It is natural enough that history should be mixed with myth, to make it interesting to the populace. But it is uttery unnatural that history or myth should not be interesting to the populace. — G. K. Chesterton

Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell

Zebulon M. Pike—II

On his return to St. Louis, after nearly nine months of the hardest possible work in the North, Pike was allowed but a short rest. Two months and a half later he set out on his Western journey, which was to last a year, and during which he was to meet with vicissitudes which no one could have foreseen. It is not strange that he should have been chosen for the work of exploration in the South-west, which had for its object the investigation of the heads of the rivers flowing through the newly acquired Louisiana, making acquaintance with the Indians inhabiting the region, and putting an end to the constant wars between the different tribes. The good results achieved along the Mississippi had proved his especial fitness for similar work in other portions of the new domain of the United States, and were reason enough for giving Pike the command of this expedition. But it is altogether possible that General Wilkinson, then the commanding officer stationed at St. Louis, in charge of the whole Western country, may have had an ulterior object in sending Pike to investigate the Spanish boundaries of the South-west. It had been more than suspected that in some way Wilkinson was mixed up with the Aaron Burr conspiracy. Whether he was so or not, the Spanish authorities of Mexico believed that he was, and believed that the expedition led by Pike, of which they were informed well in advance, was connected with this conspiracy, and had for its object the acquiring of information detrimental to Spanish interests.

At all events the Spaniards had made every preparation to meet Pike and to capture his party, while Pike himself was intent only on carrying out his instructions to explore the heads of these Western rivers, and was ignorant of the existence of Burr's conspiracy.

On July i S, 1806, Pike sailed from St. Louis up the Missouri River. With him were a lieutenant, a surgeon—Dr. Robinson—one sergeant, two corporals, sixteen privates, and one interpreter—twenty-one soldiers and two civilians—or twenty-three in all. Several of the party had been with Pike in the North. There were fifty-one Indians who had been redeemed from captivity among the Pottawatomies, and were now to be returned to the Osage and Pawnee tribes, to which they belonged. Two days after leaving St. Louis the party stopped at Mr. Morrison's, and there met a young man named George Henry, who wanted to go West, and after a little time was engaged to accompany the party. He was a good French scholar and spoke some Spanish.

Progress with the boats, which were rowed up the stream, was of course slow, and Lieutenant Wilkinson and Dr. Robinson, with the Indians, marched across the country, while the boats toilfully pulled up the river. They killed some game, chiefly deer and turkeys. The Indians had a season of mourning each day about day-light, the crying continuing for about an hour. The interpreter told Pike that this was the custom, not only with those who had recently lost their relatives, but also with others who recalled to mind the loss of some friend, dead long since, and joined the other mourners purely from sympathy. They appeared extremely affected; tears ran down their cheeks, and they sobbed bitterly; but in a moment they would dry their cheeks and cease their cries. Their songs of grief ran: "My dear father exists no longer; have pity on me, O Great Spirit! You see I cry forever; dry my tears and give me comfort." The warriors' songs were: "Our enemies have slain my father for mother]; he is lost to me and his family; I pray to you, O 'Master of Life, to preserve me until I avenge his death, and then do with me as thou wilt."

On the 28th of July the party reached the mouth of the Osage River, and on the next day turned up the stream, heading for the Osage villages, where they were to leave a part of their Indians, and were to impress on the Osages the power and importance of the United States Government. Game was quite abundant, and deer and turkeys were killed daily; two, three, five, and on one day even nine deer having been taken, for the large body of men required considerable food.

There was trouble with the Indians from time to time. Some became jealous of their wives, and quarrelled with other men, and on one occasion there was some pilfering. But, on the whole, Pike managed the Indians extremely well. On the 4th of August a canoe was met coming down the river, manned by engagees of Mr. Chouteau, of St. Louis, by whom Pike sent letters to General Wilkinson. Relatives of the returned Osage prisoners came out to receive them. The meeting was very tender and affectionate, "wives throwing them, selves into the arms of their husbands, parents embracing their children, and children their parents; brothers and sisters meeting, one from captivity, the other from the towns; they at the same time returning thanks to the good God for having brought them once more together; in short, the tout ensemble was such as to make polished society blush when compared with those savages, in whom the passions of the mind, whether joy, grief, fear, anger, or revenge, have their full scope."

Sans Oreille (one of the Osages) made them a speech: "Osage, you now see your wives, your brothers, your daughters, your sons, redeemed from captivity. Who did this? Was it the Spaniards? No. The French? No. Had either of those people been governors of the country, your relatives might have rotted in captivity, and you never would have seen them; but Americans stretched forth their hands and they are returned to you! What can you do in return for all this goodness? Nothing; all your lives would not suffice to repay their goodness." This man had children in captivity, not one of whom the party had been able to obtain for him.

