Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike

Home » Pike: On This Day » 2. February 1807 » February 27, 1807. Arrested!

February 27, 1807. Arrested!


Replica of Pike's Rio Conejos StockadePike has built a small stockade on the Rio Conejos, a tributary of the Rio Grande, in southern Colorado, not far from the present New Mexico border. He claims he believes it to be the Red River. He has been there for a month, while a rescue party retrieves six men Pike had left behind in the mountains. This morning he will get a surprise.

26th February, Thursday. In the morning was apprized by the report of a gun, from my lookout guard; of the approach of strangers. Immediately after two Frenchmen arrived.

My sentinel halted them and ordered them to be admitted….They informed me that his excellency governor Allencaster had heard it was the intention of the Utah [Ute] Indians, to attack me; had detached an officer with 50 dragoons to come out and protect me….

The party came in sight to the number of, I afterwards learnt 50 dragoons and 50 mounted militia…My sentinel halted them at the distance of about 50 yards. I had the works manned. I…sent out the two Frenchmen to inform the commanding officer that it was my request he should leave his party in a small copse of woods where he halted, and that I would meet him myself in the prairie, in which our work was situated. This I did, with my sword on me only.

A member of his party, Dr. John Robinson, has departed for Santa Fe, claiming he planned to collect a debt from a resident there. The debtor and his debt are real, but Pike admits in a previous journal entry that the visit is “spurious.” Why, he doesn’t say. Meanwhile, Robinson has been captured by the Spanish colonial government. Pike’s visitors today are not there to protect him. They have been sent by the Spanish governor to see if there are any other Americans in the area.

I was introduced to Don Ignation Saltelo and Don Bartholemew Fernandez, two lieutenants, the former the commandant of the party. I gave them an invitation to enter the works….We first breakfasted on some deer, meal, goose and some biscuit….The commanding officer addressed me as follows:

“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 may stand in need of to conduct you to the head of Red river.”

“What,” said I, (interrupting him) is not this the Red river.”

“No sir! the Rio del Norte.”

I immediately ordered my flag to be taken down and rolled up, feeling how sensibly I had comitted myself, in entering their territory, and was conscious that they must have positive orders to take me in.”

They did. Even if he had been on the Red, Pike was in disputed territory. On the Rio Grande, only by the broadest stretch of logic could Pike claim to be in American territory. And here, he as good as admits he is not. The question is, was Pike actually lost? Or was he deliberately in Spanish territory, hoping to get arrested, perhaps to start a war or to get a peek at the New Mexican capital–its defenses, population, etc.? Saltelo didn’t know why Pike was there, but he didn’t buy Pike’s bit about the Red River. He ordered Pike to accompany him to Santa Fe to explain himself to the governor.

My take is that he was in fact lost. Pike lacks accurate geographic knowledge about the region. He has previously passed up good opportunities to try to get to Santa Fe, if that is his true objective. And Robinson, when he departs, goes upstream–the correct direction for Santa Fe if one truly believes he is on the Red and and a counter-intuitive direction if he secretely knows he’s on the Rio Grande. Whatever the case, tonight Pike will, as the editor of his journals Donald Jackson said, have to scribble out some labels on the maps he’s been making.


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