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Zebulon Pike's Journey to the Red River... kinda

Zebulon Pike's fort at the Rio Grande can be seen on the map made for his journal, both of which were published in 1810 (LOC).

Zebulon Pike's journey to the Red River was beset with problems and intrigue.

In 1804, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson ordered two expeditions to find the headwaters of the Red River in the hopes that they were at Santa Fe and thus, establish trade with New Spain, aka New Mexico. However, discovering that the Red River originated at Santa Fe could help the U.S. lay claim over the southern boundary of the newly-purchased Louisiana Territory.

One* of these expeditions was led by Zebulon Pike, which was rife with problems. Two of his men lost their feet to frostbite when Pike led everyone in an attempt to climb the summit of today's Pike's Peak in the dead of winter. The remaining men almost mutinied.

Once out of the mountains, Pike built a stockade, or fort, at what he believed was the Red River that led to Natchitoches north of Santa Fe. He was quickly informed by a company of dragoons sent by the governor of New Mexico that his expedition was actually encamped at the Rio Grande. The exchange, as related by Major Pike in his journal, seemed very agreeable, until it wasn't:

"Sir, the governor of New Mexico, being informed you had missed your route, ordered me to offer you, in his name, mules, horses, money, or whatever you might stand in need of to conduct you to the head of the Red river; as from Santa Fe to where is is sometimes navigable is eight days' journey, and we have guides and their routes of the traders to conduct us."

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

"No, sir! The Rio del Norte."

Pike immediately lowered the U.S. flag at his crudely constructed fort, recognizing that he may have (inadvertently? on purpose?) invaded a foreign country. Then, the officer from New Mexico added that the governor "had provided 100 mules and horses to take in my party and baggage, and how anxious his Excellency was to see me at Santa Fe."

Oops! Pike was arrested, y'all.

He was either sincerely sorry, or just pretended to be sorry, to have been mistaken on finding the river's headwaters at Santa Fe... after all, it was double agent James Wilkerson** who had given him the charge to go to New Mexico in 1805 in the first place. Whether President Thomas Jefferson was aware of Pike's intention is still unknown.

Further, Pike knew that the river where he built the camp was the Rio Grande. He had noted his observation of the river in his journal weeks prior after he had seen it through his telescope upon climbing one of the sand dunes in today's Great Sand Dunes National Park.

I'll post more about his trip out of Mexico and his release into Natchitoches, where he <finally> found the Red River, ha!

Quotes come from The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike, to Headwaters of the Mississippi River, Through Louisiana Territory, and in New Spain, During the Years 1805-6-7. A New Edition, Now First Reprinted in Full from the Original of 1810, with copious critical commentary. Memoir of Pike, New Map, and other Illustrations and Complete Index, by Elliot Coues, Late Captain and Assistant Surgeon, United States Army (etc), in Three Volumes. Volume II: Arkansaw Journey - Mexican Tour (New York: Francis P. Harper, 1895).

*The other expedition, just as unsuccessful as Pike's, was led by Peter Custis and Thomas Freeman. To find out more, visit the blog posts below.

** James Wilkinson was governor of Louisiana Territory who conspired with disgraced Aaron Burr to establish a kingdom in western Louisiana/ eastern Texas. He was also, most likely, working as a spy for New Spain, and tipped off the Spanish troops about the Freeman/Custis expedition of 1806. He was instrumental in turning Burr over to the U.S. government to stand trial for treason to save his own hide. To learn more about this nefarious character, read the LOC Blog.

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