pike’s expedition was written in an account he published in 1810. The book was translated in various languages like Dutch, German and French due to its popularity.

Pike and company built a temporary structure near the confluence of Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River. From here, Pike, Doctor Robinson, and Private Miller, and Private Brown set out to climb Pike’s Peak. They didn’t make the summit, having grossly under-estimated the difficulty and the distance involved, and returned to camp after a week absence before gathering the full company and heading upstream along the Arkansas.

At 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, believing it was the Red River.

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 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 moved back downstream. When they came to the Royal Gorge again and realized their mistake, they turned south, fought their way up Grape Creek, and entered the Wet Mountain Valley.

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 Cristos and emerging at the edge of the Great Sand Dunes.

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. This is where 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 arrived and invited Pike to come to Santa Fe. He respectfully declined, saying 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. 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 he was never arrested on this journey and actually learned quite a bit about the military forces, geography, 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 a lot of valuable information and was widely read. But in the end, he never did locate the headwaters of the Red River.