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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

A slighted bicentennial, part I

Thursday, July 6, 2006

Poor old Zeb Pike! A pioneering Rodney Dangerfield, he just gets no respect. Lewis and Clark hogged all the exploratory glory in their own time. Now, it seems, they've managed to hog it even during this, the bicentennial that's more nearly Pike's than theirs.

We've had that "Dynamic Duo" fairly running out our ears for two years now, even here in territory far, far from where they actually explored. But Zeb Pike? Say who?

Two men stopped by here a year or so ago, on their way to Chihuahua, Mexico, following in Pike's footsteps and hoping to stir local interest along the way in a continent-wide bicentennial observance of Pike's expedition. Nothing more was heard. That all-important ingredient, available grant money, likely had all been frittered away on you-know-who. It's a pity. "Pike," says historian Walter Prescott Webb, "left a record... more valuable than that of Lewis and Clark." Certainly his story, even on a nationwide scale, is every bit as significant, and for our region far more significant.

The Bushwhacker Museum has mounted a small exhibit to try and set the record straight, and remind people just what they owe this hero (no lesser word will do) history has so churlishly slighted. Yes, 10 counties and a mountain memorialize his name. A few know, vaguely, that he was some sort of pioneer. But to most, alas, he's a shadow. People have the deplorable habit of heaping all their adulation on one or two figures, forgetting all others.

Zebulon Montgomery Pike was a career Army officer, back when the U.S. Army was a tiny band stretched thin along the Indian frontier. But he was lucky (or unlucky) in having as a patron James Wilkinson, the Army's top general as well as governor of Upper Louisiana Territory, headquartered in St. Louis. Inspired by the hoopla of Lewis and Clark's departure on their trip up the Missouri River in 1804, Wilkinson found time (amid his shady dealings with Aaron Burr) to concoct some self-serving explorations of his own. Soon after his arrival in St. Louis, his longtime friend and protege 25-year-old Lt. Pike followed, with his wife and daughter, moving into Army quarters at Fort Bellefontaine, on the Missouri River, 14 miles above St. Louis.

First Wilkinson sent Pike and 20 companions up the Mississippi in a search for its source. Leaving on Aug. 9, 1805, they spent a shivering winter in the north, failed to find the true source, and returned to St. Louis the following April. Meanwhile the general found two groups of Osage Indians on his hands: 50-odd women and children ransomed from the Pottawatomies by the U. S. government; and a group of chiefs just back from a "state visit" to Washington D.C. The idea of having Pike escort these Osages to their western Missouri homes dovetailed nicely with whatever mischief Wilkinson was, or wasn't, up to with Aaron Burr, re the touchy Spanish frontier. (Spain then owned everything beyond the Louisiana Purchase's vague western limit.)

With 18 of the same 20-odd men from the northern trip, soon-promoted Capt. Pike set off from Ft. Bellefontaine on July 15, 1806. Others along were: the general's own son, Lt. James B. Wilkinson; interpreter Baronet Vasquez; Dr. John H. Robinson, a "civilian surgeon" and fulltime mystery man, seemingly lifted straight out of a spy novel; the Little Osage chief Tuttasuggy (The Wind); and Shenga Wassa (Beautiful Bird), a young warrior who served as the expedition's chief guide, and actually became the straitlaced Pike's nearest thing to an Indian friend.

Interracial friendships were rare. The soldiers manned the two large riverboats, while the Indians, mostly women and children, either went as passengers or walked along the banks of an Osage River that was then clear, lovely, and unspoiled. Osage rituals and customs left the Americans puzzled and scornful, and no doubt the reverse was equally true.

The boats had masts and square sails, but they proved of little use on the Osage. The soldiers were forced to use oars or even, laboriously, long poles. On Aug. 12 at the mouth of Grand River, the Indians voiced impatience with the 10-to-iS-miles-a-day pace, so Pike let them go on ahead afoot with an escort under Lt. Wilkinson. Pike himself thus missed the Indians' emotional homecoming, as well as worse-muddied the already murky diplomatic waters. Pawhuska (White Hair), the Big Osage chief, vaguely the all-Osage boss, had hurried straight home from St. Louis to mend political fences, leaving Little Osage chief Tuttasuggy the ranking Indian in the crowd. Slyly, Tuttasuggy led Wilkinson to his own village (east of modern Arthur) instead of to topdog Pawhuska's (on Old Town Branch). The Osages, like most "primitive" peoples, had an almost oriental sense of "face," of precedence, of proper behavior. Pike would arrive to find the whole tribe paralyzingly preoccupied with this shocking "snub!" He seemed in no hurry to parley anyway, seeming far more concerned with astronomical observations to establish the longitude. Pawhuska at last could stand the suspense no longer and on Aug. 20 arrived at "Camp Independence," as Pike grandly named his base, midway between the two villages, near the mouth of Old Town Branch (east of modern Horton), scrambling to make up for this bemeaning breach of protocol by bringing along a "retinue" of 186 (!), whom Pike grumbled at having to entertain.

A typical 19th-century frontiersman, and "regular army" to his core, Pike had no patience with the Byzantine intricacies of tribal politics (though he admitted Pawhuska seemed to be "delicately situated," many Osages still supporting Clermont, the chief whose place he'd "usurped"). The Osages' exquisite, nuanced manners struck him as mere deceitfulness. As representative of the U.S. government, he did his dutiful best, as well as his blunt, no-nonsense temperament permitted; but familiarity quickly bred contempt. His opinion of the Osages went downhill pellmell. "This faithless set of poltroons," he was soon sourly summing them up.

In particular the Osages fell short in Pike's key concern of acquiring horses for the next leg of his journey. The chiefs' best efforts, plus offers of "exorbitant prices," brought in only a few old nags for sale or rental, and often the owners later changed their minds and reclaimed the beasts, an instance of the habit that would give birth to the term "Indian giver." The Osages also footdragged because Pike proposed to visit the Pawnees, traditional Caddoan foes of the Siouan Osages. Readying to leave, Pike discovered his horses, acquired at such pains, were being mysteriously stolen and just couldn't be found. The 30 warriors who accompanied him also soon began melting away. Dreams, they swore, warned them to go home. And the lone lady in the party was sent packing by her suddenly-jealous husband.

Pike did seem to grudge the Osages a "higher culture" than the northern tribes, or at least he had more to say about them, though much of it anything but admiring. "All agricultural labor was done by women, for it was beneath the dignity of the males." Before moving on the visitors were regaled with a "special ceremonial dance" enlivened by "the peculiar so-called music of the Indians." The braves and medicine men, with their "feats of skill and daring," struck the soldiers as "merely sleight-of-hand performers." Pike's census found 2,519 occupants in the two villages. Perhaps as many more had already moved to future Kansas or Oklahoma.

Most importantly, with much effort Pike had managed to get all the Osages together and formally impress on them their new status as children of the American Great White Father, and what that entailed in the way of obligations and benefits. It couldn't have been easy, depending as it did on the faith and reliability of the hallbreed interpreter. And clearly, diplomacy was anything but soldierly Pike's long suit. No more had he moved on than the Osages were grumbling that his highflown promises remained unfulfilled and (worse) his debts unpaid. Word was soon reaching the War Department that "Traders give very unpleasant news of Mr. Pike."

To be continued