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Zebulon Pike drawing

While Lewis and Clark were descending the Columbia and recrossing the
continent from the Pacific coast, another army officer was conducting
explorations which were only less important than theirs. This was Lieut.
Zebulon Montgomery Pike. He was not by birth a Westerner, being from New
Jersey, the son of an officer of the Revolutionary army; but his name
will always be indelibly associated with the West.

His two voyages of exploration, one to the head-waters of the Mississippi, the other to the
springs of the Arkansas and the Rio Grande, were ordered by Wilkinson,
without authority from Congress. When Wilkinson's name was smirched by
Burr's conspiracy the Lieutenant likewise fell under suspicion, for it
was believed that his south-western trip was undertaken in pursuance of
some of Wilkinson's schemes. Unquestionably this trip was intended by
Pike to throw light on the exact nature of the Spanish boundary claims.
In all probability he also intended to try to find out all he could of
the military and civil situation in the northern provinces of Mexico.
Such information could be gathered but for one purpose; and it seems
probable that Wilkinson had hinted to him that part of his plan which
included an assault of some kind or other on Spanish rule in Mexico; but
Pike was an ardent patriot, and there is not the slightest ground for
any belief that Wilkinson dared to hint to him his own disloyalty to the

He Ascends the Mississippi.

In August, 1805, Pike turned his face towards the head-waters of the
Mississippi, his purpose being both to explore the sources of that
river, and to show to the Indians, and to the British fur traders among
them, that the United States was sovereign over the country in fact as
well as in theory. He started in a large keel boat, with twenty soldiers
of the regular army. The voyage up-stream was uneventful. The party
lived largely on game they shot, Pike himself doing rather more hunting
than anyone else and evidently taking much pride in his exploits; though
in his journal he modestly disclaimed any pretensions to special skill.
Unlike the later explorers, but like Lewis and Clark, Pike could not
avail himself of the services of hunters having knowledge of the
country. He and his regulars were forced to be their own pioneers and to
do their own hunting, until, by dint of hard knocks and hard work, they
grew experts, both as riflemen and as woodsmen.

Encounters with Indians.

The expedition occasionally encountered parties of Indians. The savages
were nominally at peace with the whites, and although even at this time
they occasionally murdered some solitary trapper or trader, they did not
dare meddle with Pike's well armed and well prepared soldiers, confining
themselves to provocation that just fell short of causing conflict. Pike
handled them well, and speedily brought those with whom he came into
contact to a proper frame of mind, showing good temper and at the same
time prompt vigor in putting down any attempt at bullying. On the
journey up stream only one misadventure befell the party. A couple of
the men got lost while hunting and did not find the boat for six days,
by which time they were nearly starved, having used up all their
ammunition, so that they could not shoot game.

Winters on the Headwaters of the Mississippi.

The winter was spent in what is now Minnesota. Pike made a permanent
camp where he kept most of his men, while he himself travelled hither
and thither, using dog sleds after the snow fell. They lived almost
purely on game, and Pike, after the first enthusiasm of the sport had
palled a little, commented on the hard slavery of a hunter's life and
its vicissitudes; for on one day he might kill enough meat to last the
whole party for a week and when that was exhausted they might go three
or four days without anything at all. [Footnote: Pike's Journal, entry
of November 16, 1805.] Deer and bear were the common game, though they
saw both buffalo and elk, and killed several of the latter. Pike found
his small-bore rifle too light for the chase of the buffalo.

Council with the Sioux.

At the beautiful falls of St. Anthony, Pike held a council with the
Sioux, and got them to make a grant of about a hundred thousand acres in
the neighborhood of the falls; and he tried vainly to make peace between
the Sioux and the Chippewas. In his search for the source of the
Mississippi he penetrated deep into the lovely lake-dotted region of
forests and prairies which surrounds the head-waters of the river. He
did not reach Lake Itasca; but he did explore the Leech Lake drainage
system, which he mistook for the true source.

Hoists the American Flag.

