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Pike's Stockade and the Free for All

Ever wonder how close the western states came to not becoming part of the United States? About as close as the space between the words you are reading! How so? Permit me to ramble on about the years 1802ish to 1807ish.

The players in the game were the powerful European nations of France, England, and Spain, while the internal players were the newly formed United States, Indian tribes and unethical, yet quite enterprising, American citizens as well as Spanish citizens in Mexican territories all with strong political ties, access to money and self-serving purposes. The prizes in the game were New Orleans, control of the Mississippi River, (an absolute necessity when water travel was the only way to get valuable trade goods up and down to the port of New Orleans and the world markets beyond), parts of Spanish Florida, islands in the Caribbean, and the whole present day American West!

President Thomas Jefferson was worried that the United States might get 'boxed in' if Spain or France controlled the Port of New Orleans and would not allow American goods to get to the Gulf of Mexico. The other problem was, that England, in control of Canada, had its eyes on the Northwest and if war were to resume between England and France, then England, with its powerful navy, might put an even tighter grip on American trade on the Mississippi. Jefferson sent an envoy to negotiate with France to make an offer to buy New Orleans. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s army in the Caribbean, poised to possibly come to New Orleans to secure control of the whole drainage basin of the Mississippi River, which rightfully belonged to France, was being decimated by guerrilla warfare with island inhabitants and, mosquitoes! Yellow fever was taking such a toll on the French Army, that Napoleon, to America's surprise, offered not only New Orleans, but the whole of the Louisiana Territory, which doubled the size of the United States! A steal at 23 million plus dollars, about 4 cents an acre! Napoleon broke his promise to Spain and sold the territory. He needed money for his immediate war in Europe. Spain wanted to have Florida across the whole gulf coast, Texas and all the way to California. Now, that plan was in severe jeopardy.

Spain knew that United States citizens were looking west for more territory. The Spanish governor at New Orleans, one Esteban Miro, attempted to prevent such westward expansion, by arming the Creek Indians to attack American settlers in disputed lands north of Florida (basically the present day states of Mississippi and Alabama) and, as another deterrent, placed a high tariff on all goods coming down the Mississippi. The expression, "With the good Lord willing and if the Creeks don't rise!" has nothing to do with floodwaters! He also would give free land to Americans declaring allegiance to Spain and those people would be exempt from river taxes.

With whom was Miro in cahoots? Why none other than Pike's boss, James Wilkinson, who had made a name and a fortune for himself in the Kentucky territories, had a planned capital (Frankfort) for his new country (secession from the United States was not a new idea that came along later in the 1850s that started the Civil War). Wilkinson, apparently a serious party animal, declared his allegiance to the KIng of Spain, and would receive protection from troops stationed in Mexico.

And where was Zebulon Pike in all of this? His boss, who just happened to be General James Wilkinson, was making a lot of money off America, but was now also on Spain's payroll. He was, at the time, conspiring with Aaron Burr, Jefferson's Vice President, to perhaps start a tidy little war with Spain such that he and Burr could perhaps establish their own inland nation in roughly an area of western Kentucky through Mississippi, into parts of Louisiana and Texas such that the two of them and other likeminded humans at the time could self-govern separate from all the world powers (despite Wilkinson's secret allegiance to Spain), including the United States. Wilkinson wanted Kentucky and was looking at a big chunk of land of what would become the states of Mississippi along the Yazoo River, into Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.

These dudes had a lot going on!

In 1805, Wilkinson sent Pike up the Mississippi to locate its source. He and his men got to experience a Minnesota winter! Returning from that mission, Wilkinson then decided to send Pike and a small group to find the southern end of the Louisiana Purchase, disputed by the Spanish of course, and find the source of the Red River, thought to be in the mountains of New Mexico north of Santa Fe. Pike apparently liked Wilkinson but this is where historians are not sure if Pike knew anything about what Wilkinson and Burr were planning such that Pike would be part of the deal, or, if he was told to just do his duty for the good of his country...

