There is no surer sign of decay in a country than to see the rites of religion held in contempt. — Machiavelli

Trails of the Pathfinders - G. B. Grinnell




Zebulon M. Pike—III

On November 22, as Pike and Dr. Robinson, and Vasquez, the interpreter, were riding ahead of the command, they met a party of sixty Pawnees returning from an unsuccessful war party. Half of them were armed with guns, and about half with bows, arrows and lances. They met the white men in a very friendly manner, but crowded about them; and at the same time treated them in so boisterous and disrespectful, and yet good-natured a way, as to cause them some uneasiness. Pike prepared to smoke with them, and offered them some small presents, with which they were quite dissatisfied; so that for some time the pipes "lay unmoved, as if they were undetermined whether to treat us as friends or enemies; but after some time we were presented with a kettle of water, drank, smoked and ate together." The Pawnees treated the presents given them with more or less contempt, and some even threw them away.

"We began to load our horses, when they encircled us and commenced stealing everything they could. Finding it was difficult to preserve my pistols, I mounted my horse, when I found myself frequently surrounded; during which some were endeavoring to steal the pistols. The doctor was equally engaged in another quarter, and all the soldiers in their positions, in taking things from them. One having stolen my tomahawk, I informed the chief; but he paid no respect, except to reply that 'they were pitiful.' Finding this, I determined to protect ourselves, as far as was in my power, and the affair began to take a serious aspect. I ordered my men to take their arms and separate themselves from the savages; at the same time declaring to them that I would kill the first man who touched our baggage. On which they commenced filing off immediately; we marched about the same time, and found they had made out to steal one sword, tomahawk, broad-ax, five canteens, and sundry other small articles. After leaving them, when I reflected on the subject, I felt myself sincerely mortified, that the smallness of my number obliged me thus to submit to the insults of lawless banditti, it being the first time a savage ever took anything from me with the least appearance of force."

It was near the end of November. Provisions were scarce; but on the 26th, Pike killed a "new species of deer"—a blacktail, or mule deer. The real troubles of the expedition were beginning, for the weather was growing cold, snow fell, and the water was freezing. The men who had started from St. Louis in July, prepared for a summer excursion, had worn out their shoes and clothing, and were half naked, in winter, among the high mountains of the Rockies. Some of them froze their feet. They made such foot gear as they could from the hide of the buffalo, but many had used up their blankets, by cutting them to pieces for socks, and had nothing with which to cover themselves at night, no matter how cold the weather, or how deep the snow. Pike worked backward and forward among the canyons, on streams at the head of the Arkansas, and passed over the divide between that river and the head waters of the South Platte, and then back on to the Arkansas, near what is now called the Royal Gorge. Here he came on the site of an immense Indian camp, occupied not long before, which had a large cross in the middle; and which, though he then did not know it, was a big camp of Kiowas and Comanches, with whom had been a white man, James Pursley. The party was constantly suffering for food, and often went for days without eating, and were almost without protection from the weather. Pike never ceased his efforts to cross the mountains to the supposed head of the Red River (the Canadian), which he had been ordered to find. Deep though the snow might be, and bitter the cold, with his men and himself equally hungry and equally frozen, passing through a country almost impracticable for horses, where the animals themselves had to be dragged along, and often unloaded and hauled up steep mountain sides, he kept on. On some occasions the little party of sixteen were divided into eight different expeditions, struggling not along the trail, but to get over the mountains, on the one hand, and on the other, to kill something which might give food to the party. Their guns now had begun to fail them; a number burst; others were bent and broken by the rough usage. Even Pike, who scarcely ever permits a word of complaint to escape him, says, on January 5, after breaking his gun: "This was my birthday, and most fervently did I hope never to pass another so miserably."

Matters had reached such a point that it was useless to attempt to drag the horses any further. Pike determined to build a small block-house, and leave there a part of his baggage, the horses, and two men; and then, with the remainder of their possessions on their backs, to cross the mountains on foot, find the Red River, and send back a party to bring on the horses and baggage by some easy route. They started on January 14, each carrying an average of seventy pounds, and marched nearly south, following up the stream now known as Grape Creek. They had not gone far before the men began to freeze their feet, and were unable to travel. They had little or no food, but, at last, Dr. Robinson, after two days' hunting, during which they met with constant misfortunes, managed to kill a buffalo, loads of which were brought back to camp. Leaving two of the disabled men behind, with as much provision as possible, promising to send relief to them as soon as they could, Pike and the others pushed on, making their slow way through the deep snow; They were soon again without food; and again the doctor and Pike, who appear to have been by all odds the men of the party, succeeded in killing a buffalo, and satisfying the hunger of the company. It was on this day, January 24, that Pike heard the first complaint. One of his men declared "that it was more than human nature could bear, to march three days without sustenance, through snows three feet deep, and carry a burden only fit for horses." This was very bitter to the leader, and he administered a rebuke, which, though severe, was so eminently just and sympathetic as to increase the devotion which his men must have felt for such a leader.

