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Thursday, May 5, 2016

A slighted bicentennial, part 2

Thursday, July 13, 2006

With 24 whites and 30 Osages, Capt. Zebulon Pike left the Osage towns (in modem Vernon County) on Aug. 26, 1806, traveling an old Osage trail west-by-south up Little and Big Drywood creeks over to the Neosho watershed. (Some historians have him heading due west up the Little Osage River, having misread Pike's vague mention of the Little Osage village ) Seeing the prairies in the year's driest month, Pike would confirm the myth of the "Great American Desert," an expanse "on which not a speck of vegetable matter existed." His next objective, the Pawnees, under Caracterish (White Wolf), were then centered on the Republican River in north central Kansas. Arriving there on Sept. 25, Pike found himself in a ticklish, uneasy situation. A bristling force of Spaniards, 100 regulars and 500 New Mexican militia, led by Lt. Don Facundo Malgares, commandant of the presidio, or garrison, of Santa Fe, had just departed, having done their best to poison the Pawnees' minds against this contemptible little ragtag band of gringos.

Pike never better showed his mettle. He made the Pawnees surrender their Spanish flag ... and then diplomatically handed it back. White Wolf had promised the Spaniards, he told Pike, to turn back any American interlopers. One can fairly hear the at times almost properBritish Pike sniffing, "My good man! You must be joking!", In any case, he bluffed his way past the Pawnees, making sure the American flag was flying over the village when he left. Striking the Arkansas River near modem Lamed, Kan., Pike told off a party of four to return down that river under Lt. Wilkinson. The last Osage went along with them, while Pike and the 20odd remaining whites headed on west, upstream.

Pike first saw his namesake peak (but didn't name it) on Nov. 15, and his summergarbed men, raggedly overalled and barely shod, made a heroic attempt to climb it on Thanksgiving Day Foundering in snowdrifts, they backtracked south, finally going into winter quarters on the upper Rio Grande, in the San Luis Valley. They were lost, and historians have been lost ever since, trying to figure out just where Pike thought he was, and why he was there. It would take a bookjust to summarize the mystery, and many such books have been churned out.

By now the little command was in a bad way. Their horses were either worn out or dead. Nine soldiers were badly frostbitten. Two, temporarily left behind, "took part of the bones from their frozen feet and sent them to their commander," begging not to be forgotten. Yet, strangely, the "surgeon" mystery man, Dr. Robinson, chose this juncture (Feb. 7, 1807) to take off for Santa Fe, leaving Pike with only four able-bodied men at his Rio Conejos stockade.

As a result, within weeks, 100 dragoons and mounted militia turned up, under Lt. Ignacio Saltelo. On being told his true location, Pike professed shock, and hastily ordered the American colors struck. He'd mistaken the Rio Grande for the Red, he swore, though even this would have left him still in Spanish territory, on the Red River's right bank.

Gathering his scattered, battered command, Pike accompanied Saltelo into the New Mexican capital, where he sparred with Gov. Alancaster, who was convinced the gringos were spies, scouting an invasion. They'd have to be sent south to Chihuahua for questioning.

In March, paused in the regional commandant's home across the river from Albuquerque, Pike got a surprise never to be quite explained: "I saw a man sitting by the fire reading a book," he wrote, "with blooming cheeks, fair complexion, and a geniusspeaking eye." Uhhuh. "It was Robinson!" Gen. Wilkinson's (and Aaron Burr's?) shadowy agent, outright spy or otherwise, clearly was enjoying his Spanish "captivity!"

Pike, for his part, was kept under casual restraint at Chihuahua till the Spaniards made up their bureaucratic minds. At last, the wanderers were escorted back, by way of San Antonio, and crossed into American territory at Natchitoches, La., on July 1, 1807.

Unlike Lewis and Clark, they found their historic homecoming overshadowed by a bigger news sensation: Aaron Burr had just been tried for treason, the prosecution's star witness against him none other than Pike's patron Gen. Wilkinson. Burr was acquitted, a fact usually overlooked. It hadn't taken the jury long to see Wilkinson as the real villain, who'd tried to shift his own guilt onto Burr. It was an open secret in some quarters he'd long been on Spain's payroll, being rather melodramatically known to the Foreign Ministry in Madrid as "Secret Agent No. 13."

Yet, seemingly blinded by his hatred of Aaron Burr, Pres. Thomas Jefferson neither prosecuted the traitor nor even fired him.

"The most finished scoundrel that ever lived," as John Randolph called him, Wilkinson would command the U.S. army for years to come.

Zebulon Pike too stayed in the army. Tardily he drew some celebrity from the June, 1808, publication of his account of his journey.

Conscientiously he fought for years to get government compensation for his frostbitten men, some left crippled for life. His reputation was forever sullied by his link with the scheming Wilkinson, though it seems obvious he had no inkling of whatever mischief Wilkinson (and his trusty man Robinson) might have been up to. Pike's defenders have a high old time ridiculing the notion of incorrigible conspiracytheorists: that baker'sdozen footsore ragamuffins sinisterly sneaking up on the mighty Spanish Empire! The contretemps gained a new lease on life when Pike's papers, confiscated by the Spaniards, were found in Mexico City in 1906, and their return to the U.S. arranged, by the American scholar Herbert Bolton. Pike's 1808 published journal, it turned out, was a rewriting from memory, the original having been taken from him. Yet the original didn't really shed much new light. The old mysteries remain mysteries: Did Pike really leave the Osage River in the area of Halley's Bluff and finish his local travels overland? Or did he stay with the river route till he encountered an obstructing drift on the Marmaton, as the published journal states? Pike had a labored, obtuse literary style, and often just doesn't quite tell us what we'd like to know.

Still only 33, Pike was promoted major general early in the War of 1812. Ordered to lead 1,700 men across Lake Ontario and take York (Toronto), capital of Upper Canada, he personally planned the attack. In a textbook "combined operation" he got the army across as soon. as the ice broke, on April 23, 1813. While Pike was personally helping a wounded soldier to the rear, "a terrific explosion rent the air."

A nearby British magazine had blown up. Pike's staff found him lying prone, his back ripped open. Before being carried to a ship he cried weakly, "Push on, my brave fellows, and avenge your general!" From shipboard, hearing shouts of victory, and seeing the British raise the white flag, he "died with a smile." Even allowing. for old-time martial fustian, in a war not top-heavy with heroes, it rated as a textbook hero's death, soon to be immortalized in paintings and engravings, the "news graphics" of those days.

Yet, much as these days, "immortality" often meant 15 minutes, and even a hero was soon "yesterday' s news." That is, unless his name happened to be Lewis or Clark.