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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Explorer and the Conspiracy

Updated: May 15, 2022

""What," said I, interrupting him, "is not this the Red river?"

"No, Sir! The Rio del Norte."

I immediately ordered my flag to be taken down and rolled up, feeling how sensibly I had committed myself in entering their territory, and conscious that they must have positive orders to take me in."

Zebulon Pike, Journal of the Southwest Expedition, February 1807

It was mid-December 1806, and Zebulon Pike faced a conundrum. He came upon a river that he discovered ran to the northeast. This surprised him as he expected to be crossing over branches of the Red River. Based on his knowledge, he believed the Red River should be running southeast. Could this be the Platte River? he queried in his journal. If so, he would need to head further south. By Christmas Day, his expedition was camped near present-day Salida, Colorado. They had been unprepared for the bitter cold and snow, and the group of sixteen were thankful for the buffalo meat they had. They had spent several treacherous days following the course of a frozen river through a deep gorge. Pike believed this to be the Red River when in fact, he was on the Arkansas headwaters several hundred miles to the northwest. Over the next month, the group fought the cold and starvation. Six men nearly died of gangrene as they made their way down the Wet Mountain Valley of southeastern Colorado. Finally, at the beginning of February 1807, Pike built a stockade on the banks of another river he mistook for the Red River.

Lieutenant Zebulon Pike

This was not Pike's first expedition. Zebulon Pike was twenty-seven years old and a lieutenant in the United States army. He was the son of an army major. Reputation meant everything to Pike as he sought to dispel the ghosts of his father's own undistinguished military career, which left him poor, lame, and mentally troubled. Pike attacked each position with an overabundance of passion despite being assigned to drab posts in the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys. He studied military tactics and learned French and Spanish. He feverishly kept an eye out for promotions. What a man like Pike, of modest background, needed was a patron. And this Pike found in none other than the commanding officer of the United States Army, Brigadier General James Wilkenson. In 1805, Wilkenson plucked Pike out from a lowly paymaster post to the head of an expedition to explore the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

When President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, he didn't fully understand the extent of his added territory to the United States. Most of what was known had filtered in from French, British, and American fur traders, the accuracy of which could be questioned. Thus, almost immediately, Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the regions westward along the Missouri River. American fur traders were putting together private corporate expeditions to build relationships with Native Americans and find new sources of furs before their rivals. Jefferson appointed Brigadier General Wilkenson as governor of Northern Louisiana Territory. In 1805, on his own initiative, Wilkenson chose Pike to lead a group to explore the headwaters of the Mississippi River and the far northern reaches of the new territory. Part of the mission was also to warn off incursions of British fur trappers coming down from Canada. Upon his return, Wilkenson ordered Pike on an exploration of the Southwest to locate the headwaters of the Red River. Pike started in July of 1806. Unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition, neither one of these had the stamp of official government approval. They were undertaken at the sole bequest of General Wilkenson.

The issue with any foray into the Southwest was Spain. The American Southwest was still under the control of the colonial Spanish government in Mexico. Spanish officials held the sovereignty of their colony in high regard, and any unsanctioned incursions into it were severely dealt with. This applied particularly to fur trappers searching for new sources of beaver in the southern Rocky Mountains on the present-day New Mexico and Colorado border. But the territory was vast, and the Spanish authorities had few resources to spread out. Therefore, in reality, the disputed border region was more porous than either side wanted to admit. It was in this region that Pike's explorations led him in the first month of 1807. Pike had seen signs of Spanish and Native American camps along his route but no sight of any actual Spanish garrisons. He felt confident that he had not wandered far into Spanish territory, at least from his journals.

Reconstruction of Pike's stockade

At the start of February 1807, Pike and his party built a stockade along the Rio Conejos, a tributary of the Rio Grande River situated not far from the Colorado-New Mexico border. Shortly after establishing this small fort, a member of Pike's party, Dr. John Robinson, departed for Sante Fe under the pretense of attending to some private matter. On February 27, Pike and the rest of his group awoke to a surprise visit by a contingent of Spanish dragoons and mounted militia. After a brief meeting with the commanding officers, Pike realized that they were there to take him to Santa Fe. The full import of his mistake sank in.

The question has always remained whether Pike was actually lost. It is hard to tell from his journals whether or not he was facetious in his response to the Spaniards. Did he really believe he was near the Red River rather than the Rio Grande? Or had he acted lost in order to deflect the eventual fallout of entering into Spanish territory without permission? Suspicions met Pike upon his release and return East. These were not without merit considering who had sent Pike on his expedition - General Wilkenson.

Brigadier General James Wilkenson

Wilkenson was a self-serving individual who always kept an eye out on how to advance his own self-interest. He succeeded General Anthony Wayne in 1796 as the head of the army upon Wayne's death. His time in public office was littered with misdeeds of various degrees, from petty chicanery to accusations of treason. Some of his contemporaries found him charming, while others said he was pompous. Not a brilliant military man, he managed the army's affairs with competence along with dealing with an increasingly growing border. Despite his questionable dealings, he earned the trust of such notable men like Thomas Jefferson, and much of his activities either went unnoticed or unpunished. He did have an interest in natural history, and like others, was curious about the new territory acquired from France. It was only later on that it was revealed Wilkenson had pledged allegiance to the King of Span and had been collecting a Spanish pension all while serving in the United States military.

Aaron burr

Added to this was Wilkenson's own involvement with another controversial figure. This was the former vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr. Burr's political career was on the skids after fatally shooting Alexander Hamilton in the now famous 1804 duel. To refurbish his career, Burr contacted the British and suggested that the Louisiana territory could be persuaded to secede from the United States. The British never seriously considered this plan, but Burr continued to plot. He toured the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys in 1805 to garner support. (At the same time, Pike was beginning his own explorations of the area.) In New Orleans, Burr met with a group of businessmen who favored the annexation of Mexico. Burr's circle grew to include many frontier politicians and other influential men in the region. Most important of these was General Wilkenson, who had the entire US army at his command.

Burr's activities in the west did not go unnoticed, and rumors began to spread up and down the East Coast. Burr had not shared many details with his supporters. Still, suspicions mounted that he was plotting to annex Mexico and wrest the Louisiana territory from the United States in the hopes of establishing a new republic. Wilkenson decided the risk was too great for unknown reasons, and perhaps to save his own skin, he revealed the plot to President Jefferson. In December of 1806, militias raided Burr's center of operations along the Ohio River, but he wasn't present at the time. Undeterred, he began gathering what supporters he had and headed down the Mississippi River. As he neared New Orleans, he heard about Wilkenson's betrayal, and Burr attempted to flee. He was captured about the time Pike was having his own troubles along the Spanish-American border.

It is not known how much of the conspiracy Pike was privy to, if any. In the end, Pike was hardly a prisoner of the Spanish. He was entertained and escorted around by several high-ranking Spanish colonial officials in Santa Fe and then in Los Cabos, the capital of Chihuahua. As a "guest" of the Spanish, he was able to observe first much of the Spanish military strength and other states of affairs in Mexico. Beyond this, Pike's expedition into this region, regardless of the true intentions of the mission, added valuable information about the American southwest's geography and natural history. He opened up the region to further exploration and the development of the Santa Fe Trail.


Further Reading:

The Question is: How Lost Was Zebulon Pike: Donald Jackson (American Heritage Magazine)

The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike: ed. Elliot Coues (Project Gutenberg Edition - Volume 2)


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