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Exploring the New Louisiana Territory: The Pike Expedition - Part 1

As we discussed in our last post, the Louisiana Purchase came about unexpectedly, and no one was sure exactly what the United States government had bought for its $15 million. President Jefferson, responding to “push back” from Congress, quickly set in motion the means to answer that question by authorizing three expeditions to explore and map the new Territory. The northernmost expedition is the well-known Lewis and Clark expedition (which will be a subject for a future blog post). Another group, the Red River Expedition, also known as the Freeman-Curtis Expedition, was ordered to find the headwaters of the Red River from the Mississippi as a possible trading route to Santa Fe. The third group, known as the Pike Expedition, which was chartered to explore the south and west of the Louisiana Purchase is the subject of today’s blog article.

Zebulon Montgomery Pike began his military career in 1799 when he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in 1799 and was promoted to First Lieutenant later that year. His early military career included working on logistics and payroll, serving under General James Wilkinson who had been appointed Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory. His first experience with exploration expeditions came in the summer of 1805 when Wilkinson ordered Pike to find the source of the Mississippi River, explore the northern part of the Louisiana Territory, and expel Canadian fur traders illegally working there. During his travels he met with Dakota and Ojibwe chiefs, negotiating alliances, and convincing them to give up the medals and flags given to them by the British and accept American peace medals in their place. The expedition returned to St. Louis on April 30, 1806. Although Pike was only modestly successful in his relations with the Indians, he brought back important geographical information about a little-known part of the new Louisiana Territory.

General James Wilkinson

Expedition to the Arkansas River

Upon his return to St. Louis from his trip to the headwaters of the Mississippi, General Wilkinson ordered Pike to lead an expedition to the western and southern areas of the Louisiana Purchase, ostensibly to map the terrain, contact native tribes and find the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red Rivers. Additionally, the expedition was to supply an escort to a group of Indians consisting of Osages ransomed from the Potawatomi, as well as Pawnees, Osages, and Ottos returning from a trip to see President Jefferson. The expedition was also tasked to try to contact and set up relations with the Comanche.

There was also another, "unspoken" purpose of the expedition which General Wilkinson assigned to Pike's expedition without the authorization of President Jefferson or the War Department, although it was approved retroactively. Tensions with Spain were high, and many Americans expected a war. Wilkinson, who was Governor of Louisiana during this period, was ordered to engage in intelligence operations against Spain, using army officers disguised as traders if necessary. Pike certainly knew that his assignment to gather as much intelligence about the Spanish as possible for his country was important. A letter between Pike and Wilkinson written on July 22, 1806, leaves little doubt that Pike knew he was to scout as close as possible to Santa Fe, and that Spanish authorities might capture him. If discovered, he would use the cover story that he had become lost while enroute to Natchitoches, Louisiana. While Pike knew about this "undercover" assignment, it is likely that the only other members of the expedition who Pike "read in" to the assignment were Lt. Wilkinson and Dr. Robinson.

The beginning members of this expedition were:

Capt. Zebulon Pike

Lt. James B. Wilkinson

Antoine Baronet Vasquez (civilian interpreter)

Dr. John H. Robinson

Sgt. Joseph Ballinger

Cpl. Jeremiah R. Jackson

Cpl./Sgt. William C. Meek

Pvt. John Boley

Pvt. Samuel Bradley

Pvt. John Brown

Pvt. Jacob Carter

Pvt. Thomas Daugherty

Pvt. William Gordon

Pvt. Solomon Huddleston

Pvt. Henry Kennerman

Pvt. Hugh Menaugh

Pvt. Theodore Miller

Pvt. John Mountjoy

Pvt. Alexander Roy

Pvt. Patrick Smith

Pvt. John Sparks

Pvt. Freegift Stout

Pvt. John Wilson

In a journal entry for July 15, 1806, Pike wrote:

“We sailed from the landing at Belle Fontaine (about 20 miles north of present-day St. Louis – ed) about 3 o’clock p.m., in two boats. Our party consisted of a lieutenant, one surgeon, one sergent, two corporals, 16 privates, and one interpreter. We had also under our charge chiefs of the Osage and Pawnees, who, with several women and children, had been to Washington. These Indians had been redeemed from captivity among the Potowatomies, and were now to be returned to their friends at the Osage towns. The whole number of Indians amounted to 51”

