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The Ambiguous Venture of
Zebulon Pike (1806-1807)
In early March of 1807, Zebulon Montgomery Pike arrived under Spanish escort in Santa Fe, capital of the province of New Mexico. Unlike some future American visitors to Santa Fe, who would express dismay at the shabbiness of the town and its inhabitants, the twenty-eight-year-old Pike and his ragged contingent of scarcely a half-dozen soldiers were in no condition to complain of their surroundings, having camped in the wild for more than seven months since departing St. Louis on a grueling reconnaissance that traversed part of what would later be known as the Santa Fe Trail. Forced to carry their baggage on their backs after leaving their jaded horses behind, they had dispensed with military finery and clad themselves for survival. By Pike's own account, they looked a bit savage as they entered the plaza and approached the Palace of the Governors, surrounded by a curious throng of onlookers:
Thus, when we presented ourselves at Santa Fe; I was dressed in a pair of blue trowsers, mockinsons, blanket coat and a cap made of scarlet doth, lined with fox skins and my poor fellows in leggings, breech cloths and leather coats and not a hat in the whole party. This appearance was extremely mortifying to us all, especially as soldiers, and although some of the officers used frequently to observe to me, that "worth made the man," &c. with a variety of adages to the same amount. Yet the first impression made on the ignorant is hard to eradicate; and a greater proof cannot be given of the ignorance of the common people, than their askingif we lived in houses or camps like the indians, or if we wore hats in our country; those observations are sufficient to shew the impression our uncouth appearance made amongst them.
Pike's embarrassment was perhaps increased by an awareness that these New Mexicans, however poor they might be, had a sharp eye for the distinctions of dressa fact that did much to boost the Santa Fe trade in years to come. To make matters worse, Pike was about to meet with the grandest figure in the province, Governor Joaquín del Real Alencaster, who had sent troops to find Pike and his band at their stockade near the upper Rio Grande (also known to New Mexicans as the Río del Norte) and summon them to the capital, an invitation they were not at liberty to refuse. Entering the Palace, or "government house," as Pike put itan adobe structure that did not strike him as very palatialhe and his men passed through a series of rooms with hard-packed mud floors, covered with "skins of buffalo, bear, or some other animal." At length, the governor confronted Pike and, with a few pointed questions, cut to the core of the matter that set the two men at odds. As Pike detailed the interview in his journal:
We waited in a chamber for some time, until his excellency appeared, when we rose, and the following conversation took place in French.
Governor. Do you speak French?
Pike. Yes sir.
Governor. You come to reconnoitre our country, do you?
Pike. I marched to reconnoitre our own.
The governor had more to ask Pike, but this was the crucial question, and one that left considerable room for disagreement. Both sides here were to some extent correct in their conflicting interpretations of Pike's mission, for the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, by which France ceded to the United States a vast area west of the Mississippi River, had left undefined the limits of that largely uncharted territory and the boundary between Spanish and American holdings. The United States claimed by right of purchase a huge expanse extending from the frontier of British Canada down through Spanish-occupied Texas. Realistically, the Americans had little hope of acquiring Texas without a fight, but they fully intended to press their claim to everything north of the Red River, and exploring that waterway up to its headwaters thus became a priority for the government. Spain, for its part, defined the area covered by the Louisiana Purchase much more narrowly, insisting that it included only a portion of what is now Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana and excluded Texas and the country to its north. More to the point, Spain denied the validity of the American purchase, having ceded the region in question to France with the proviso that it not be transferred to a third party. It was this divisive issue that launched Lieutenant Pikepromoted to captain during the journeyon his lengthy reconnaissance. The orders he received from General James Wilkinson before embarking from St. Louis, while instructing him to avoid provoking Spanish forces, nonetheless set him on a path that risked such a confrontation. Specifically, Wilkinson instructed Pike to hold peace parleys with various western tribes, including the Osages, Kansas, Pawnees, and Comanches, an ambitious agenda that Pike could not hope to fulfill without delving deep into territory still claimed by Spain. Furthermore, Wilkinson implicitly invited Pike to explore the unmapped headwaters of two major rivers whose origins lay close to New Mexico, if not actually within that province, raising the possibility that Pike might end up trespassing on territory that lay indisputably under Spanish control:
As your Interview with the Cammanchees will probably lead you to the Head Branches of the Arkansaw, and Red Rivers you may find yourself approximate to the settlements of New Mexico, and therefore it will be necessary you should move with great circumspection, to keep clear of any Hunting or reconnoitring parties from that province, & to prevent alarm or offence because the affairs of Spain, & the United States appear to be on the point of amicable adjustment, and more over it is the desire of the President, to cultivate the Friendship & Harmonious Intercourse, of all the Nations of the Earth, & particularly our near neighbours the Spaniards.
