At the start of the Southwestern Expedition, both its leader Lt. Zebulon Montgomery Pike at age 28 and its surgeon Dr. John Robinson at age 26, were mature men who endured the journey as well as possible, although Robinson actually held up somewhat better than Pike did. We have no way of knowing the ages and condition of his men, who probably were fairly seasoned frontiersmen, with some different experience and ability but one duty of following orders, top down.
Following their ordeal of the Royal Gorge, by January 9, 1807, Pike’s party had reassembled at their former Cañon City site. Pike decided that the best move was to arrange “blockhouses” for defense where the horses, baggage, ammunition, tools, and presents for Indians could be left in the charge of the interpreter, Baroney, and one unnamed soldier. By then, Pike still might have been operating as a spy or possibly had a hope of obtaining rescue from Spaniards from Santa Fe for himself and his men.
From there on January 13, Pike with his men, including the sergeant, set forth on foot, carrying packs, turned south up Grape Creek and into the “extremely cold” Wet Mountain Valley on the east side of the Sangre de Cristos. By January 20 they were nearly starving by the time meat was obtained. One man’s feet were so badly frozen that he was in danger of losing them, as he did in fact we later learn.
Two men could go no farther. Menaugh, Sparks, and Dougherty remained there on January 23, while the next day one of the privates, Brown, complained “discontentedly,” “seditiously,” and “mutinously.” But, turning west, they headed west and crossed Medano Pass, came to Great Sand Dunes on January 27, and proceeded south from there. They crossed the Rio Grande, went up the Conejos River, and established their encampment on January 31.
On February 1, the men began to lay out the stockade east of today’s Sanford, while in ensuing days, Pike and Robinson hunted for meat, their only supply of food, and Pike studied his French grammar. On February 7, Robinson left, heading south to deal with a money matter in Santa Fe. Pike, though, professed that he intended to reach Natchitoches.
With others working on the stockade’s construction, Pike then dispatched Corporal Jackson and four men to return to rescue the men who had been left in the Wet Mountain Valley two weeks previously if they were still alive. The appearance of the Spanish militia, arrest of Pike, and the rescue of the men at Cañon City and the Wet Mountain Valley took place in following days and weeks.
What everyone had endured from late November onward, though, makes one imagine that Pike was delusional, if not masochistic, in his single-minded devotion to duty, whatever his original orders were. The expedition could have turned downstream at Cañon City or weeks earlier when they were in the Pikes Peak region with winter already tightening its grip, but he did not.
The single instance of illness that is mentioned during this ghastly saga was a bout of vertigo brought on when Dr. Robinson, finding no food near the Royal Gorge ate some unidentifiable berries, but probably other illnesses of various kinds occurred among the men. Descriptions of the men’s physical suffering are plentiful, though. Hunger frequently was one. In his journal, and Pike later expressed pity in describing men’s permanent incapacitations, but he does not waste words describing how the privates fared or eventually returned to Louisiana from Chihuahua, apparently some years later.
Should Pike be celebrated as a hero of the Southwestern Expedition? Not in my opinion. He was simply a duty-bound officer who kept an account of what he saw and experienced, or thought he saw, in a poorly-known region where the future still was an open book and still remained so for a decade after his expedition.
What seems most remarkable is that he and his men survived their physical ordeals at all. What we do not learn is the broad purpose of the expedition.