At the British trading-posts, strong log structures fitted to repel
Indian attacks, Pike was well received. Where he found the British flag
flying he had it hauled down and the American flag hoisted in its place,
making both the Indians and the traders understand that the authority of
the United States was supreme in the land. In the spring he floated down
stream and reached St. Louis on the last day of April, 1806.

Returns to St. Louis and Starts Westward.

In July he was again sent out, this time on a far more dangerous and
important trip. He was to march west to the Rocky Mountains, and explore
the country towards the head of the Rio Grande, where the boundary line
between Mexico and Louisiana was very vaguely determined. His party
numbered twenty-three all told, including Lieutenant J. B. Wilkinson, a
son of the general, and a Dr. J. H. Robinson, whose special business it
was to find out everything possible about the Spanish provinces, or, in
plain English, to act as a spy. The party was also accompanied by fifty
Osage Indians, chiefly women and children who had been captured by the
Potowatomies, and whose release and return to their homes had been
brought about by the efforts of the United States Government. The
presence of these redeemed captives of course kept the Osages in good
humor with Pike's party.

Pike Journeys to the Osage and Pawnee Villages.

The party started in boats, and ascended the Osage River as far as it
was navigable. They then procured horses and traveled to the great
Pawnee village known as the Pawnee Republic, which gave its name to the
Republican River. Before reaching the Pawnee village they found that a
Spanish military expedition, several hundred strong, under an able
commander named Malgares, had anticipated them, by travelling through
the debatable land, and seeking to impress upon the Indians that the
power of the Spanish nation was still supreme. Malgares had traveled
from New Mexico across the Arkansas into the Pawnee country; during much
of his subsequent route Pike followed the Spaniard's trail. The Pawnees
had received from Malgares Spanish flags, as tokens of Spanish
sovereignty. Doubtless the ceremony meant little or nothing to them; and
Pike had small difficulty in getting the chiefs and warriors of the
village to hoist the American flag instead. But they showed a very
decided disinclination to let him continue his journey westward.
However, he would not be denied. Though with perfect good temper, he
gave them to understand that he would use force if they ventured to bar
his passage; and they finally let him go by. Later he had a somewhat
similar experience with a large Pawnee war party.

The Swarms of Game.

The explorers had now left behind them the fertile, tree-clad country,
and had entered on the great plains, across which they journeyed to the
Arkansas, and then up that river. Like Lewis and Clark, Pike found the
country literally swarming with game; for all the great plains region,
from the Saskatchewan to the Rio Grande, formed at this time one of the
finest hunting grounds to be found in the whole world. At one place just
on the border of the plains Pike mentions that he saw from a hill
buffalo, elk, antelope, deer, and panther, all in sight at the same
moment. When he reached the plains proper the three characteristic
animals were the elk, antelope, and, above all, the buffalo.

The Bison.

The myriads of huge shaggy-maned bison formed the chief feature in this
desolate land; no other wild animal of the same size, in any part of the
world, then existed in such incredible numbers. All the early travelers
seem to have been almost equally impressed by the interminable seas of
grass, the strange, shifting, treacherous plains rivers, and the
swarming multitudes of this great wild ox of the West. Under the blue
sky the yellow prairie spread out in endless expanse; across it the
horseman might steer for days and weeks through a landscape almost as
unbroken as the ocean. It was a region of light rainfall; the rivers ran
in great curves through beds of quicksand, which usually contained only
trickling pools of water, but in times of freshet would in a moment fill
from bank to bank with boiling muddy torrents. Hither and thither across
these plains led the deep buffalo-trails, worn by the hoofs of the herds
that had passed and re-passed through countless ages. For hundreds of
miles a traveller might never be out of sight of buffalo. At noon they
lay about in little groups all over the prairie, the yellow calves
clumsily frisking beside their mothers, while on the slight mounds the
great bulls moaned and muttered and pawed the dust. Towards nightfall
the herds filed down in endless lines to drink at the river, walking at
a quick, shuffling pace, with heads held low and beards almost sweeping
the ground. When Pike reached the country the herds were going south
from the Platte towards their wintering grounds below the Arkansas. At
first he passed through nothing but droves of bulls. It was not until he
was well towards the mountains that he came upon great herds of cows.