By the evening of the 16th of July, the party had arrived at St. Charles (Missouri) on the Missouri River. As the party was preparing to leave, the Sheriff arrested their interpreter over a debt, and this caused the party to delay here while another interpreter was found and hired. The party finally got underway on the 18th of July. On the 21st, due to intense thunderstorms and rain, the party was obliged to stay put, finally setting sail at 4:15 PM. Arriving at the village of La Charrette just after dusk, they found Lieutenant Wilkinson and Dr. Robinson along with the Indians awaiting them. The party remained here until after breakfast on July 23rd when they once again set sail up the river with the Indians going ahead along the shore on foot. In his July 25th journal entry, pike comments on a practice of the Indians:

Every morning we were awakened by the mourning of the savages, who commenced crying about daylight, and continued their lamentation for the space of an hour. I made enquiry of my interpreter with respect to this practice, and was informed that it was a custom not only with those who had recently lost their relatives; but also with others, who recalled to mind some friend, dead long since, who joined the other mourners purely from sympathy. They appeared extremely affected, tears ran down their cheeks, and they sobbed bitterly; but in a moment they dry their cheeks and cease their cries.

Their songs of grief generally ran thus: “My dear father exists no longer, have pity on me, oh Great Spirit! You see I cry for ever; dry my tears and give me comfort.” The warrior’s songs are to the following effect: “Our enemies have slain my father, (or mother) he is lost to me and his family; I pray to you, of Master of Life, to preserve me until I revenge his death, and then do with me as thou pleases.”

On the 26th of July, the party reached the mouth of the Osage River and began ascending it. The trip upriver went ahead without serious incident until August 5th when Pike reported that while out hunting, he:

“passed over a remarkedly large rattle-snake as he lay coiled up, and trod so near as to touch it with my foot, it drawing itself up to make room for my heel; Dr. Robinson, who followed me, was on the point of treading on it, but by a spring avoided it: I then turned round and touched it with my ram-rod, but it shewed no disposition to bite, and appeared quite peaceable: the gratitude which I felt towards it for not having bitten me, induced me to save its life.”

The party continued up the Osage and on the 14th of August met a canoe with three Indian traders coming down the river. They informed Pike that the Little Osage had marched a war party against the Kanses, and the Grand Osage a party against whites on the Arkansas River. Despite this news, the party continued upriver and on Tuesday, August 19, arrived at the Grand Osage village situated at the present-day border of Kansas and Missouri. Over the next few days, Pike held conferences with the Chiefs of the Grand Osage and rode to the village of the Little Osage for the same purpose.

An Osage Chief
An Osage Chief

After obtaining horses from the Grand Osage and Little Osage villages, the party left the Osage villages, around noon on Monday, September 1 with fifteen loaded horses, and headed for the Pawnee nation. For the next several days, the party moved along the valley of the Little Osage River. At about 5 PM on the 6th of September, the party crossed the divide between the Osage and Arkansas (or White River) drainages. At this point, the party headed southwest, following a small creek. Following the water downstream, the party arrived at a “grand fork” of the White (Arkansas) River on Monday the 8th of September. Continuing onward, they crossed about 12 miles of prairie before reaching a second branch of the river. For the next two weeks, they trekked across the prairie seeking the Pawnee village. As time passed, their Osage guides became increasingly inclined to leave and go back home, requiring Pike to use a combination of rewards and inferring his disappointment in the warriors since “real men” always kept their promises to keep them there. Also, some of the men began to get sick, which slowed down the party and required them to spend some days encamped in tents. His diary remarks on his men employing themselves:

“in reading and in pricking on our arms with India ink some characters which will frequently bring to mind our forlorn and dreary situation, as well as the happiest days of our lives”

On the 22nd of September, they met a Pawnee hunter, who informed them that the Chief had left the village with fifty or sixty horses and many people, the day after the arrival of Dr. Robinson, who had been sent ahead two weeks before to alert the Pawnee that the party was coming. Unfortunately, they had missed each other as the Chief had taken a more northward route. The next evening, while they were encamped on a dry riverbed, they were overtaken by another Pawnee who camped with them and offered his horse for the party’s use. The next day they met multiple Pawnees who, upon the Chief’s arrival back at the village the day before, had been sent out to look for the party. Proceeding onward, on 25 September they found a large road over which a large body of Spanish troops had passed and were able to figure out their direction of march by the way the grass was beaten down. Later that day, when they were about three miles from the Pawnee village, they were instructed to remain there as the ceremony to welcome the Osage into the towns was to be held there. The ceremonies that Pike reports in his journal were quite formal and worth repeating here:

