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Captured by the Spanish – The Pike Expedition – Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, we followed the Zebulon Pike Expedition from Fort Bellefontaine (near St. Louis) across the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains until they were finally taken prisoner by the Spanish. In this week’s post, we will follow Pike and his party as they travel, with the Spanish, to Santa Fe and then on to Mexico before finally returning to the United States through Natchitoches (La).

On Friday, February 27th, a party of Spaniards, consisting of Lt. Don Bartholemew Fernandez and fifty men began escorting Pike and his party to Santa Fe while the Spanish commander, Lt. Don Ignatio Saltelo, and the rest of the Spanish troops remained to wait to escort Pike’s sergeant and the rest of the expedition south upon their arrival. Travel was slow as the weather was so intensely cold that they had to stop often to make fires to warm themselves and the snow was deep. One of the Frenchmen in the Spanish party told Pike that the expedition that had been at the Pawnee village had descended the Red River two-hundred and thirty-three leagues (over six hundred miles) before crossing to the Pawnees, in search of Pike’s party. By March 1, the party had only gotten as far as the village of Agua Caliente consisting of Indians and mixed blood people which was about forty-five miles from their starting point. From here, the party headed south and west, passing through several villages ranging in size from a few hundred residents to as many as two thousand and in the evening of March 3rd, came into sight of Santa Fe.

Pike describes the appearance of Santa Fe as follows:

Santa Fe is situated along the banks of a small creek, which comes down from the mountains, and runs west to the Rio del Norte. The length of the town on the creek may be estimated as at one mile, and is but three streets in width. . . . There are two churches, the magnificence of whose steeples forms a striking contrast to the miserable appearance of the other buildings. On the north side of the town is the square of soldiers’ houses, one hundred and twenty, or one hundred and forty on each flank. The public square is in the centre of the town, on the north side which is situated the palace, as they term it, or government house, with quarters guards, &c.. the other is occupied by the clergy, and public officers. In general, the houses have a shed before their front, some of which have a flooring of brick; this occasions the streets to be narrow, being, in general, about twenty-five feet. The supposed population is four thousand five hundred souls.

Upon entering Santa Fe, Pike was escorted to the government house where he was questioned by Governor Allencaster as to the purpose of his mission. The governor directed Pike to go to the house of Mr. Bartholomew and return at 7 PM with his papers. Pike returned that evening and told the Governor that his trunk, with his papers, was in the possession of the Governor’s guard. The Governor ordered it brought in. The questioning began again, with the implication that the Governor believed that Pike and his expedition were spies. Pike read his Commission from the United States, and his orders from General Wilkinson to the Governor to convince the Governor that the expedition had no hostile intentions towards the Spanish government and that, in fact, he had express instructions to guard against giving them offence or alarm. his appeared to convince the Governor who, after hearing this he offered his hand to Pike (for the first time) and said that he was happy to be acquainted with pike as a man of honor and a gentleman. He then gave Pike leave to retire for the evening and could take his trunk with him.

The next morning the Governor called for Pike to return with his trunk and, after a further examination of his papers, informed Pike that he and his party would be escorted to Chihuahua in the province of Biscay, to appear before the Commandant General. He directed that Pike would dine with him that day and then afterwards be escorted by a detachment of dragoons to a village about six miles distant where the rest of his escort was waiting. During the dinner with the governor, the Governor became a bit “relaxed” under the influence of the wine, and Informed Pike of internal conflicts within the Spanish Government in Mexico between the Commandant General and the Marquis Casa Calva. After dinner, the party left for the rendezvous with the escort.

Over the next few days, the party traveled southwesterly, arriving at Albuquerque, which in those days was only a village. Pike notes that above and below Albuquerque the residents were digging canals from the river to allow the water to reach the plains and fields bordering its banks. At the next village they reached, Pike was reunited with Dr. Robinson who had arrived in Santa Fe some time prior to the arrival of Pike’s expedition. On March 9, the party and their military escort began their travels to Chihuahua, arriving on April 2.