In the Osage village Pike was well received, but a few days in the town and its neighborhood showed him some of the uncertainties of attempting to deal with a strange people. He had great difficulty in purchasing horses for his intended trip to the Pawnees, and where he had secured horses, some of them were stolen from him. However, after considerable difficulty, he got started, taking with him a number of Osages, warriors and chiefs, whom he wished to have make peace with the Pawnees, and also some of the redeemed Pawnee captives. From the very start, however, the Osages were a trouble to him, for they were constantly leaving him to return to their village, urged to do so by dreams or by laziness, or perhaps by fear of what their reception might be among the Pawnees. From the Osage village Pike travelled nearly south along the Osage River for several days; and then turning west, crossed Grand River, a tributary of the Arkansas, and going nearly due west to the head of this stream, crossed over the divide to the Smoky Hill fork of the Kansas River. Along Grand River game was very abundant, and here we have a glimpse of a quality in Pike which we must admire.

"On the march," he tells us, "we were continually passing through large herds of buffalo, elk, and cabrie [antelope], and I have no doubt that one hunter could support two hundred men. I prevented the men shooting at the game, not merely because of the scarcity of ammunition, but, as I conceived, the laws of morality forbid it also."

On September 22 they began to meet Pawnees; and two days later others joined them, who possessed mules, horses, bridles, and blankets, which they had obtained of the Spaniards. Only a few of these Pawnees wore breech cloths, most of them being clad only in buffalo robes. On September 25 Pike had come close to the Pawnee village, which was situated on the Republican fork of the Kansas River, quite a long way above the mouth of the Solomon. Preparations to receive them, and to smoke with the Osages, were made by the Pawnees. The visiting Indians sat down on the prairie and the whites were a short distance in advance of them. The Pawnees came out from their village, halted about a mile from the strangers, and then, dividing into two troops, charged down upon them, singing their war song, shouting the war cry, rattling their lances and bows against their shields, and in all respects simulating the character of genuine warfare. The two bodies of Pawnees passed around the strangers and halted, and the chief of the Pawnees advanced to the centre of the circle and shook hands. One of the Osages offered the chief a pipe, and he smoked. The whole party then advanced to the village, and when near to it again halted. Again the Osages sat down in a row, facing the village, and now some of the Pawnees came to them with pipes and invited one and another to smoke; the Osages did so, and each received from the man whose pipe he smoked a stick, which represented a horse. These Pawnees no doubt belonged to the Republican Pawnees, or Kitkahahk tribe, the second in importance of the four Pawnee tribes.

Four days later a council was held at which not less than four hundred warriors were present. Pike's notes of this interesting occasion were seized by the Spanish authorities later, and he never recovered them. He gives, however, this interesting flag incident: "The Spaniards had left several of their flags in this village, one of which was unfurled at the chief's door the day of the grand council; and among various demands and charges I gave them was that the said flag should be delivered to me, and one of the United States' flags received and hoisted in its place. This, probably, was carrying the pride of nations a little too far, as there had so lately been a large force of Spanish cavalry at the village, which had made a great impression on the minds of the young men, as to their power, consequence, etc., which my appearance with twenty infantry was by no means calculated to remove.

"After the chiefs had replied to various parts of my discourse, but were silent as to the flag, I again reiterated the demand for the flag, adding 'that it was impossible for the nation to have two fathers; that they must either be the children of the Spaniards or acknowledge their American father.' After a silence of some time an old man rose, went to the door, took down the Spanish flag, brought it and laid it at my feet; he then received the American flag, and elevated it on the staff which had lately borne the standard of his Catholic Majesty. This gave great satisfaction to the Osage and Kans, both of whom decidedly avow themselves to be under American protection. Perceiving that every face in the council was clouded with sorrow, as if some great national calamity were about to befall them, I took up the contested colors, and told them 'that as they had shown themselves dutiful children in acknowledging their great American father, I did not wish to embarrass them with the Spaniards, for it was the wish of the Americans that their red brethren should remain peaceably around their own fires, and not embroil themselves in any disputes between the white people; and that for fear the Spaniards might return there in force again, I returned them their flag, but with an injunction that it should never be hoisted again during our stay.' At this there was a general shout of applause, and the charge was particularly attended to."

The raising of the American flag by Pike in the village of the Pawnee Republicans on September 29, 1806, marks perhaps the first formal display of that flag by a soldier in the territory west of the immediate banks of the Mississippi River. This has properly been regarded as an occasion of very great importance and one well worthy of commemoration. The Historical Society of Kansas, on September 30, 1901, unveiled with appropriate ceremonies a monument to Pike at Cortland, Kansas, a point which has been identified as the site of the ancient Kitkahahk village at which he stopped, when he held his council with the Indians, and took down the Spanish flag and raised that of his own country.

