Rabbitbrush Rambler: The mysterious Dr. Robinson

As always at this time of year, I write something about the expedition of Zebulon Montgomery Pike, and this year I have chosen to consider Pike’s companion, the mysterious Dr. John Hamilton Robinson, the expedition’s surgeon. A suspicion persists that the entire expedition was tied to devious goals of Aaron Burr and Louisiana Territory’s Governor James Wilkinson, but it is impossible to deny that in the course of such an expedition medical needs would arise and he would have been indispensible.

Burr, the former vice president (1801-1805), was involved in a scheme to free Mexico from New Spain and set up a province with Burr and his cohorts in control, and it is strongly suspected that Wilkinson was collaborating with Burr. Burr had a friendship of many years with Wilkinson, who had become the governor of Louisiana Territory.

Which leaves a question about whom Robinson, if not Pike himself, was working for when they departed St. Louis in July of 2006. Perhaps we never will know. Ostensibly, Robinson was supposed to collect some money for someone that was owed by a trader, Baptiste La Lande, who was living at Santa Fe. From the beginning, then, Robinson’s destination was the Spanish city of Santa Fe, although Pike’s expedition itself was ordered to reconnoiter the Arkansas and Red Rivers, not Spain’s Rio Grande.

Robinson is described in Pike’s published journal as being an excellent companion. The doctor accompanied Pike on his unsuccessful attempt to climb Pike’s Peak, helped with hunting desperately-needed game for food, cared for the suffering party, and, being educated, could share pleasant conversation and thoughts with the expedition’s officer.

When the doctor left Pike at their encampment on the Conejos River on February 6 and headed alone to Santa Fe, the question of the entire expedition’s purpose becomes acute. Why was Robinson expecting to get to Santa Fe by heading south downriver if Pike professed that he was on the Red River (and was on the west side of it at that, which obviously would be in Spanish territory)? After all, Pike and thus Robinson too had seen Humboldt’s rough map that offered some clues that they were on the wrong river, although it is true that the sketch erred about the Red’s location.

When Robinson left Pike on February 7 to go to Santa Fe, only a gullible person could believe that Dr. Robinson (and Pike too) was not spying. After Pike himself was arrested at the stockade on the Conejos in March and taken to Santa Fe, Pike said that he was alone, meaning that he allegedly did not know Robinson who already was in custody, and exposed the obvious ruse.

Nevertheless, courteous treatment was accorded Pike by the provincial Governor Alancaster, who even gave the lieutenant the gift of a shirt, which was probably badly needed after so many months on the trail. But Pike’s papers were taken from him and not returned, with the exception of some personal items.

From there Pike was taken south to Chihuahua, and on the way he and Robinson were reunited at Albuquerque. There, the good doctor had been given some liberty to attend to people needing his care.

As the military entourage proceeded south, both of the Americans had ample opportunity to observe the geography and much more, while also enjoying the hospitality of churchmen along the way. But at the provincial capital at Chihuahua, there was no question about the seriousness of Governor Don Nimeios Salcedo, who kept Pike’s papers and had them translated. The governor sternly pointed out that the Americans had caused much trouble but lent them funds to use on their journey back to Louisiana.

The two arrived in July at Natchitoches in July 1807, after a firsthand tour of Chihuahua and Texas.  When New Spain’s authorities later demanded that the Mexican money be reimbursed, Jefferson’s government refused to pay it.

The name of John Hamilton Robinson appears in later generations in Missouri, though the doctor himself disappears. Pike’s reputation remains unsullied as a career military officer who died during the War of 1812.