Other Game.

The prairie was dotted over with innumerable antelope. These have always
been beasts of the open country; but the elk, once so plentiful in the
great eastern forests, and even now plentiful in parts of the Rockies,
then also abounded on the plains, where there was not a tree of any
kind, save the few twisted and wind-beaten cottonwoods that here and
there, in sheltered places fringed the banks of the rivers.

Indians Hunting.

Lewis and Clark had seen the Mandan horsemen surround the buffalo herds
and kill the great clumsy beasts with their arrows. Pike records with
the utmost interest how he saw a band of Pawnees in similar fashion
slaughter a great gang of elk, and he dwells with admiration on the
training of the horses, the wonderful horsemanship of the naked
warriors, and their skill in the use of bow and spear. It was a wild
hunting scene, such as belonged properly to times primeval. But indeed
the whole life of these wild red nomads, the plumed and painted
horse-Indians of the great plains, belonged to time primeval. It was at
once terrible and picturesque, and yet mean in its squalor and laziness.
From the Blackfeet in the north to the Comanches in the south they were
all alike; grim lords of war and the chase; warriors, hunters, gamblers,
idlers; fearless, ferocious, treacherous, inconceivably cruel;
revengeful and fickle; foul and unclean in life and thought; disdaining
work, but capable at times of undergoing unheard-of toil and hardship,
and of braving every danger; doomed to live with ever before their eyes
death in the form of famine or frost, battle or torture, and schooled to
meet it, in whatever shape it came, with fierce and mutterless
fortitude. [Footnote: Fortunately these horse-Indians, and the game they
chiefly hunted, have found a fit historian. In his books, especially
upon the Pawnees and Blackfeet, Mr. George Bird Grinnell has portrayed
them with a master hand; it is hard to see how his work can be

Wilkinson Descends the Arkansas.
When the party reached the Arkansas late in October Wilkinson and three
or four men journeyed down it and returned to the settled country.
Wilkinson left on record his delight when he at last escaped from the
bleak windswept plains and again reached the land where deer supplanted
the buffalo and antelope and where the cottonwood was no longer the only

Pike Reaches Pike's Peak.

The others struck westward into the mountains, and late in November
reached the neighborhood of the bold peak which was later named after
Pike himself. Winter set in with severity soon after they penetrated the
mountains. They were poorly clad to resist the bitter weather, and they
endured frightful hardships while endeavoring to thread the tangle of
high cliffs and sheer canyons. Moreover, as winter set in, the blacktail
deer, upon which the party had begun to rely for meat, migrated to the
wintering grounds, and the explorers suffered even more from hunger than
from cold. They had nothing to eat but the game, not even salt.

Sufferings from Cold and Hunger.

The travelling through the deep snow, whether exploring or hunting, was
heart-breaking work. The horses suffered most; the extreme toil, and
scant pasturage weakened them so that some died from exhaustion; others
fell over precipices and the magpies proved evil foes, picking the sore
backs of the wincing, saddle-galled beasts. In striving to find some
pass for the horses the whole party was more than once strung out in
detachments miles apart, through the mountains. Early in January, near
the site of the present Canyon City, Pike found a valley where deer were
plentiful. Here he built a fort of logs, and left the saddle-band and
pack-animals in charge of two of the members of the expedition;
intending to send back for them when he had discovered some practicable

He Strikes Across the Mountains on Foot.

He himself, with a dozen of the hardiest soldiers, struck through the
mountains towards the Rio Grande. Their sufferings were terrible. They
were almost starved, and so cold was the weather that at one time no
less than nine of the men froze their feet. Pike and Robinson proved on
the whole the hardiest, being kept up by their indomitable will, though
Pike mentions with gratification that but once, in all their trials, did
a single member of the party so much as grumble.

