Zebulon Pike and the Great Sand Dunes

BLOGGERS NOTES - In recognizing two hundred and ten years since Zebulon Pike came into the San Luis Valley, on a mission to supposedly find the southern boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase, I have the advantage of a picture of history before and after 1806 -1807. His adventures here were like many other western travelers in those days, one of awe of the natural surroundings, one of survival, one of discovery, and one of possibly ulterior motives for the expedition that has not necessarily been documented. A good ole conspiracy theory! This will be a two part blog, this one a general overview and the next one more specific about Pike's story out west, his capture by the Spanish, his time as sort of a prisoner in Mexico for 'trespassing' and his eventual release, but not before there was a bit of intrigue surrounding his story...

'Pike's Peak or Bust' was an expression from the late 1850s when Colorado, which did not exist at the time, was having its version of the Forty Niners gold rush - that 1849 'gold fever' thing when many a person was bee lining to the California hills and mountains to stake their claims and get their share of that golden precious metal. Many went 'bust' the word of the day for not giving up until going broke or died trying to find their fortunes. Who knows what San Francisco's football team would be named if it had not been for the California Gold Rush days? Now, Colorado was having its 59ers. But, I wondered, how did it this western expansion begin?

Yep, these are some of the crazy thoughts that bounce around in my head as I piece together human history of the west. Between researching on the internet and reading many a history book inherited from my parents and grandparents, I spend a lot of face time deep in reading and attempting to piece together the puzzle of what actually 'went down' as Manifest Destiny became the unwritten rule of the United States to conquer and populate the West. I can only do so much research before it is time for me to get the heck out of the house, go trail running and see what's out there for myself. This is my short story of President's Day 2017, a free entrance day to the Great Sand Dunes, and 210 years after Zebulon Montgomery Pike and his 15 companions made their way over Medano Pass, wandered by the Great Sand Dunes and into the San Luis Valley.

Prior to 1800, the intermountain West and the Great Plains were home to numerous Indian tribes, millions of buffalo (technically American bison) and an entourage of plants and animals that made the place function ecologically. Eventually, a few adventurous French guys and other Anglos, decided to come upstream from St. Louis via the Missouri River and the South Platte River and head into the mountains. They discovered that Colorado was a pretty neat place with lots of resources to be exploited. First, there were beaver pelts who had lush coats of fur which would bring a lot of money back East and even into Europe. Meanwhile, by 1803 in Washington, (DC) political power plays were going on to grab as much land as possible to expand the territories of the United States. The players were the United States (only a twenty something years old at the time!), Spain, England and France. And though Mexico was territory of Spain, there were rumblings going on there to follow suit like the United States and make their own break to become a separate country. Thomas Jefferson, US president at the time had made the Louisiana Purchase from France which doubled the size of the country! A year later, he sent the Lewis and Clark expedition to make their way to the Pacific Ocean to explore part of what the US had purchased. They started their journey west in May of 1804 from St. Louis Missouri, a city with which I am quite familiar having grown up nearby, and Lewis and Clark 'stuff' is everywhere! For me, Lewis and Clark, though there were many other explorers defined western expansion. Only recently did I read that Zebulon Pike started his expeditions there also.

Meanwhile, as Lewis and Clark were on a US government sanctioned adventure, other government and Army men were plotting how they could personally profit in fame and fortune from the new West and began their own maneuverings to make it happen. Enter a young army lieutenant, Zebulon Montgomery Pike, who, in 1805, was first sent to find the source of the Mississippi River. Upon his return to St. Louis, Pike's commander, General James Wilkinson, considered a perennial schemer, decided to send Pike and a small expedition west to find the southern border of the Louisiana Purchase which was the Red River, which is the border of the now states of Oklahoma and Texas. By the summer of 1806, Pike and his men headed across what are now the states of Missouri, Kansas, and into Colorado. Many historic accounts assume that Jefferson had sent Pike west, but one reliable source I have (okay, I'll name it - an American Heritage Book - 'The Great West') says that the expedition was only approved by the government after Wilkinson had already sent him to seek out the southern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase. But, to whose benefit? By November of 1806, Zeb and his men found themselves below a big mountain. He sent a small party of men to climb it but they soon bogged down in waist deep snow and went 'bust' on the climb. So, they headed up a nearby river to the south (the Arkansas) and into the mountains, wandered around, spent Christmas of 1806 between Alamosa and Buena Vista, wandered around some more and then headed over Medano Pass into the San Luis Valley and to the sand dunes... Pike's story to be continued in next blog, however, I wanted to follow in his footsteps and find out where he and his men had found their way to the Sand Dunes.

February 20th of 2017 at the Sand Dunes was a cloudless perfect day, breezy with temperatures in the mid-forties. I parked at the Point of No Return Trailhead and began my trek toward Medano Pass in the distance. I jogged slowly along on the Sand Ramp Trail which is an undulating trail in the foothills at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rising to the east. The south facing sides of the hills had been baked dry of snow and the going was easy, but the north sides had a lot of snow in places and running was difficult. So, I bushwhacked down to the Medano Pass Primitive Road, which was mostly in the sun and headed toward the low gap in the mountains, the pass over which Pike and his men came in January of 1807. There was no road then of course but because of the terrain and proximity to Medano Creek, I knew I was within yards, maybe feet, of where the expedition had come into the valley. By the time I reached the edge of the National Park, where it becomes a National Preserve, I was burning afternoon daylight, and needed to return. I was seeing the mountains, looking toward the eastern edge of the Sand Dunes, bathed in the same winter sunshine, watching birds and deer, and perhaps feeling the same as they were, amazed by the beauty before me. I looked around at the massive Ponderosa Pine trees that inhabit the hillsides and realized many of them were most likely standing when the expedition passed by. Whispering winds blew through their upper branches as I ran by them, stopping to take a few pictures, and I wondered what the wind could tell me about the year 1807...

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