Sunday, January 15, 2006

Think you know Pike? Guess again

Part of the series celebrating 200 years since the "discovery" of Pikes Peak by "American" explorer Zebulon Pike - interesting history - of particular interest to Colorado Springs folks since the majestic mountain graces our skyline.


In the 200 years since Zebulon Pike explored this region, historians have struggled over whether to label him as hapless or heroic.

This, after all, was a man who slogged through snow without socks in a failed attempt to climb the peak towering over the Plains, yet survived a frigid winter without losing men to death or defection. Pike was an ambitious and obedient soldier, but when he was captured by the Spanish, he surrendered without a fight.

History lovers still debate Pike’s abilities and accomplishments as an explorer, but they agree on this: He was an excellent spy.

But just whom was he spying for?

Pike’s adventure was spurred by the Louisiana Purchase, the same land deal that launched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their trek to the Pacific. President Thomas Jefferson bought 820,000 acres in the West from the French in 1803, and he and others were eager to explore the new lands.

Jefferson handpicked Lewis to be his eyes and ears in the territory, but Pike got his travel papers from a man who turned out to be one of the great scoundrels in U.S. history.

James Wilkinson, commanding general of the Army, first tapped Pike to explore the upper Mississippi River and find the source of the waterway in 1805. Pike returned 8½ months later with “disappointingly meager” results, according to a National Park Service account. He produced no accurate maps and failed on his mission to persuade prominent American Indian leaders to meet with U.S. military leaders.

Still, less than three months later, Wilkinson had another job for the 27-year-old soldier, and this was the one that sent him to the Rockies.

Pike’s journey has to be seen in the context of the suspicion and hostility between the United States and Spain over the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase.

“The thing from today’s perspective . . . is he was right in the middle of a Cold War,” Pioneers Museum Director Matt Mayberry said. “We could have gone to war at any moment with Spain over what was the definition of the Louisiana Purchase.”

Before Pike left on July 15, 1806, he and Wilkinson discussed that he might be caught while wandering so close to Spanish territory. They even laid out a plan of how Pike would say he was lost and allow Spanish troops to escort him and his men through their land, an event that would “gratify our most sanguine expectations,” according to a letter from Pike.

Pike headed west with one civilian doctor and 23 military men from the St. Louis area with few skills. In his journal Pike wrote that he served as “astronomer, surveyor, commanding officer, clerk, spy, guide and hunter.”

For the first three months, they meandered through present-day Kansas and Nebraska. In October, they reached the Arkansas River, where Pike sent some men downstream and took the majority northwest to find the source of the Red River.

Spanish troops sent out an expedition to find Pike almost as soon as he began the journey. A National Park Service history notes that while Lewis and Clark would have been concerned their mission would be compromised by such attention, Pike reported with pride that he was being hunted.

He was not to be found for three more months, though — months when the men endured a rugged winter. Pike spotted the peak that would be named after him on Nov. 15, when starvation and frostbite were setting in.

In the midst of this misery, one member of Pike’s party made a strange move. Dr. John Robinson left, supposedly to collect a debt near Santa Fe. Not surprisingly, he was quickly found by the Spanish, who sent out patrols.

This, said Colorado Historical Society chief historian Modupe Labode, seems a sign that Pike wanted to be caught. The Spanish took him and his men into custody in February.

As the group was escorted to Santa Fe, Pike made mental notes of the placement of forts and the size of the garrisons. He had long meetings with priests along the way to gather information. Pike even worked on biographical sketches of Spanish military officers.

After Spanish authorities in Chihuahua determined Pike had ulterior motives, they grabbed his papers and ordered him to stop taking notes. He kept scribbling, though, and hid notes in empty gun barrels as the group was escorted across Texas to the United States.

Pike’s journals were mundane in his description of American lands and showed little imagination, Labode and others said. The confiscated journals were forgotten until 1907, when Mexico returned them to the United States.

But Pike perked up during his detour through Spanish territory. His writings on the trip home chronicled the people of New Spain, natural resources and military arrangements. The National Park Service describes his work as “the first adequate report on the Spanish provinces of North America ever brought back to the United States.”

“That he was able to make fairly extensive notes and keep them hidden and return with them intact, that was incredible,” said David Heidler, an author and history professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo. “In terms of informing the (American) government of things they wouldn’t have known about otherwise, it was a pearl without price.”

By the time Pike was released on July 1, 1807, his commanding officer, Wilkinson, was on trial for treason. The exact nature of the Burr-Wilkinson Conspiracy has never been determined.

Some historians think Wilkinson and Vice President Aaron Burr wanted to separate the Louisiana Territory from the rest of the country by force. Others say they wanted to raise a private army, invade Mexico and overthrow the Spanish. Still others think it might have been a benign mission to encourage commerce with the Spanish.

Both were tried and acquitted. It was learned later, however, that Wilkinson had sworn allegiance to Spain and was on its payroll.

Pike was linked to the conspiracy because of his relationship with Wilkinson — his loyalty remained long after Wilkinson was no longer his commander, Heidler said. Pike was never accused of being a part of it, though, and was cleared. He died in the War of 1812.

“I really do think he was following orders, and he interpreted following orders very literally,” Labode said.

No examination of Pike’s life is complete without considering his journeys through Spanish lands, where he might have done his best work.

As an explorer, Heidler argued, Pike was a conundrum of failure — someone who drew inaccurate maps and got badly lost but kept the loyalty and confidence of his men. But as a soldier doing reconnaissance in a foreign country, he did a good job of gathering information and relaying it to his government.

Mayberry called Pike “the explorer most of us would be” — a man who made mistakes and seemed generally dumbfounded by the West.

“I think that Pike was touchable in a way Lewis and Clark never were to me,” he said. “Certainly he should be remembered because of what he did, even his failures had a significant impact on American history.”

Then, asked whether Pike was an explorer or a spy, Mayberry considered the question, smiled and replied:

“I think Pike would say, ‘Absolutely, I was a spy.’”


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