For a little time they had food, and the weather became more mild. Now turning to the right, they crossed through the mountains, and came within sight of a large river, flowing nearly north and south. This, although the explorer did not know it, was the Rio Grande del Norte. Travelling down toward this stream, they came to a large west branch; and here Pike determined to build a fort, for a protection for a portion of his party, while the remainder should be sent back to bring on the men who had been left behind at different points. Deer were plenty, and it seemed to be a spot where life could be supported. Pike laid out a plan for his block-house, which was on the edge of the river, and was surrounded by a moat, and a dirt rampart.

From this point Dr. Robinson set out alone for Santa Fe. The purpose of his trip was to spy out the land, and to learn what he could with regard to the Spanish government, and the opportunities for trade there. In the year 1804, Mr. Morrison, a merchant of Kaskaskia, had sent across the plains a Creole of the country, one Baptiste La Lande, with goods which he was to trade at Santa Fe. La Lande had never returned, and it was believed that he had remained in Santa Fe, and had appropriated to himself the property of his employer. When Pike was about to start on his westward expedition, Mr. Morrison made over to him his claim on La Lande, in the hope that some of his property might be recovered, and this claim assigned to Robinson was the pretext for his trip to Santa Fe. In other words: Robinson was, as Dr. Coues remarked, a spy. It is true that Spain and the United States were not then at war, but there was a more or less hostile feeling between the two governments; or, if not between the two governments, at least between the citizens of the two powers residing on the borders of the respective territories. More than that, as already stated, the Aaron Burr conspiracy—with which Pike was wholly unacquainted—was known to the Spaniards, as was also Pike's starting for the west. The Spanish authorities unquestionably connected the two things, and were disposed to look with great suspicion on any Americans who entered their territory.

Dr. Robinson set out for Santa Fe on the 7th of February; and until the 16th Pike was occupied in hunting, building his block-house, reading, and studying. On the 16th, while hunting, he discovered two horsemen not far from him. These, when he attempted to retreat, pursued threateningly; but if he turned about to go toward them, they retired. As he was doubtful where he was, and uncertain if the territory was Spanish or American, he was unwilling to act on the aggressive; but finally he lured the horsemen so close to him that they could hardly get away, and after a little they explained their presence. It seemed that four days before Robinson had reached Santa Fe, and that the Governor had sent out these scouts to learn who the strangers were. The next day they departed for Santa Fe, which they said they would reach on the second day.

Within the next two or three days all the men he had left behind save two—Dougherty and Sparks—had come in; and on February 19 Sergeant Meek, with Miller, was ordered to go back to the point where they had left the interpreter, Vasquez, with one man and the horses, to bring them on, and on his way to pick up Dougherty and Sparks, who, on account of their frozen feet, had been unable to walk. Pike pays touching tribute to the heroism of his men, saying: "I must here remark the effect of habit, discipline, and example, in two soldiers soliciting a command of more than one hundred and eighty miles, over two great ridges of mountains covered with snow, inhabited by bands of unknown savages in the interest of a nation with which we were not on the best understanding. To perform this journey, each had about ten pounds of venison. Only let me ask, What would our soldiers generally think on being ordered on such a tour thus equipped? Yet these men volunteered it with others, and were chosen, for which they thought themselves highly honored."

On February 26 a detachment of Spaniards, consisting of two officers, with fifty dragoons and fifty mounted militia, reached the post. The sentry halted them at a distance of fifty yards, and Pike made preparations for their reception. He insisted that the Spanish troops should be left at some little distance from the fort, while he would meet the officers on the prairie. This was done, and then he invited the officers to enter the fort, where he offered them his hospitality. It was then for the first time, Pike tells us, that he knew that the stream on which he was camped was not the Red River, meaning the Canadian, but was the Rio del Norte, which, though known by several other names, is what we now call the Rio Grande, and now forms the boundary line between Texas and Mexico. The officer in command stated that the Governor of New Mexico had ordered him to offer Pike mules, horses, money, or whatever he might need to conduct him to the head of the Red River, and requested Pike to visit the Governor at Santa Fe. Pike at first declined to go without his whole command, but after a time was persuaded to go to Santa Fe, leaving two men in the post to meet the Sergeant and his party, and to convey to them his orders to come to Santa Fe.