When Pike set out with a force of fewer than two dozen men to fulfill these difficult and delicate orderswhich exposed him to potential opposition but urged him to keep the peacehe inaugurated a complex exchange between the United States and the Spanish Southwest. He was not the first American to travel to the region, but the official nature of his expedition made him a pioneer, testing the limits of the American domain and taking the measure of tribal resistance on the plains and Spanish opposition in the provinces. His reconnaissance would not lead immediately to regular trade between Missouri and New Mexico, but it would establish a pattern for that traffic, which would combine "Friendship & Harmonious Intercourse" with competitive give-and-take that sometimes bordered on hostilities and ultimately crossed that line.
This American bid to stake out the contested Louisiana Territory as far west as the Rocky Mountains did not go unchallenged. As Pike launched his reconnaissance in July 1806, several hundred mounted Spanish troops under Facundo Melgares, a future governor of New Mexico, were heading northeastward from Santa Fe to search for intruding Americans on the plains and to urge Indians of the region to reserve their friendship for Spain. This further complicated Pike's mission, tasked as he was with inducing several formidable tribes to keep peace with each other and with the Americans. (The quixotic notion of imposing a Pax Americana on Plains Indians who as yet knew little of Americans and their ways also figured in the instructions given in 1804 by President Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who met with many chiefs but failed to achieve that elusive goal.)
In late September of 1806, after visiting among the Osages near the western frontier of what was soon to become the Missouri Territory and persuading some of them to accompany his reconnaissance, Pike and his men entered a Pawnee village along the Republican River near what is now the Kansas-Nebraska border to meet in council with a portion of that tribe. He soon discovered that he had been preceded by a Spanish officer, Melgares, who had left several flags behind, "one of which was unfurled at the chief's door," Pike noted, prompting him to complain heatedly to his Pawnee hosts through an interpreter:
Amongst various demands and charges I gave them, was, that the said flag should be delivered to me, and one of the United States' flags be 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, &c. which my appearance with 20 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."
Considering his presumption in demanding such childlike obedience from the resolute Pawnees, Pike was perhaps fortunate that he was not challenged forcefully, as Lewis and Clark were after they made a similar attempt in 1804 to persuade Lakota Sioux along the upper Missouri that they owed allegiance to their father in Washington. Instead, a Pawnee who was old enough to be Pike's father offered the visiting soldier chief a lesson in diplomacy by sacrificing the "pride of nations" to preserve the peaceful spirit of the council ground. "After a silence of some time," Pike related, "an old man rose, went to the door, and took down the Spanish flag, and brought it and laid it at my feet, and then received the American flag and elevated it on the staff, which had lately borne the standard of his Catholic majesty." This concession must have been painful for the old man and for the Pawnees as a whole, for Pike noticed a sudden darkening of their mood and responded accordingly:
Perceiving that every face in the council was clouded with sorrow, as if some great national calamity was about to befal them, I took up the contested colors, and told them "that as they had now shewn themselves dutiful children in acknowledging their great American father, I did not wish to embarass them with the Spaniards, for it was the wish of the Americans that their red brethren should remain peaceably round 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 during our stay." At this there was a general shout of applause and the charge particularly attended to.