“There was a small circular spot, clear of grass, before which the Osage sat down. We were a small distance in advance of the Indians. The Pawnees then advanced within a mile of us, and halted; divided into two troops, and came on each flank at full charge, making all the gestures and performing the maneuvers of a real war charge. They then encircled us around, and the chief advanced in the centre and gave us his hand. His name was Characterick. He was accompanied by his two sons, and a chief by the name of Iskatappe. The Osage were still seated, but their leader then rose, and came forward with a pipe, and presented it to the chief, who took a whiff or two from it. We then proceeded on; the chief, Lieutenant Wilkinson, and myself, in front; my sergeant, on a white horse, next, with the colors; then our horses and baggage, escorted by our men; with the Pawnees on each side, running races, &c. When we arrived on the hill above the town, we were again halted, and the Osage seated themselves in a row, when each Pawnee who intended so to do, presented a horse, and gave a pipe to smoke to the Osage to whom he had made the present. In this manner were eight horses given.”

The day after the party’s arrival, a delegation of twelve arrived from the Kanses who had come to meet the Americans having heard they would be at the Pawnee village. Meeting with them was put off until the 28th to give priority to a meeting on the 27th with Charaterick and three other Pawnee chiefs who were the party’s host and so not offend them. On the 29th, Pike held a “grand council” with the Pawnee where not less than four hundred warriors were in attendance. On October 1, the Pawnee chief used every bit of persuasion he could muster to convince Pike to turn back. He finally told Pike that the Spanish soldiers who had been there just before Pike’s arrival had wished to go further into the Louisiana country looking for his party but that he had convinced them to give up the idea saying that he would induce Pike to turn back, or he would stop the party by force of arms. Pike replied:

“I have been sent out by our Great Father to explore the western country, to visit all of his red children, to make peace between them, and turn them from shedding blood; that he had seen how I had caused the Osage and Kanses to meet to smoke the pipe of peace together, and take each other by the hand as brothers: that as yet my road had been smooth with blue sky over our heads. I had not seen any blood in our paths. But that he must know that the young warriors of his great American Father were not women, to be turned back by words; that I should therefore proceed, and if he thought proper to stop me, he might attempt it, but we are men, well-armed, and would sell our lives at a dear rate to his nation: that we knew our great Father would send other young warriors there to gather our bones, and revenge our deaths on his people, when our spirits would rejoice in hearing our exploits sung in the war songs of our chiefs”

The next day, Pike received word that the chief had publicly advocated stopping the expedition by force of arms. Pike tried to trade for horses that day, but to no success and throughout the day no Indians had come to the camp to trade, giving the appearance that all intercourse was being interdicted. That night several Indians approached the camp on horseback at full speed but retreated just as quickly when fiercely challenged by the sentries. On October 3rd, trade resumed just as quickly as it had stopped, and Pike was able to trade for some horses. Over the next several days, the party continued to trade for horses and on October 7, broke camp and began the trek onward. The next day, the party came to the place where the Spanish troops, who had been at the Pawnee village just before Pike’s arrival, had encamped after they left the village. The encampment was circular with only small fires for cooking. Based upon the number of mess fires in evidence (fifty-nine) and estimating about six men to a mess, Pike estimated the size of the Spanish troop to be around three hundred and fifty persons.

A Pawnee Chief
A Pawnee Chief

For much of the following week, the party followed the trail of the Spanish soldiers, since they assumed that they had good guides that knew the terrain and sources of water. On the 14th of October they crossed the dividing ridges between the Kansas and Arkansas rivers. Unfortunately, the passage of buffalo herds had obscured the trail of the Spaniards two days earlier and the party had been unable to reacquire it. On the 19th the party crossed the Arkansas River and made camp to begin making canoes. They found two trees that appeared suitable however, one was too degraded to use. They decided to build a skin canoe for their second boat and spent until the 27th completing them. On the 28th, Lieutenant Wilkinson, five men, and two Osage Indians, set out down the Arkansas River in two canoes, one wooden and one skin, with dispatches for the General, a traverse table of the journey so far, twenty-one days provision of corn and meat, all the necessary tools for building canoes and cabins, and their baggage. Meanwhile, the rest of the expedition crossed the river to the north side and continued up the river toward the mountains. On the 29th, the party struck the Spanish road as it began snowing. The next day, while continuing their trek, Pike noted significant ice in the river.