Naturally Pike did not wish to resist this invitation, or to be put in the position of committing hostilities on the foreign soil which he had invaded, since his orders did not commit him to any such course. Having made the error of entering the territory of another power, he thought it better to explain matters, rather than to commit an act which might involve his country in war. His compliance with the request of the Spanish officer seemed to be received by them with great satisfaction; but, he says, "it appeared to be different with my men, who wished to have 'a little dust,' as they expressed themselves, and were likewise fearful of treachery." After making the necessary preparations, and leaving orders for Sergeant Meek, Pike set out with the Spaniards to their camp on the Rio del Norte, and thence to Santa Fe. His passage through the country was an interesting one, and everywhere he was treated with the greatest kindness and hospitality by the people. At the pueblo of San Juan he met the man Baptiste La Lande, who professed to be an American, and endeavored to learn from Pike something of his journeying and his purpose; but Pike, suspecting his designs, and after a little talk satisfying himself as to what they were, had the man shut in a room, and threatened him with death if he did not confess his perfidy. La Lande was greatly frightened, and declared that he had been ordered by the Government to find out everything possible about Pike.

Not only did the common people treat Pike's men with great kindness and hospitality, but the priests and those of the better class were courteous, cordial, and very much interested in the explorer.

Santa Fe was reached March 3. It then had a supposed population of four thousand five hundred souls, most of whom, we may imagine, turned out to see the Americans. Pike's visit with the Governor was brief. He denied that Robinson was attached to his party, excusing himself to himself on the ground that Robinson was a volunteer, and could not properly be said to be one of his command. The Governor's reception was haughty and unfriendly. Pike bore himself with great dignity and wasted no words. At a later interview that day his papers were examined by the Governor, and after they had been read his manner changed, and he became much more cordial. Pike's trunk was locked and the key given to him, the trunk to be put in charge of an officer, who was instructed to escort him to Chihuahua, where he was to appear before the Commandant-General. That night he dined with the Governor, and received from him money for the expenses of himself and men as far as Chihuahua.

The story of the march from Santa Fe to Chihuahua is interesting. Not far from Albuquerque they met Dr. Robinson. He was hardly recognized by Pike, for he was fat, sleek, and well looking, as different as possible from that Robinson who had left the camp on the head waters of the Rio del Norte, "pale, emaciated, with uncombed locks and beard of eight months' growth, but with fire, unsubdued enterprise, and fortitude."

The party crossed the Rio Grande at El Paso del Norte, then a great crossing-place for travellers north and south, and just over the river from our present Texas town of El Paso, situated on one of the great transcontinental railroads.

Chihuahua was reached April 2, and Pike immediately had an interview with the Governor, who treated him with reasonable consideration. Almost the whole month of April was passed here; and during this time Pike was entertained by the people of the town, among whom, we may infer, he was regarded partly in the light of a hero, and partly in the light of a curiosity. On one occasion he was warned by the Governor that he spoke too freely with regard to religion, government, and other matters, to which he made a very free response, justifying himself for whatever he had done. Pike left Chihuahua April 28. He had become suspicious that there was danger that his private notes would be taken from him, so he took his small note-books and concealed them in the barrels of the guns of his men. It was now May, the weather growing very warm and dry; and sometimes as they marched they suffered from lack of water. Almost everywhere Pike continued to be received with great kindness by the people, both in the towns and by the rich haciendados, whose ranchos were passed in the country. He frequently met men of English, Irish, and American birth, most of whom were kind to him; and, on one occasion, conversed gladly with an American whom he shortly afterward learned to be a deserter from the United States Army. This made him very indignant, and he sent word to the proprietor of the house where they were stopping that if this deserter appeared at another meal all the Americans would decline to eat. His firmness brought an apology from the host, who took steps that the deserter should not again appear.