The Party almost Perishes from Starvation.

Pike and Robinson were also the best hunters; and it was their skill and
stout-heartedness, shown in the time of direst need, that saved the
whole party from death. In the Wet Mountain valley, which they reached
mid-January, 1807, at the time that nine of the men froze their feet,
starvation stared them in the face. There had been a heavy snowstorm; no
game was to be seen; and they had been two days without food. The men
with frozen feet, exhausted by hunger, could no longer travel. Two of
the soldiers went out to hunt, but got nothing. At the same time, Pike
and Robinson started, determined not to return at all unless they could
bring back meat. Pike wrote that they had resolved to stay out and die
by themselves, rather than to go back to camp "and behold the misery of
our poor lads." All day they tramped wearily through the heavy snow.
Towards evening they came on a buffalo, and wounded it; but faint and
weak from hunger, they shot badly, and the buffalo escaped; a
disappointment literally as bitter as death. That night they sat up
among some rocks, all night long, unable to sleep because of the intense
cold, shivering in their thin rags; they had not eaten for three days.
But they were men of indomitable spirit, and next day trudging painfully
on, they at last succeeded, after another heart-breaking failure, in
killing a buffalo. At midnight they staggered into camp with the meat,
and all the party broke their four days' fast. Two men lost their feet
through frost-bite, and had to be left in this camp, with all the food.
Only the fact that a small band of buffalo was wintering in the valley
had saved the whole expedition from death by starvation.

Pike Reaches the Rio Grande.

After leaving this valley Pike and the remaining men of the expedition
finally reached the Rio Grande, where the weather was milder and deer
abounded. Here they built a little fort over which they flew the United
States flag, though Pike well knew that he was in Spanish territory.
When the Spanish commander at Santa Fé learned of their presence he
promptly sent out a detachment of troops to bring them in, though
showing great courtesy, and elaborately pretending to believe that Pike
had merely lost his way.

Pike is Sent Home by the Spaniards.

From Santa Fé Pike was sent home by a roundabout route through
Chihuahua, and through Texas, where he noted the vast droves of wild
horses, and the herds of peccaries. He was much impressed by the strange
mixture of new world savagery and old world feudalism in the provinces
through which he passed. A nobility and a priesthood which survived
unchanged from the middle ages held sway over serfs and made war upon
savages. The Apache and Comanche raided on the outlying settlements; the
mixed bloods, and the "tame" Indians on the great ranches and in the
hamlets were in a state of peonage; in the little walled towns, the
Spanish commanders lived in half civilized, half barbaric luxury, and
shared with the priests absolute rule over the people roundabout. The
American lieutenant, used to the simplicity of his own service, was
struck by the extravagance and luxury of the Spanish officers, who
always traveled with sumpter mules laden with delicacies; and he was no
less struck with the laxity of discipline in all ranks. The Spanish
cavalry were armed with lances and shields; the militia carried not only
old fashioned carbines but lassos and bows and arrows. There was small
wonder that the Spanish authorities, civil, military, and ecclesiastical
alike, should wish to keep intruders out of the land, and should
jealously guard the secret of their own weakness.

His Subsequent Career.

When Pike reached home he found himself in disfavor, as was everyone who
was suspected of having any intimate relations with Wilkinson. However,
he soon cleared himself, and continued to serve in the army. He rose to
be a brigadier-general and died gloriously in the hour of triumph, when
in command of the American force which defeated the British and captured

Lewis, Clark, and Pike had been the pioneers in the exploration of the
far West. The wandering trappers and traders were quick to follow in
their tracks, and to roam hither and thither exploring on their own
accord. In 1807 one of these restless adventurers reached Yellowstone
Lake, and another Lake Itasca; and their little trading stations were
built far up the Missouri and the Platte.


Source: The Winning of the West, Volume Four, Louisiana and the Northwest, 1791-1807

by Theodore Roosevelt originally published 1896?  Full etext available at the Project Gutenberg web site.