Chihuahua, Mexico
Chihuahua, Mexico

Upon arrival in Chihuahua, Pike was taken to the home of Commandant General Nimesio Salcedo where he was once again subjected to questioning about the purpose of his expedition. The Commandant General, with the aid of a Lieutenant Walker, a native of New Orleans, whose father was an Englishman and his mother a French woman, said that he intended to examine Pike’s papers again. Walker spoke English, French, and Spanish, and was serving in the Spanish dragoons and currently assigned as the master of the military school at Chihuahua. Previously, Mr. Andrew Elicot had employed him as a deputy surveyor of the Florida line between the United States and Spain in the years 1797-98. Pike was directed to prepare and present a short sketch of the expedition’s travels. He was then told that he would be quartered with Lt. Walker to be better accommodated by having a person with him who spoke English. (Pike suspected he was meant to spy on Pike’s actions, and who might visit him.) Pike returned to dine with the Commandant General that evening. Over the next weeks, Pike worked on writing the sketch of his travels for the governor, being shown around the town by Walker and various Spanish Officers and Dignitaries, and dining with the governor and others.

On April 24, an officer of the Spanish government called on Pike and told him that:

The government had been informed, that in conversation in all societies Robinson and Pike had held forth political maxims and principles, which, if just, I must be conscious would, if generally disseminated, in a very few years be occasion of a revolt of those kingdoms. That these impressions had taken such effect, that it was no uncommon thing in circles in which we associated, to hear the comparative principle of a republican, and monarchical government discussed; and even the allegiance due, in case of certain events, to the Court called in question; that various characters of consideration had indulged themselves in these conversations, all of whom were noted, and would be taken care of; but as it respected myself and companion, it was the desire of his excellency, that whilst in the dominions of Spain, we would not hold any conversations whatsoever either on the subjects of religion or politics.

On April 25 Pike was informed that he, Dr. Robinson, and Pike’s men would be traveling back to the United States and on April 28th began the march. The General had given orders that Pike was not to be allowed to take any observations or make any notes in his journal however, Pike was able to make notes throughout the journey by excusing himself from the party and setting his servant as a guard, settle under a bush and make his notes. As the march continued, Pike noted passing through a district with many copper mines. Later, while crossing the huge estate of the Marquis de San Miguel, Pike learned that the workers on the estate, were given an allowance of one peck of corn and three pounds of meat per week for a grown person. On May 14, the temperature on the road reached 99 degrees F., requiring the party and their escort to travel by night until around the 23rd of May at which point, they began marching early in the morning and then again in the evening arriving at the Presidio Rio Grande on June 1 and arriving in San Antonio on June 7th.

Route Followed by Pike's Expedition
Route Followed by Pike's Expedition

Governors Cordero and Herrara met them and escorted them back to their quarters. Governor Cordero informed Pike that he and Dr. Robinson would make his quarters their residence and that he had caused the house directly opposite to be vacated for housing Pike’s men. That evening, the Americans were attended by a crowd of officers and priests and following supper, removed to the public square where the two Governors joined in the dancing with the people of San Antonio. The party remained in San Antonio, feted by the Governors, and began preparing for the next leg of their journey. On the 12th of June, Pike and Dr. Robinson were invited to attend the burial of one of the captains from the kingdom of Leon, accompanied by the two generals in their coach. In the process, Pike learned that Cordero had given the information of the intended Pike expedition to the Commandant General as early as July, the month that the expedition left. He had received this intelligence via a source in Natchez.

