Pike Explores the American Southwest

After the Lewis and Clark expedition explored the northwestern part of the Louisiana Territory, Zebulon Pike led an expedition into the Southwest that paved the way to open a trade route to Santa Fe, while creating a myth that branded the Southwest as the “Great American Desert.”

Summary of Event

On July 15, 1806, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike of the Western Army of the United States set out from St. Louis with a party of twenty-two men with orders to locate and explore the headwaters of the Arkansas Arkansas River
Red River (Arkansas);exploration of and Red Rivers. His plan was to ascend the Arkansas River, cross over to the Red River, and then descend that river to its junction with the Mississippi River. After the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, the boundary line between its territories and the Spanish Empire Spanish Empire;borders of in the Southwest was undetermined. The Spanish were naturally prepared to resist any attempts by the United States to encroach on land that they claimed. Exploration;American West
Pike, Zebulon
“Great American Desert”[Great American Desert]
[kw]Pike Explores the American Southwest (July 15, 1806-July 1, 1807)
[kw]Explores the American Southwest, Pike (July 15, 1806-July 1, 1807)
[kw]American Southwest, Pike Explores the (July 15, 1806-July 1, 1807)
[kw]Southwest, Pike Explores the American (July 15, 1806-July 1, 1807)
Exploration;American West
Pike, Zebulon
“Great American Desert”[Great American Desert]
[g]United States;July 15, 1806-July 1, 1807: Pike Explores the American Southwest[0320]
[c]Exploration and discovery;July 15, 1806-July 1, 1807: Pike Explores the American Southwest[0320]
[c]Trade and commerce;July 15, 1806-July 1, 1807: Pike Explores the American Southwest[0320]
Wilkinson, James
Robinson, John Hamilton
Melgares, Facundo

The farther west Pike moved, the more likely he was to encounter trouble, as the Spanish furiously tried to protect their northern borderlands Borders, U.S.;with Mexico[Mexico] from encroachment. Already experienced in reconnaissance work, Pike had recently returned from a successful exploration to the upper Mississippi River, where he had negotiated land concessions from the Sioux and protested the presence of British fur posts in the Minnesota Minnesota;Sioux region. On his expedition into the Southwest, Pike’s first concern was to negotiate a peace between the Osage Osages and Pawnee Pawnees tribes.

Pike ascended the Missouri Missouri River;and Zebulon Pike[Pike] and Osage Rivers Osage River to the Osage villages, where he obtained horses. Horses;on Lewis and Clark expedition[Lewis and Clark expedition] Then he moved on to the Pawnee villages on the Republican River. There he found the Pawnees ready to resist further American advances to the west because they had recently been visited by a more impressive Spanish expedition that had been sent out to defend New Spain’s northern borders from U.S. encroachment.

Zebulon Pike.

(Library of Congress)

Leading a force of six hundred men and driving two thousand horses and mules, Don Facundo Melgares Melgares, Facundo had distributed Spanish flags and medals among the Pawnees Pawnees , captured U.S. traders in the region, and urged the Pawnees to turn back other Americans who tried to travel farther west. Contrary to a historical legend that later arose, Melgares did not know that Pike’s expedition was coming. He was hoping to push the Lewis and Clark expedition farther north. However, it appears higher Spanish officials had been informed of the Pike expedition by Pike’s own commander, General James Wilkinson Wilkinson, James , who was also Special Agent Number 13 for the Spanish intelligence service. Whether, and to what degree, Pike was involved in Wilkinson’s intrigues in the Southwest has remained an area of fierce debate.

Pike’s Expeditions, 1806-1807

Pike’s near miss with Melgares’s Melgares, Facundo expedition proved to be a stroke of good fortune for Pike, who had moved so slowly that he had avoided an encounter with the superior Spanish detachment. After the Pawnees Pawnees were pacified, he could follow Melgares’s route into the Rockies. With a display of force, Pike’s troops intimidated the Pawnees, then pressed on to the Big Bend of the Arkansas River. There six men descended the river in two canoes fashioned from cottonwood logs and buffalo Buffalo;and fur trade[Fur trade] skins and returned to the United States.

Following the return route of Melgares, Pike’s trail led up the Arkansas River Arkansas River . In November, 1806, Pike’s party spotted the Rocky Mountains Rocky Mountains;and Zebulon Pike[Pike] for the first time. From an encampment near the site of present-day Pueblo, Colorado, Pike and three companions set out to climb the peak now bearing Pike’s Pikes Peak name. Armpit-deep snows and the lack of winter clothing prevented Pike from making a successful ascent of the peak himself, but what he wrote about the massive pinnacle—now called Pikes Peak—permanently established his identification with it. During the next two months, he explored the Colorado country, reaching the site of present-day Leadville, Colorado, while hunting in vain for the headwaters of the Red River Red River (Arkansas) . With several men in his band suffering from frostbite, Pike established a winter camp at the Royal Gorge on the Arkansas River.

