Rabbitbrush Rambler: Pike’s cottonwood stockade

One of the frequent visitors to the park at Pike’s Stockade reported a couple of weeks ago that a huge cottonwood had fallen on the log structure on the grounds. Damage reported to the stockade’s overseers at Fort Garland State Museum was that at least four rotten logs on one wall had been smashed on the west wall, and the north wall also incurred damage.

Before it came crashing down, how long it had survived, though, I wondered. Given our strong prevailing winds from the Southwest, it is not hard to understand how an old cottonwood tree could be uprooted in the moist floodplain out there.

Was this cottonwood alive when Lt. Zebulon Montgomery Pike and his soldiers arrived at the Conejos River and set up camp 201 years ago? No, the average lifespan of a Narrowleaf Cottonwood is 100 years or less, although some hardy specimens might survive for a couple more decades.

The same could be said for Pike and his hardy men. On January 31 those who were still able to travel arrived on the north bank of the Conejos River, and the next day Pike began to lay out “the place for our works and went out hunting,” shelter and food being primary concerns.

Those who were there varied in number. For a week the expedition’s doctor was present until he departed for Santa Fe. That evening, Corporal Jackson and four of the soldiers departed northward “to bring in abandoned baggage and to attempt a rescue of men who had been left behind.”

This left a crew of five men to work on the stockade and its breastworks, while Pike hunted, scouted the area, read, and studied French grammar.

   Now, picture the soldiers, who now were reduced to a small detachment of four, two of them with frozen feet, whose task was to continue constructing the stockade. Remember that they had not been mounted since they left the Pueblo area in eastern Colorado. Inadequately supplied at they were, they surely had not been carrying heavy axes on their backs through the snowdrifts they encountered.    

So this small team was cutting trees, erecting the horizontally-laid walls, and digging a moat around all. The trees for the walls could not have been very large, even though cottonwood is fairly soft and thus easy to cut, but the structure when completed was 36 feet square and 12 feet high, Pike’s journal claimed.

By February 16 the encampment had visitors, a Spanish dragoon and a “civilized Indian,” who were given some presents and departed to report the uninvited foreigners to Spanish authorities.

On February 26 a couple of Frenchmen came by, and their visit was followed a short time later by the appearance of a large number of dragoons, flourishing lances, rifles, and pistols. With little choice in the matter, Pike allowed the Spanish officers to enter the stockade by crossing the moat at the low entrance. Pike served them a breakfast of sorts and obeyed the command to lower the American flag with its 15 stars that Pike had brazenly put up on Spanish soil. The following day, February 27, a month after he had crossed into the San Luis Valley, Pike with his escort departed for Santa Fe.

Pike’s journal reported that he had located his stockade at five miles above the confluence with the Rio Grande River. But when folks from Sanford came out in 1910, unfurled a flag on the pole they erected there, and marked what they believed might have been the site of the long-gone stockade, there were no remains of a stockade.

The best clue they had was a sunken spot in the ground where logs might have rotted away or where logs once might have been carted away for outbuildings or for firewood. By then, saplings that existed when the stockade was being erected in 1807 would have become elderly trees or were long gone.

After the ceremony of 1910, the site was not forgotten. In 1925 the State of Colorado purchased 120 acres and designated the Zebulon Montgomery Pike Memorial Park. The State Historical Society and the San Luis Valley Historical Association proposed plans that also would eventually include Fort Garland’s restoration, while the years slipped past.

In 1952, a replica of the stockade was constructed by the state at the site, and since 1996 it has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places, as well as in the State Register. But I myself find it hard to believe that the original stockade had logs anywhere near the same length and as evenly cut as one sees in the “replica” of 1952. The men in 1807 must have just done the best job possible under arduous circumstances, and Pike’s picture in his journal could have improved it a bit.

For several years, the owner of neighboring property provided oversight of the park, and during summer seasons Carl Helfin and Hazel Petty faithfully drove from Alamosa to open and close the park’s gate during the summer season hours. The park received nice improvements in 2010, but the stockade’s replica has suffered from deterioration and vandalism.

Now, with a blow from Mother Nature, repair and maintenance at Pike’s Stockade must move up on the list of priorities.