Thus Pike repaired some, if not all, of the diplomatic damage done by his self-described "demands and charges." But the applause and relief of the Pawnees did not signal that they had been won over by the Americans in any lasting way. Indeed, the Pawnee chief Sharitarish made it clear to Pike two days later that he felt bound by his commitment to the Spanish and had no intention of acting as a dutiful child of the great American father:
Paid a visit to town, and had a very long conversation with the chief, who urged every thing in his power to induce us to turn back. Finally, he very candidly told us that the Spaniards wished to have gone further into our country, but he induced them to give up the ideathat they had listened to him and he wished us to do the samethat he had promised the Spaniards to act as he now did, and that we must proceed no further, or he must stop us by force of arms. My reply was, "that I had been sent out by our great father to explore the western country, to visit all his red children, to make peace between them, and turn them from shedding blood; that he might see how I had caused the Osage and Kans to meet to smoke the pipe of peace together, and take each other by the hands like brothers; that as yet my road had been smooth, and a blue sky over our heads. I had not seen any blood in our paths; but he must know that the young warriors of his great American father were not women to be turned back by words, that I should therefore proceed, and if he thought proper to stop me, he could attempt it; but we were men, well armed, and would sell our lives at a dear rate to his nationthat we knew our great father would send our young warriors there to gather our bones and revenge our deaths on his peoplewhen our spirits would rejoice in hearing our exploits sung in the war songs of our chiefs." I then left his lodge and returned to camp in considerable perturbation of mind.
Significantly, Pike was making this forceful point to the Pawnees in their own termsor at least in what he conceived to be their terms. In a rough approximation of Indian rhetoric, he reminded the chief that American soldiers "were not women" (a phrase used by men of various tribes to demonstrate their fighting resolve) and pledged that if he and his troops came to grief, others would hasten to avenge them (an impulse that inspired many tribal raids). Pike may have antagonized the chief with his bravado, but such rhetorical give-and-take was preferable to an exchange of blows. Many Americans who traveled to New Mexico in later years would find themselves adopting the terms of the various groups they dealt with along the way, even when trading defiant words with them or making bids for their territory.
Pike and his men proceeded unhindered, bringing to an end his fitful diplomatic ventures among the Plains Indians. As he told the Pawnee chief, he had "caused the Osage and Kans to meet to smoke the pipe of peace together," a reference to a recent meeting between the Osages who had accompanied Pike and a small party of Kansas who visited the council ground. According to Wilkinson's instructions, Pike was also supposed to seek a "good understanding" with the Comanches, but the path he followed kept him well north of the Comanche heartland and no such meeting ensued. Before leaving the Pawnees, Pike and company learned from French traders that Lewis and Clark had returned safely from the Pacific Northwest with their men to St. Louis, news that "diffused general joy through our party." Like Lewis and Clark, Pike was serving during the expedition as a naturalist as well as an envoy to various Indian tribes, and his journal for the days ahead included fine descriptions of the country and its creatures. Departing the Pawnee village on October 7 with fresh horses obtained in trade, he and his men traveled almost due south and reached the Great Bend of the Arkansas on the eighteenth. It was here that Pike began to follow roughly the route that would later be called the Santa Fe Trail, although the path he took west along the Arkansas had been used by venturesome Indians and Europeans long before Pike or the Santa Fe traders entered the scene.
At the Great Bend, Pike's party built canoes that would carry several men under Lieutenant James B. Wilkinson, the general's son, down the Arkansas River while the remainder prepared to follow Pike up the Arkansas to its headwaters. Before continuing on, he took the opportunity to observe and describe a prairie dog colony, and his was among the first accounts of the species to appear in print:
Their villages sometimes extend over two and three miles square, in which there must be innumerable hosts of them, as there is generally a burrow every ten steps in which there are two or more, and you see new ones partly excavated on all the borders of the town. We killed great numbers of them with our rifles and found them excellent meat, after they were exposed a night or two to the frost, by which means the rankness acquired by their subteranneous dwelling is corrected. As you approach their towns, you are saluted on all sides by the cry of Wishtonwish, from which they derive their name with the Indians, uttered in a shrill and piercing manner. You then observe them all retreating to the entrance of their burrows, where they post themselves, and regard every, even the slightest move that you make. It requires a very nice shot with a rifle to kill them, as they must be killed dead, for as long as life exists, they continue to work into their cells. It is extremely dangerous to pass through their towns, as they abound with rattle snakes.
Excerpted from Bound for Santa Fe by Stephen G. Hyslop. Copyright © 2002 by University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.