As the party continued, Pike talks about the enormous herds of Buffalo they see. In one entry he remarks on a herd of cows, calves, and bulls that he estimates at three thousand. In another entry two days later, he says the numbers of animals they saw covered the face of the prairie on both sides of the river and that “their numbers exceed imagination.” On the 8th of November they stayed in camp jerking meat and mending moccasins. The next day they once again struck the trail of the Spanish troops, however, their numbers seemed to have grown with the camp site they found featuring ninety-six fires, showing from six to seven hundred men.

On Saturday, November 15, Pike saw a mountain which, while originally appearing as a small blue cloud, once viewed through his spyglass, was confirmed as a mountain whose sides were covered with snow or white rock. On the 17th of November, the party had covered thirty-four and a half miles in two days with the mountains appearing no closer. Traveling onwards, on the 22nd of November the party suddenly saw Indians rushing from the wood in front of them and running down the hill behind them. As it turns out, this was a Pawnee war party of about sixty warriors, returning from an unsuccessful hunt for Comanche and they greeted Pike’s party warmly. Later, the warriors began trying to rob all they could from Pike’s party, who resisted as best they could. In the end the Pawnee managed to take a sword, a tomahawk, a broad axe, five canteens, and a few other small articles.

On the twenty-third, with the river appearing to be dividing itself into several small branches, Pike assumed they were nearing its source and decided to ascend the north fork to the Blue Mountain (the one he had seen on the 15th that would later be named for him) which he thought would be about one day’s march with the idea that, from there, he could get the lay of the land and map all the various branches of the river. The next morning, he had his men cut down fourteen logs to make a “stockade” or breastwork five feet high on three sides with the fourth side bounded by the river. After giving the necessary orders to his men, for their actions in his absence and in case he did not return, Pike, Dr. Robinson, and privates Miller and Brown set out for the mountain. It took them two days to reach the base of the mountain after trekking thirty-four miles. The next morning, expecting to return to their camp at the base of the mountain that evening, they left all their blankets and provisions there in a base camp. They found the way exceedingly difficult, however, sometimes having to climb up rocks that were almost vertical, and ended up camping in a cave without blankets, provisions, or water. The next morning, they arose hungry, thirsty, and extremely sore, but found the view of the prairie below a worthwhile reward for their troubles. Pike described the view as follows:

” The unbounded prairie was overhung with clouds, which appeared like the ocean in a storm, wage piled on wave, and foaming, whilst the sky over our heads was perfectly clear. We commenced our march up the mountain and in about one hour reached the summit of this chain; (as it turned out, this was not the “Blue” or “Grand” Mountain but rather one some distance in front of it – ed) here we found the snow middle deep with no sign of beast or bird inhabiting this region. The thermometer which stood at nine above zero at the foot of the mountain, here fell to four below. The summit of the Grand Peak, which was entirely bare of vegetation, and covered with snow, now appeared at a distance of fifteen to sixteen miles from us and as high again as that we had ascended: It would have taken a whole day’s march to have arrived at its base, when I believe no human being could have ascended to its summit.”

With discretion the better part of valor, Pike made the decision to return to his stockade and his men. They descended via a long deep ravine and arrived back at their base camp to find their baggage safe but their provisions almost all destroyed. It began to snow, and they spent the night under a projecting rock with all four men sharing a meal of one partridge and a pair of deer ribs, this being the first food they had in forty-eight hours. Continuing down toward the stockade they arrived on November 29th. The next day, the party began their march with the snow falling fast. After encamping for the night, since the storm continued unabated, they remained in camp. The next morning, December 2nd, it had cleared off and the thermometer stood at seventeen degrees below zero. They continued their march and on the morning of the third of December the temperature had “moderated” to a mere three below zero. The party, not outfitted for winter weather, was not prepared for this cold. Several of the men suffered frostbitten feet and they all suffered from the cold due to their light clothing. Even Pike himself had only cotton overalls to wear.