For some days Pike remained with the Pawnees, and these must have been days of more or less anxiety. The Indians had no sentiments of attachment for either Americans or Spaniards, but they had undoubtedly been much impressed by the greater power of the Spaniards, as evidenced by the expedition which had but just left them, and they were not without fear that wars might occur between the representatives of the different nations, from which wars they would gain nothing and might lose much. The Pawnee chief endeavored to turn Pike back, saying that he had persuaded the Spaniards to forego their intention of proceeding farther to the east, and that he had promised the Spaniards that he would turn back the Americans. He told Pike that he must give up his expedition and return, and that if he were unwilling to do this the Pawnees would oppose him by force of arms. Pike, of course, declined to turn back, and intimated that an effort to stop him would be resisted.

For some days now he was trading with the Indians for horses, but they were unwilling to sell them, and some of those newly purchased disappeared. However, on the 7th of October he marched from the village, moving a little west of south. The lost horses had by this time been returned. On the second day out he was overtaken by about one-third of the Pawnees, who remained with them only a short time. A little later Pike's party discovered some elk, which they pursued, and these running back in sight of the Pawnees were chased by them. "Then, for the first time in my life," said Pike, "I saw animals slaughtered by the true savages with their original weapons, bows and arrows; they buried the arrow up to the plume in the animal."

They met Pawnees from time to time for a few days, and on the i5th Pike and Dr. Robinson left the party, and lost them, not finding them until the 18th. Their camp was on the Arkansas River, where Pike built boats, to send Lieutenant Wilkinson and some men down the river, and so back to the settlements. On the 28th Lieutenant Wilkinson, in a skin canoe, made of four buffalo and two elk hides, and one wooden canoe, proceeded down the river. The party consisted of Lieutenant Wilkinson, five white men, and two Osage Indians.

From here for a long distance Pike's route lay up the Arkansas River. Soon they came into a country abounding in buffalo, antelope, and wild horses. The antelope were so curious that they came up among the horses to satisfy their curiosity, and the men could not resist the temptation of killing two, although they had plenty of meat. At the report of the gun the game "appeared astonished, and stood still until we hallowed at them, to drive them away." Herds of horses were seen, which came up very close to the command. An effort was made to rope some of the wild horses, but as the animals ridden by the men were slow, and the ropers were without experience, the attempt was unsuccessful; and of this Pike says: "I have since laughed at our folly, for taking wild horses in that manner is scarcely ever attempted, even with the fleetest horses and most expert ropers." The method pursued by the Spanish in Texas to capture wild horses was not unlike the old Indian fashion of taking buffalo. "They take a few fleet horses and proceed into the country where the wild horses are numerous. They then build a large strong inclosure, with a door which enters a smaller inclosure; from the entrance of the large pen they project wings out into the prairie a great distance, and then set up bushes, to induce the horses, when pursued, to enter into these wings. After these preparations are made they keep a lookout for a small drove, for, if they unfortunately should start too large a one, they either burst open the pen or fill it up with dead bodies, and the others run over them and escape; in which case the party are obliged to leave the place, as the stench arising from the putrid carcasses would be insupportable; and, in addition to this, the pen would not receive others. Should they, however, succeed in driving in a few, say two or three hundred, they select the handsomest and youngest, noose them, take them into the small inclosures, and then turn out the remainder; after which, by starving, preventing them taking any repose, and continually keeping them in motion, they make them gentle by degrees, and finally break them to submit to the saddle and bridle. For this business I presume there is no nation in the world superior to the Spaniards of Texas."

Buffalo on the plains

As they proceeded westward they found the prairie covered with buffalo, most of them cows and calves. Pike dilates on their numbers, and speaks of the excellence of the flesh of the buffalo, which he says was "equal to any meat I ever saw, and we feasted sumptuously on the choice morsels." From time to time they came upon the trail of the Spaniards, returning to their mountain homes, and counted the fires about which these people had encamped. Now their horses were beginning to grow poor and weak, owing to the scanty pasturage; and now, too, November 12, Pike passed beyond the borders of the present Kansas and into what is now the State of Colorado.

On November 15, "at 2 o'clock in the afternoon I thought I could distinguish a mountain to our right, which appeared like a small blue cloud; viewed it with the spy-glass, and was still more confirmed in my conjecture, yet only communicated it to Dr. Robinson, who was in front with me; but in half an hour they 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. Their appearance can easily be imagined by those who have crossed the Alleghanies; but their sides were whiter, as if covered with snow, or a white stone. Those were a spur of the grand western chain of mountains which divide the waters of the Pacific from those of the Atlantic Ocean; and the spur divides the waters which empty into the Bay of the Holy Spirit from those of the Mississippi, as the Alleghanies do those which discharge themselves into the latter river and the Atlantic. They appear to present a natural boundary between the province of Louisiana and New Mexico, and would be a defined and natural boundary." On the same day they came to the Purgatory River, or River of Souls. Here the Arkansas appeared to carry much more water than below, and was apparently navigable.