After leaving two men in a log shelter at this camp to guard the exhausted horses and a portion of the expedition’s baggage, Pike and his few remaining men headed into the Wet Mountain Valley, crossed the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains into the San Luis Valley. There they spied one of the wonders of Colorado, the massive dunes that later became part of the Sand Dunes National Park National parks, U.S.;Sand Dunes . Moving southwest, Pike stood at the foot of Mount Blanca and through his glass viewed a watercourse that he believed to be the Red River. What he had actually found was the Rio Grande Rio Grande .

Pike then headed south, crossed the Rio Grande, and built a shelter near the confluence of the Rio Conejos and the Rio Grande, just south of the site of present-day Sanford, Colorado. The weather was bitterly cold during this February journey, and Pike’s men waged a grim struggle with hunger. Although Pike did not know exactly where he was, he alleged that he was still on U.S. soil.

From the encampment on the Rio Grande Rio Grande , the enigmatic Dr. John H. Robinson, Robinson, John Hamilton a civilian who had joined the expedition some time after its departure, set out for Santa Fe, Santa Fe, New Mexico professing to have a commission to collect a debt for a friend in Illinois. Robinson’s arrival in Santa Fe made Pike’s presence in Spanish territory known to Spanish authorities, and the Nyuutsiyu (Utes) Utes Indians told them Pike’s precise location. On February 26, 1807, one hundred Spanish troops appeared in Pike’s camp. They arrested Pike and his men and escorted them to Santa Fe.

The Spanish were uncertain whether the explorers’ presence in Spanish territory was accidental or purposeful, and they were perplexed about what they should do with them. After seizing Pike’s maps and papers and examining them, they became convinced that Pike was a spy. They then escorted Pike’s party to Chihuahua City and detained them there for several months. Nemesio Salcedo, who commanded the Spanish army in the northern provinces, finally decided to deport the group to the United States. Under escort, Pike and his men were taken by way of San Antonio, Texas, to Natchitoches, then a trading post on the Louisiana border, and there turned over to U.S. troops on July 1, 1807, thus ending Pike’s expedition.


From the time he left Santa Fe, Pike took voluminous notes on the country through which he passed and concealed them skillfully to make certain that they would not be confiscated. Although he failed to carry out his assignment to locate the headwaters of the Red River Red River (Arkansas);exploration of and descend that river, he incorporated the information he had obtained in a report he subsequently published in 1810, thereby adding to American knowledge of the Southwest. As a result of the publication, Pike gained national fame; editions also appeared in French, German, and Dutch.

Pike was such a keen observer that when he returned to the United States, he was able to provide precise figures on the numbers and types of troops stationed in the northern provinces of the Spanish Empire, as well as information concerning the character and personality of the Spanish military officers. His reports showed Spain’s New Mexico territory to be poorly defended and only adequately governed. In addition to this intelligence, Pike declared that the Great Plains were “sandy deserts” similar to those in Africa. Thus he originated what proved to be the “Great American Desert” “Great American Desert”[Great American Desert] myth. Finally, he pointed out in great detail the potential value of trade between the United States and Santa Fe. Santa Fe, New Mexico

Further Reading

  • Carter, Carrol Joe. Pike in Colorado. Fort Collins, Colo.: Old Army Press, 1978. Brief but excellent and accurate study of Pike’s passage through the Centennial State.
  • Cook, Warren L. Flood Tide of Empire: Spain and the Pacific Northwest, 1543-1819. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973. Outstanding account of the political, diplomatic, and economic conditions of the northern provinces of Spain’s New World empire, including General Wilkinson’s involvement in Spanish policy during the early nineteenth century.
  • Hollon, W. Eugene. The Lost Pathfinder: Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949. An older but excellent full-scale biography of Pike. Still frequently cited as the most authoritative study of Pike’s career.
  • Hyslop, Stephen G. “An Explorer or a Spy?” American History 37, no. 3 (August, 2002): 58. Describes Pike’s Western explorations, including his alleged espionage activities for Aaron Burr, who was plotting to seize part of Spanish territory around the same time.
  • Montgomery, M. R. Jefferson and the Gun-Men: How the West Was Almost Lost. New York: Crown, 2000. Chronicle of Burr’s conspiracy that covers Pike’s and Wilkinson’s involvement in the abortive scheme.
  • Pike, Zebulon Montgomery. Journals with Letters and Related Documents. Edited by Donald Jackson. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966. The easiest to use of the many editions of Pike’s journals. For many years the standard edition of Pike’s expedition journals was The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike (3 vols., New York: Francis P. Harper, 1895), edited by Elliott Coues.
  • Sanford, William R., and Carl R. Green. Zebulon Pike: Explorer of the Southwest. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow, 1996. Biography intended for general readers; part of the Legendary Heroes of the Wild West series.

Louisiana Purchase

Lewis and Clark Expedition

Burr’s Conspiracy

Santa Fe Trail Opens

Jedediah Smith Explores the Far West

Frémont Explores the American West

United States Occupies California and the Southwest

Pacific Railroad Surveys

Chisholm Trail Opens

Powell Publishes His Report on the American West

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Aaron Burr; Meriwether Lewis and William Clark; Zebulon Pike; Jedediah Smith. Exploration;American West
Pike, Zebulon