Map of Pike's Route
Map of Pike's Route

The party continued, following what they believed to be the Spanish trace and by December 15th Pike remarks that his men are “suffering extremely from the cold, being almost naked.” On the 16th Pike and the Doctor decided to abandon the Spanish trace and head south-west to try to reach the headwaters of the Red River. Following the stream down, they spent Christmas Eve encamped along the banks with the only refreshment being buffalo meat, without salt, or any other thing. The party resumed their trek along the river on December 26th through extremely challenging terrain. On the 5th of January, Pike realized that they were following a tributary of the Arkansas River. On the ninth of January, after much consultation, Pike decided to build a small fortification for defense and deposit, leave part of the baggage, horses, the interpreter, and one man. With the rest, they would load their packs with Indian presents, ammunition, tools, etc., and cross the mountains on foot to find the Red River. They would then send back a detachment to conduct the horses and baggage after them by the best route they could discover. Thus, some were put to build block houses, some to hunt, and some to care for the horses.

On the 14th of January Pike and his party set out from the fortifications, each man carrying forty-five pounds and as much provisions as he thought proper, which with arms, etc., made an average of seventy pounds. Over the next two weeks, the party endured hardships with several of the men receiving frostbite on their feet. Finally reaching a stream that Pike assumed to be the Red River, he decided to build a stockade and then send for the rest of the men and the supplies and horses. On the 7th of February, the Doctor set out to travel to Santa Fe, using the cover of having some pecuniary demands on some residents there. Pike dispatched Corporal Jackson to go back and bring the remaining men, horses and supplies up from where they had been left. For the next week, Pike busied himself with helping finish their fortification, and hunting for food for the party.

Spanish Colonial Dragoon ca. 1800
Spanish Colonial Dragoon ca. 1800

On the 16th of February, while out hunting with one of his men, a Spanish dragoon and an allied Indian saw them and approached. Pike brought them back to his stockade and misled them by telling them that while there were only five men in the camp, the American expedition was made up of many parties. The next morning the Spaniard and Indian departed. All remained quiet until the 26th of February when a force of 50 Spanish dragoons and fifty mounted militia arrived led by two Lieutenants, Don Ignatio Saltelo, the commander of the party, and Don Bartholemew Fernandez. Pike invited the two officers into the stockade and provided them with a breakfast of deer, meal, goose, and some biscuits that the earlier Spanish visitors had given him. After Breakfast was over, the Spanish Commanding Officer addressed Pike as follows:

“Sir, the Governor of New Mexico, being informed that you had missed your route, ordered me to offer you in his name, mules, horses, money, or whatever you may stand in need of, to conduct you to the head of the Red River; as from Santa Fé, to where it is sometimes navigable, is eight days journey, and we have guides and the routes of the traders to conduct us.”

Upon being informed that the river he was camped on was not the Red River but rather the Rio del Norte, Pike at once ordered his flag to be taken down and rolled up, understanding how he was trespassing on Spanish territory, and suspecting that the Spanish Officers must have orders to take him in. The Spanish commander then added that:

“he (the Governor) had provided one hundred mules and horses to take my party and baggage and stated how anxious his excellency was to see me at Santa Fé.

Pike informed him that he could not go until the arrival of his sergeant, with the rest of the party. The Spanish commander replied that there was not the least bit of restraint to be used but that his excellency needed an explanation of Pike’s business on his frontier. He added that, if Pike would march now, he would leave an Indian interpreter and an escort of dragoons to conduct the Sergeant and the rest of the party to Santa Fe. His mildness induced Pike to agree to go with him now, but he insisted that he would need to leave two men to instruct the sergeant and party to come in since he would never do so without a fight, unless ordered. Pike wrote orders to his sergeant, and leaving them with his corporal and one private, Pike and his remaining men went with the dragoons, mounted on horses, to the Spanish camp about twelve miles upriver from which they sent down mules for the party’s baggage.

Thank you for joining us for today’s post on the story of one of the three expeditions that President Jefferson sent into the new Louisiana Territory. While the Lewis and Clark Expedition has received much of the attention in past years, Zebulon Pike’s expedition is a testament to the guts and determination of our ancestors in the early years of America. The details of trying to survive a winter in the Rocky Mountains, without proper winter clothing, are horrifying. For those interested in reading the minute details of their day-to-day experiences on the trek and the challenges they faced, we recommend reading Zebulon Pike’s Journal. It is humbling and helps to give perspective on what our ancestors experienced in establishing the United States we know today. Please join us again in two weeks for Part 2 of our story of the Zebulon Pike Expedition when we will learn about the experiences of Pike and his party while under arrest and traveling to Santa Fe, Chihuahua, and then eventually back to the 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.


Coues, Elliott. The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Vol. II. New York, NY: 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. Citizen 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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