Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Pikes Peak


Lt. Zebulon Montgomery Pike wasn’t sure. But as the explorer stood on a rise in the flat, dry prairie of southeastern Colorado on Nov. 15, 1806, he thought he had spotted something on the horizon with his spyglass.

“At two o’clock in the afternoon I thought I could distinguish a mountain to our right, which appeared like a small blue cloud,” he wrote in his journal.

Pike had been in Colorado four days with his group of soldiers on an expedition to explore the southern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase. He kept quiet about what he saw, talking only to another member of his party. “Yet only communicated it to doctor Robinson, who was in front with me,” he wrote.

But another half hour’s travel brought the party to a hilltop with a clearer view. The group, Pike reported, “gave three cheers to the Mexi- can mountains.”

On this date 199 years ago, Pike’s journal entry about the “small blue cloud” became the first record of the mountain that would someday be named after him.

Throughout the next year, his expedition to the mountain we know as Pikes Peak will be cause for celebration in communities throughout southeastern Colorado. Small towns like Rocky Ford and Las Animas, the cities of Colorado Springs and Pueblo, and such entities as Colorado State Parks, the Santa Fe Trail Association and the Colorado Division of Wildlife have also joined in. The Gazette is planning a year of coverage, including a collector’s edition special section.

Working from old maps and Pike’s journal, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has surveyed the area where Pike camped when he sighted the mountain and will soon set a marker of Pikes Peak granite on the spot.

By the time Pike and his men reached that stretch of land on the banks of the Arkansas River, they had already encountered vast herds of buffalo and signs of Indian war parties. It was a vast, dry prairie cut by rivers that meandered in the shade of cottonwoods.

On Monday, the area still looked like Pike described it, save for the absence of American Indians and herds of buffalo. The prairie was silent except for a constant wind that rustled the remaining leaves on the cottonwoods crowding the banks of the river. Coyote tracks were preserved in the dry clay. Tumbleweeds blew through with little to stop them, and tufts of buffalo grass waved and bent.

And to the northwest, a “small blue cloud” sat on the horizon, topped by bubbly white cumulus clouds. It shimmered, discernible only because an Army Corps of Engineers official pointed it out, changing shape with the angle of the sun or hiding tantalizingly beneath clouds that signaled an encroaching storm.

Looking at that shimmering image from this vantage point allowed a visitor to wonder at the temerity of Pike and his men. The party — 21 men and one interpreter — had set forth four months earlier, on July 15, 1806, from Belfountaine, near modern-day St. Louis.

The group’s mission was to explore the southwestern holdings of the Louisiana Purchase, acquired by the United States from France in 1803. The more famous expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark took a more northerly route across the continent.

In Colorado, Pike and his men followed rivers and creeks, charting their course and noting other geographic features along the way. He followed groups of Spanish cavalry, who may well have seen Pikes Peak, and encountered Indians, who of course already had their own name for it — Taba. But Pike was the first to record an observation of the mountain he first spotted as a blue cloud and later called Grand Peak.

In the week following his sighting, he moved closer to the mountain, and on Nov. 23, 1806, he wrote, “As the river appeared to be dividing itself into many small branches and of course must be near its extreme source, I concluded to put the party in a defensible situation; ascend the north fork, to the high point of the blue mountain.”

Pike misjudged his proximity to the source of the Arkansas, which was still more than 100 miles away. He also misjudged the climb he faced. He thought it would take one day’s march, but after a day he was nowhere near the summit, and by the 27th he realized he had underestimated the climb. He looked at the mountain again.

The first recorded ascent was by the botanist Edwin James in 1820. Nevertheless, the mountain was called “Pike’s Peak” until 1891, when the U.S. Board on Geographic Names took out the apostrophe.

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