The month of June was spent in journeying through Texas, eastward, to the borders of Louisiana. Pike speaks in the warmest terms of the two Governors, Cordero and Herrara, whom he met at San Antonio. They, and all the other Spaniards whom he met in Texas, were kind to him. On the first of July the party reached Natchitoches about four P. M. "Language cannot express the gayety of my heart when I once more beheld the standard of my country waved aloft. 'All hail!' cried I, 'the ever sacred name of country, in which is embraced that of kindred, friends, and every other tie which is dear to the soul of man!' "

It was in August, 1806, while he was on his way westward, on this second expedition, that Pike was promoted to be a captain, and his promotion to a majority followed soon after his return. With successive promotions in 1809, he became lieutenant-colonel, and with the coming of the war of 1812, Pike, now a colonel, was sent to guard the northern frontier. He was appointed to be brigadier general March 12, 1813. There was some fighting, but not much; but on April 27, 1813, while leading an attack on Fort York—now Toronto—he was killed by the explosion of the magazine, which the retreating enemy had fired. As an eye-witness said: The Governor's house, with some smaller buildings, formed a square at the centre battery, and under it the grand magazine, containing a large quantity of powder, was situated. As there were only two or three guns at this battery, and it but a short distance from the garrison, the troops did not remain in it, but retreated to the latter. When the Americans, commanded by one of their best generals, Pike, reached this small battery, instead of pressing forward, they halted, and the general sat down on one of the guns; a fatal proceeding, for, in a few minutes, his advance guard, consisting of about three hundred men and himself, were blown into the air by the explosion of the grand magazine.

". . . I heard the report, and felt a tremendous motion in the earth, resembling the shock of an earthquake; and, looking toward the spot, I saw an immense cloud ascend into the air. I was not aware at the moment what it had been occasioned by, but it had an awfully grand effect; at first it was a great confused mass of smoke, timber, men, earth, etc., but as it arose, in a most majestic manner, it assumed the shape of a vast balloon. When the whole mass had ascended to a considerable height, and the force by which the timber, etc., were impelled upwards became spent, the latter fell from the cloud and spread over the surrounding plain."

Struck by a fragment of rock, Pike was mortally wounded. As he was being taken on board the flag-ship "Madison," he heard the cheering on the shore. He asked what it meant, and was told that the Stars and Stripes were being hoisted over the captured fort. A little later the captured British flag was brought to him; he motioned to have it put under his head, and soon after this had been done he died.

It is a melancholy commentary on the shortness of human fame that to-day the number of Americans who know who Pike was is very small. Few men have done more than he for their country. Few men in their time have attracted more attention. Pike's name has been given to mountains, counties, cities, villages, and even to islands, rivers, and bays; and while, as Dr. Coues suggests, it may well enough be that not all these are named after Pike the explorer, yet we may be sure that the enthusiasm of the people for Pike at the time of his death, and for some time afterward, led to the giving his name to many natural features of the land, and to many political divisions within the States. After all, Pike's most impressive and most enduring monument must always remain the superb mountain which bears his name. If Pike did not discover this, "the grim sentinel of the Rockies," which towers fourteen thousand one hundred and forty seven feet above the sea, at least he was one of the first Americans to see it. He calls it, fitly, the Grand Peak. Nearly fourteen years later, during Major Long's expedition to the Rocky Mountains, it was named James Peak; but this name, though often mentioned in books, did not long endure, and the name Pike's Peak, first used some time during the decade between 1830 and 1840—for example in Latrobe's "Rambler in America"—is now firmly established, and will ever remain the mountain's designation.

The death of Pike at the early age of thirty-four, so soon after he had attained the summit of his ambition, the rank of general and at the moment when the force under his command had won a notable victory, seems very pathetic; and yet, after all, may not this have been a happy fate? For we cannot tell what sorrows and disappointments a longer life might have brought to him. It seems almost as though he may have had a premonition of the fate in store for him, since, in his last letter to his father, written just before he set out on his expedition, he writes as follows:

"I embark to-morrow in the fleet at Sackett's Harbor, at the head of a column of one thousand five hundred choice troops, on a secret expedition. If success attends my steps, honor and glory await my name; if defeat, still shall it be said we died like brave men, and conferred honor, even in death, on the American name.

"Should I be the happy mortal destined to turn the scale of war, will you not rejoice, 0 my father? May heaven be propitious, and smile on the cause of my country. But if we are destined to fall, may my fall be like Wolfe's—to sleep in the arms of victory.".

It was so that Pike fell asleep.