Chapter 1: The Ambiguous Venture of Zebulon Pike (1806-1807)
In early March of 1807, Zebulon Montgomery Pike arrived under Spanish escort in Santa Fe, capital of the province of New Mexico. Unlike some future American visitors to Santa Fe, who would express dismay at the shabbiness of the town and its inhabitants, the 28-year-old Pike and his ragged contingent of scarcely a half dozen soldiers were in no condition to complain of their surroundings, having camped in the wild for more than seven months since departing St. Louis on a grueling reconnaissance that traversed part of what would later be known as the Santa Fe Trail. Forced to carry their baggage on their backs after leaving their jaded horses behind, they had dispensed with their military finery and clad themselves for survival. By Pike's own account, they looked a bit savage as they entered the plaza and approached the Palace of the Governors, surrounded by a curious throng of onlookers:
Thus, when we presented ourselves at Santa Fe; I was dressed in a pair of blue trowsers, mockinsons, blanket coat and a cap made of scarlet cloth, lined with fox skins and my poor fellows in leggings, breech cloths and leather coats and not a hat in the whole party. This appearance was extremely mortifying to us all, especially as soldiers, and although some of the officers used frequently to observe to me, that "worth made the man," &c. with a variety of adages to the same amount. Yet the first impression made on the ignorant is hard to eradicate; and a greater proof cannot be given of the ignorance of the common people, than their asking if we lived in houses or camps like the indians, or if we wore hats in our country; those observations are sufficient to shew the impression our uncouth appearance made amongst them.
Pike's embarrassment was perhaps increased by an awareness that these New Mexicans, however poor they might be, had a sharp eye for the distinctions of dress--a fact that did much to boost the Santa Fe trade in years to come. To make matters worse, Pike was about to meet with the grandest figure in the province, Governor Joaquín del Real Alencaster, who had sent troops to find Pike and his band at their stockade near the upper Río Grande (also known to New Mexicans as the Río del Norte) and summon them to the capital, an invitation they were not at liberty to refuse. Entering the palace, or "government house," as Pike put it--an adobe structure that did not strike him as very palatial--he and his men passed through a series of rooms with hard-packed mud floors, covered with "skins of buffalo, bear, or some other animal." At length, the governor confronted Pike and, with a few pointed questions, cut to the core of the matter that set the two men at odds. As Pike detailed the interview in his journal:
We waited in a chamber for some time, until his excellency appeared, when we rose, and the following conversation took place in French.
The governor had more to ask Pike, but this was the crucial question, and one that left considerable room for disagreement. Both sides here were to some extent correct in their conflicting interpretations of Pike's mission, for the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, by which France ceded to the United States a vast area west of the Mississippi River, had left undefined the limits of that largely uncharted territory and the boundary between Spanish and American holdings. The United States claimed by right of purchase a huge expanse extending from the frontier of British Canada down through Spanish-occupied Texas. Realistically, the Americans had little hope of acquiring Texas without a fight, but they fully intended to press their claim to everything north of the Red River, and exploring that waterway up to its headwaters thus became a priority for the government. Spain, for its part, defined the area covered by the Louisiana Purchase much more narrowly, insisting that it covered only a portion of what is now Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana and excluded Texas and the country to its north. More to the point, Spain denied the validity of the American purchase, having ceded the region in question to France with the proviso that it not be transferred to a third party.
Governor. Do you speak French?
Pike. Yes sir.
Governor. You come to reconnoitre our country, do you?
Pike. I marched to reconnoitre our own.
It was this divisive issue that launched Lieutenant Pike--promoted to captain during the journey--on his lengthy reconnaissance. The orders he received from General James Wilkinson before embarking from St. Louis, while instructing him to avoid provoking Spanish forces, nonetheless set him on a path that risked such a confrontation. Specifically, Wilkinson instructed Pike to hold peace parleys with various western tribes, including the Osages, Kansas, Pawnees, and Comanches, an ambitious agenda that Pike could not hope to fulfill without delving deep into territory still claimed by Spain. Furthermore, Wilkinson implicitly invited Pike to explore the unmapped headwaters of two major rivers whose origins lay close to New Mexico, if not actually within that province, raising the possibility that Pike might end up trespassing on territory that lay indisputably under Spanish control:
As your Interview with the Cammanchees will probably lead you to the Head Branches of the Arkansaw, and Red Rivers you may find yourself approximate to the settlements of New Mexico, and therefore it will be necessary you should move with great circumspection, to keep clear of any Hunting or reconnoitring parties from that province, & to prevent alarm or offence because the affairs of Spain, & the United States appear to be on the point of amicable adjustment, and more over it is the desire of the President, to cultivate the Friendship & Harmonious Intercourse, of all the Nations of the Earth, & particularly our near neighbours the Spaniards.
When Pike set out with a force of fewer than two dozen men to fulfill these difficult and delicate orders--which exposed him to potential opposition but urged him to keep the peace--he inaugurated a complex exchange between the United States and the Spanish Southwest. He was not the first American to travel to the region, but the official nature of his expedition made him a pioneer, testing the limits of the American domain and taking the measure of tribal resistance on the Plains and Spanish opposition in the provinces. His reconnaissance would not lead immediately to regular trade between Missouri and New Mexico, but it would establish a pattern for that traffic, which would combine "Friendship & Harmonious Intercourse" with competitive give-and-take that sometimes bordered on hostilities and ultimately crossed that line...
Table of Contents
Part One: The Santa Fe Trail as an Avenue of Exchange (1806-1848)
1. The Ambiguous Venture of Zebulon Pike (1806-1807)
2. Many Nations to Contend With (1808-1821)
3. Foundations of the Trade (1821-1829)
4. Authors on the Trail (1829-1848)
Part Two: The Road to New Mexico (1821-1846)
5. Embarking from St. Louis
6. Franklin: Cradle of the Trade
7. The Lure of Independence
8. Rendezvous at Council Grove
9. Into Buffalo Country
10. Conflict at the Crossing
11. Out Along the Cimarron
12. Bent's Fort and Beyond
13. Coming into New Mexico
14. Accommodation in the Marketplace
15. Paths to Conflict
Part Three: The American Conquest (1846-1848)
16. Gathering at Bent's Fort
Notes and Bibliography
17. A Bloodless Bid for Santa Fe
18. The Travails of Occupation
19. Reckoning by the Rio Grande
20. Uprising at Taos
21. Descent to Chihuahua
22. Costs and Consequences