A Spanish Dragoon like those who escorted Pike's Expedition
A Spanish Dragoon like those who escorted Pike's Expedition

On Saturday, June 13th, the party, and their escort, again set out for their final leg of the return to the United States. On June 16, they arrived at the banks of the Colorado River and on the 18th came to and crossed the Brazos at its juncture with the Little Brazos. On the 21st they crossed the Trinity River and on Wednesday, 24 June, arrived at Nacogdoches where the Adjutant and Inspector received them. The next day, Pike spent most of his time reading gazettes from the United States That evening there was a large dinner at the Adjutant and Inspector’s where toasts were given to the President of the United States, The King of Spain, and Governors Herrara and Cordero. Pike spent the next day preparing to march and had dinner that evening at the Commandant’s home. On the 27th, the party and their escort set out again and on the 29th of June, crossed the Sabine River. It was here that the Spanish escort released them, and Pike and his men went ahead eastward. The party arrived at Natchitoches about 4 PM on Wednesday, July 1, 1807, and was welcomed by Colonel Freeman and the officers of the post.

Although the Spanish, by seizing his papers and forbidding him to make observations or notes, had gone to great lengths to keep Pike from being able to report in detail on the discoveries of his expedition, and what he saw withing Spanish territory, they were not successful. While in Spanish custody, Pike had secreted his notes and observations from the Spanish by rolling the papers up into tubes and having his men, after charging their weapons, pushing the tubes of notes down the barrels until there was just enough room left for the tompions at the muzzle. Additionally, as previously noted, he had secretly taken notes in his journal. This allowed Pike, upon his return to the United States, to prepare an account of his journeys including detailed information on the Indians he met, the locations of streams and rivers, and the Spanish villages he passed through. This included location, population, military strength, natural resources, and attitude of the populace toward the Spanish. This report, “Geographical, Statistical, and General Observations on the Interior Provinces of New Spain” appears at the end of Pike’s published journal and takes up ninety-three printed pages. Pike completed this account on 12 April 1808, and it was submitted to President Jefferson, the War Department, and the Congress.

This was the end of the Pike expedition; however, this story raises questions about the expedition and how it was doomed from the start. Throughout the first part of this series, we are made aware of a large body of Spanish soldiers combing the western plains looking for Pike and his party. In this second part, we learn that the Spanish Commandant General had specifically sent a force of approximately six hundred men over a course of as much as one thousand miles looking with orders to find Pike and bring him in. We also learned that Governor had passed the information about Pike’s expedition to the Commandant General in July of 1806, the month that Pike left St. Louis. Cordero said that he had received the information from a source in Natchez and we know that it would take a significant amount of time for someone to get from Natchez to Cordero in San Antonio. This makes it highly likely that the source in Natchez was told about the expedition before it even set out. But who told the spy in Natchez about the expedition? As it turns out, it may well have been Pike’s boss General James Wilkinson!

General James Wilkinson
General James Wilkinson

Chronically short of money due to his lavish spending, Wilkinson looked to supplement his income by becoming a spy for the Spanish. Negotiating through Esteban Rodríguez Miró, governor of the sprawling Spanish territory of Louisiana, Wilkinson convinced the monarchy that if he were he granted a trade monopoly with New Orleans, the capital of colonial Louisiana, he would work in Spain’s interests to discourage further Anglo expansion. The monopoly was granted, and to cement the agreement, Wilkinson signed a declaration of allegiance to the king of Spain. For the next few years, the turncoat merchant carried on a lucrative trade.

Wilkinson’s early efforts focused on an attempt to separate Kentucky and Tennessee from the United States to deliver them to Spain. In addition to the Pike Expedition, Wilkinson also informed the Spanish about the Lewis and Clark expedition. Though the Spanish did not manage to find them, one can imagine that if the Spanish did catch up with them, Lewis and Clark might have simply disappeared. Wilkinson’s information also helped the Spanish delay the annexation of Texas by the United States.

