Rabbitbrush Rambler: Pike’s suffering men

Considering the ordeals that Lieutenant Zebulon Pike’s Southwest Expedition endured, it seems important to say more about the personnel who suffered terribly during the events. Besides the leader, the party (if you can call it a “party”), there was the civilian surgeon Robinson, whom I said a little about last week; a civilian interpreter named Baroney; a sergeant Ballenger; and 12 privates, if I have my count correct. Names such as Miller, Brown, Sparks, Dunbar, Freeman, and Mountjoy get mentioned here and there in the account.

When they started, in addition to Pike’s own larger mounted contingent, there also was another group under Governor/General James Wilkinson’s son, making a total of 23 when they started in July 1806. At first, activities consisted of returning Indian captives to their tribes in the Missouri area, meeting in counsels, often hunting buffalo and once chasing wild horses for fun, and coping with too much rain.

Moving west up the Arkansas River, they split in late October, with the Wilkerson group returning to St. Louis and Pike’s group heading farther westward, where they often were following Spanish traces. As November wore on – much too late to be heading toward mountains under any circumstances, footgear already was needing repair.

Duties were mainly hunting and camp routines and a few encounters with Indians, friendly and unfriendly. At one point when horses strayed, three or four men had to try to recapture them and slept without shelter, food, or companions overnight.

By November 23, they had reached the site of Pueblo, CO, where temperature was bitterly cold for ill-clothed humans. Even Pike was just wearing cotton overalls. But they stopped, while Pike, Robinson, and two privates (Miller and Brown) made their famous four-day, unsuccessful junket to climb Pike’s Peak, while the others built a log structure, five feet high, and hunted.

Then it began to snow. The river had ice in it as they continued on west, and two men were frozen in the fording before they had reached Cañon City’s site. Still not considering going back down the Arkansas, Pike instead commiserated in his journal about the “poor fellows,” the “almost naked” men, the “suffering from cold” and pushed on.

After attempting to enter the icy Rocky Royal Gorge a little distance, they gave up and headed northward into South Park and then down Trout Creek to the Arkansas, which Pike mistakenly thought was the Red River in a fantastic miscalculation. Weather was stormy, Pike said, but the sun was shining when, on a side trip northward, he said he could see 35 miles upriver.

Hunting involved many, often unsuccessfully, but Sparks killed four buffalo, so they took Christmas Day off, north of today’s Salida, and attempted to dry some meat, and used some of the raw meat to fashion a kind of footwear. By then, blankets had been cut up to make something to wear on some of their feet, so men were sleeping on snow and wet ground.

Next came the Royal Gorge, still being thought to be the Red River. They made some eight sleds to carry baggage, but in the rocks and ice, some horses and gear were damaged and destroyed before they climbed up to the higher ground on the north side. By then, some were reduced to eating boiled deer skin.

And then they descended to find them back at their former Cañon City site on the Arkansas, to Pike’s mortification. But did Pike just surrender then and head east down the Arkansas? No.

(To be continued.)