Pike's Stockade - In time lapse - In 1806, Pike took boats to the end of what would become Missouri, traded with Indians for horses, caught wind that Spanish soldiers were looking for him if he were to pass illegally into Spanish territory, finally arrived into lands that would become Colorado, was not impressed by what would become Kansas, saw a big mountain that would later be named for him, tried to climb it in late November, ended up in deep snow, said forget it, wandered up the Arkansas River not knowing what river it was, wandered near the headwaters of the South Platte not knowing what it was. NOTE: All these soldiers were from smaller east Coast States and had no idea about the size of the west - they even thought, from having seen a few crude maps that they were on the Yellowstone River, the headwaters of which are over 400 miles north and flow into the Missouri.) Pike's group, traveling quickly, went up to where the town of Leadville, Colorado is, and headed back downstream.

They circled back, found another valley that headed south out of the Arkansas River, left several men behind with survival supplies, with a promise to rescue them later, came over Medano Pass to the Sand Dunes, came down the Rio Grande, needed a shelter and found the Conejos River inflow, 12 miles south of Alamosa. There, they decided to make a military shelter against Utes and possibly Spanish soldiers. With his crude shelter made, he sent several soldiers back to get the ones left behind. He kept his promise to the 4 men they had left behind and everyone survived! all Next, one soldier, a Dr. Robinson, went alone to look for Santa Fe down the Rio Grande, found it, and returned in late February with 100 Spanish soldiers. Pike and his men were arrested, packed up and were taken south to Santa Fe, into Mexico, and eventually, (authorities in Mexico figured that America would raise hell by holding their citizens so best to let them go) were taken back through Texas.

Pike and his men had taken secret notes, as the Spanish stole their notebooks and sketches to protect their Mexican territory holdings as best they could. Pike was accused of conspiring with Wilkinson, who had already double crossed VP Aaron Burr, and both were put on trial, but acquitted of treason against the US. Meanwhile, Pike could not live his coconspirator reputation down as it was thought that he was not just exploring this territory for the US, but for Wilkinson and Burr's grandiose scheme. Pike wrote about his journeys of the southwest, which I have not read, but apparently do not reveal his true plans. He insisted he was working only for the US government.

We went to war with England in 1812, and since Pike was a soldier, he was fighting the British for the city of what is now Toronto. Sadly, he was killed in those battles. Had he survived, would he have confessed in memoirs later that he was in on a scheme or not? Some historians believe his plan all along was to get captured by the Spanish to spy on the strength of their territorial armies and some say, that despite Pike being a bit pompous, he was a good soldier, loyal to his men, and country. One more mystery of history...

Visiting Pike's Stockade - 12 miles south of Alamosa. There is an interpretive sign at a crossroads at the 8 mile mark. Stop, read and look around. Then, 4 miles straight south on a dirt road to the gate. Seasonal openings but I was there last week. A pleasant 7 tenths of a mile walk to the monument. Parking, picnic tables, the stockade replica built from Pike's notes, and memorials to Pike, the Utes, Spain and the US. For those who like history, well worth the trip!

For my sources - TIME magazine - Special bicentennial issue (that my dad kept from the 1970s), Encyclopedia Britannica, The Great West - a book from my grandparents' collection, and a volume of the American Heritage books - Illustrated history of the US. And a bit of the internet.

LAST NOTE: From my great great grandfather's diary of the Civil War. Fast forward to 1862 and Vicksburg MS. A lot happened on the Mississippi River and the Yazoo which Pike passed by on riverboats several times 55 years early. Now, another attempted secession was underway. His notes: "We go up the Yazoo, can see Vicksburg 6 or 7 miles off to the right. (South). Our gunboats are leading, feeling their way cautiously." Next day - Dec. 29th, 1862. A desperate charge is being made, the deafening crash of exploding shells, the roar of musketry, the whispering of Minnie balls and above all you hear the cheering of the charging columns. The very earth trembles and quakes like a living thing... and this is called battle.

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