Wilkinson lived in constant fear of discovery and was nearly caught on several occasions. One of his major worries centered on the delivery of his payoffs from Spain. They were conveyed by messenger aboard river vessels in the form of silver dollars, which were cumbersome and difficult to conceal. To muffle the noise during transport, he had them packed in barrels of coffee or sugar. On this occasion, the Spanish-speaking boatmen figured out that there were coins hidden in the barrels, murdered the courier, and spread out across the Kentucky countryside. After they were apprehended, they were brought before a magistrate in Frankfort, Kentucky. The magistrate sent for an interpreter named Thomas Power, who unfortunately for the boatmen, was also a Spanish spy. When the magistrate asked the boatmen to account for themselves, they responded by explaining to Power that the coins were a payment for Wilkinson from the Spanish crown. Power “interpreted” their testimony by explaining to the magistrate that the men said they had committed a cold-blooded murder and were motivated by greed. As a result, one of the boatmen was hung, and Wilkinson was spared.

Aaron Burr
Aaron Burr

Wilkinson was also nearly identified as a key participant in the Aaron Burr conspiracy. Burr’s precise aim is still unclear, with thoughts ranging from an attempt to separate the West from the United States to a plot to depose President Jefferson, but what is clear is that Wilkinson became nervous that Burr’s conspiracy would fail and looked to minimize the appearance of his involvement and portray himself as a savior of the Republic to Jefferson. To minimize the appearance of his own involvement in the conspiracy, Wilkinson doctored a ciphered letter that implicated Burr and then turned that letter over to the Jefferson administration. Wilkinson’s sanctimonious attitude at Burr’s trial rankled one observer who described him, based on his considerable girth and garish uniform of his own design, as a “mammoth of iniquity.”

In the War of 1812 Wilkinson oversaw the bloodless capture of West Florida from Spain, received promotion to major general, and took command of the U.S. forces on the Canadian border. His plans to attack Canada fell apart, and he was relieved of command. After a court-martial (he was again acquitted), postwar reductions forced him into retirement. Desperately in need of a fresh start and envisioning himself an ideal adviser to Emperor Agustín of a newly independent Mexico, the 65-year-old American sailed for Veracruz in 1822. His plans fell apart when the emperor abdicated the following year. On Dec. 28, 1825, having grown increasingly ill and devoid of both money and influence, Wilkinson died in Mexico City.

Long after Wilkinson’s death, a cache of papers detailing many of his activities turned up in Baton Rouge in the late 1800s. More recently, historians poring over government archives in Madrid and Mexico have unearthed signed documents in Wilkinson’s hand, confirming his espionage. In one missive he recommends that the Spanish government settle Texas with “good Catholics,” lest it become “a haven of pirates and murderers.” Another document details the tens of thousands of silver dollars paid to Wilkinson for his services to Spain.

Thank you for joining us for today’s post on the second half of Zebulon Pike’s expedition to explore the Louisiana Territory. Because of the space limitations imposed by a blog post, we have had to omit many of the day-to-day details of the expedition while in Spanish captivity. If this sort of thing interests you, we would recommend reading Zebulon Pike’s Journal available on Google Books and listed in our Reference section. Please join us again in two weeks for another look at the social, political, and military history of the early United States.

While you are here, on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.

Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


Brammer, Richard. General James Wilkinson, the Spanish Spy Who was a Senior Officer in the U.S. Army During Four Presidential Administrations. 20 April 2020. 1 April 2022.

Coues, Elliott. The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Vol. II. New York: Francis P. Harper, 1895.

Harris, Matthew L. and Jay H. Buckley. Zebulon Pike, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012.

Martin, Ethyl Edna. "The Expedition of Zebulon Montgomery Pike to the Source of the Mississippi." The Iowa Journal of History and Politics IX.3 (1911): 335-358.

Orsi, Jared. Citixen Explorer, The Life of Zebulon Pike. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Pike, Zebulon. Exploratory Travels Through the Western Territories of North America. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1811.

Santa Fe Trail Research Site. Zebulon Pike's Expedition to The Southwest 1806-1807. November 2005. 8 March 2022.

Wilson, Thomas. The Biography of the Principal American Military and Naval Heroes. Vol. II. New York: John Low, 1819.

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