Pike Explores the Arkansas Alley
Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike was a bold young adventurer, who, when twenty-seven years of age, undertook to explore the country between Arkansas and the Red Rivers, in the same way that Lewis and Clark had explored the region of the Missouri River.
In July, 1806, Pike and his men, full of courage and high spirits, left St. Louis in row-boats. They were prepared for the usual hard journey that awaited explorers of the far west, with all its dangers and discomforts. Their boats made about fifteen miles a day. They lived on deer, turkeys, and bears which they easily killed in their hunting trips along the banks of the river.
They turned into the Osage River, and, about the middle of August, reached some Indian villages where they were welcomed by the dusky Osage warriors, and refreshed after their tiresome trip. Here Pike mounted his men on horses, and made ready for his long journey by land.
Their first destination was the Pawnee villages far away on the Platte River, where a tribe of Indians lived whose friendship for the Americans was uncertain. On September 1, the party drove away full of hope and confidence. With them rode a band of Osage warriors for a short distance, to show them their good-will and to do them honor.
In a few days the party rode across the dividing ridge, and the prairies of Kansas spread before them. Far as the eye could see, the rich land stretched, level and beautiful, covered with tall grass and low-growing bushes. A few hills, here and there, broke the monotony of the landscape. Occasionally, a group of trees could be located, and there, beneath the branches the Indians buried their dead to keep the bodies from the devouring wolves and coyotes: It was a wonderful country, which in future years was to be the greatest grain-growing section of the world.
At last, Pike came to the Pawnee villages. The evil reputation of these savages boded no good to his mission of friendship. He was far from home, and his band was few in numbers. Just before he arrived, a body of three hundred Spanish soldiers, from New Mexico, had been there, and sown distrust and enmity for the Americans. When Pike arrived, with his twenty-three men, the Indians did not try to conceal their disdain.
"Our friends, the Spaniards, have many warriors, on strong horses, and bring many presents. You are nothing beside them, and we do not fear you," said the Chief to Pike.
Pike replied, "There are few of us here, but there are many of us where I come from. The Spaniards are many here, but few at home. We bring friendship and peace. You had best listen to us, and not to the Spaniards."
But the savages would not attend his councils, and looked on with sour faces when Pike raised the American flag in their villages. They probably thought he was trying to amuse them by some sort of game, but they refused to be amused.
After leaving the Pawnee villages, Pike's party continued its westward journey, going up the Arkansas River, looking for its source. Toward the beginning of winter they reached the Spanish Peaks, where the river, growing smaller all the time, finally, was lost among the hills. They were now in the land that afterwards became Colorado.
Before them lay a lofty peak, which Pike determined to climb, that he might get a better view of the country. Day after day he struggled through the tangled brush, over gullies, and up the steep sides of the mountain. Every night brought him and his men nearer the top. Amid many difficulties, he reached a great altitude, and at last, on the very summit, saw the wonderful plains and prairies of Colorado spread before him.
The high point was afterwards named "Pike's Peak," in honor of the intrepid explorer. To-day, a railway track is laid to the top of the same mountain, and in summer many visitors take, in perfect comfort, the same wonderful climb that Pike and his men took with such hardship.
Winter now set in. The rivers began to freeze, the snow fell and covered the trails, the wood became too wet to burn, and Pike and his men endured untold misery. Trying to find his way back to the head waters of the Red River, he missed his way, and the party wandered like lost men through the hills, without shelter and often without food. Men with less courage and strength would have perished in the terrible hardships they endured.
At last they built a block-house for shelter, and settled down to wait. Pike sent one of his men to hunt for Santa Fe, the Spanish town, and to bring succor. When the messenger reached Santa Fe and told his story, the Spaniards listened with some distrust, but sent a squadron of horse to find Pike and his men.
Reaching the brave little party, the Spaniards arrested Pike for being on Spanish territory; they suspected him of having designs on New Mexico. Pike was glad enough to be rescued, no matter what the Spaniards thought of him. Here is how he, himself, describes what befell him and his men, when they reached Santa Fé:
"When we presented ourselves at Santa Fé, I was dressed in a pair of blue trousers, moccasins, blanket-coat, and a cap made of scarlet cloth, lined with fox skins, and my poor fellows in leggings, breech-cloths, and leather coats. There was not a hat in the whole party. Our appearance was extremely mortifying to us all, especially as soldiers. Greater proof cannot be given of the ignorance of the people here than their asking if we lived in houses or in camps like the Indians, or if we wore hats in our country."
After a brief detention, as prisoners, and largely because of satisfactory explanation on Pike's part, the explorers were sent back to the United States under an armed escort, though Pike's papers were taken from him, so that he had to supply the details of his explorations as best he could from memory.