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After trespassing on Spanish-controlled territory during his early 19th century fact-finding expedition into the southwestern United States, the adventurous army lieutenant was taken captive — and treated like an honored guest 

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This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE

Lt. Zebulon Pike spent another sleepless night on Feb. 25, 1807 worrying whether hostile Spanish troops might at any moment overrun his makeshift fort.

Lewis and Clark were homeward bound from the Pacific Northwest in 1806, when 28 year old Zeb Pike embarked on his own inspection tour of the Southwest. His secret mission was to slip into New Mexico from the north, analyze the economic potential of the thriving colony and pinpoint the weak spots in the Spanish defenses. And he was to accomplish all without creating an international incident.

Before the expedition even began, Spanish spies in St. Louis tipped off Santa Fe to the imminent intrusion. The royal governor sent hundreds of soldiers to intercept the trespassers, but a four-month canvass of the countryside failed to find any sign of Pike and his party.

If the Spaniards had expanded the search to the northwest, they would have located poorly equipped Americans freezing to death in the Colorado Rockies. After discovering the peak later named in his honor, Lt. Pike pushed south leaving behind five frostbitten comrades unfit for travel.

The suffering soldiers camped at the headwaters of the Rio Grande, which their confused commander mistook for the Red River. Revived by the warmer climate, they quickly constructed a crude but sturdy fortress.

To the expedition doctor went the tricky task of breaking the ice with the unpredictable Spaniards. Under the flimsy pretext of collecting a debt from a transient trader, the physician strolled into Santa Fe. Questioned at length by the suspicious governor, he was shipped south for further interrogation.

Pike did not have a clue to the doctor’s predicament but soon knew for certain he had reached his objective. From out of nowhere appeared a pair of smiling Spaniards, whose transparent purpose was to assess the threat posed by the Americans.

For ten tense days, Pike watched the horizon for the inevitable arrival of the enemy. Finally, on Feb. 26, 1807, a hundred heavily armed Spaniards came calling.

On behalf of the governor, the officer in charge invited Pike to accompany him to Santa Fe. The lieutenant replied with a remarkably straight face that his orders strictly forbid him to enter Spanish territory. After putting up the token resistance diplomacy demanded, Pike submitted to the request.

The weary Americans, wearing the ragged remains of what were once impressive uniforms, straggled into the town Pike identified in his journal as “St. Afee.” He was immediately hauled before the governor, who quizzed him in French only to be amazed by his fluent answers.

Deciding English might put the guest at ease, the head Spaniard brought in an interpreter, another American six years a prisoner for venturing into Texas. Pike’s private trunk was opened, and he was asked to explain each and every scrap of paper. He calmly complied having taken the precaution of hiding all the incriminating documents.

Thinking he had satisfied his inquisitor, Pike made a dumb mistake. He put the sensitive papers back in the trunk, which, of course, was searched again the next morning. Expressing disappointment at this shocking duplicity, the governor informed the foreigner that he had no choice but to send him onto Chihuahua.

Outside Albuquerque, Pike was reunited with the missing doctor, with whom captivity had clearly agreed. Prior to his departure, he had been a walking skeleton with a shaggy beard and tangled hair. Now, after several weeks in Spanish custody, he was the well-groomed picture of good health.

The doctor’s account of his treatment convinced Pike he had nothing to fear from the Spaniards. That proved to be an understatement.

At every stop along the way to Chihuahua, the prisoners were wined and dined by local officials. Such a fine time was had by one and all that in his log Pike marveled at the “heaven-like qualities of hospitality and kindness.”

The trailblazers thoroughly enjoyed their stay in Chihuahua. Released in May 1807, their captors loaned them a thousand dollars for the trip home and provided safe passage to the Rio Grande. The good-byes exchanged at the Texas border were genuine.

During a weeklong stop in San Antonio, Pike was surprised to see a civilized oasis in the middle of a province he had believed a no-man’s-land. Publication of his fond memories of Texas was directly responsible for the initial wave of Anglo-American settlers.

Like fellow explorer Meriwether Lewis, who died under mysterious circumstances in 1809, Zeb Pike also went to an early grave. When he was killed in action at the age of 34 during the War of 1812, the United States lost an intrepid adventurer and Texas one of its earliest boosters.

San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

COVER: A map of Zebulon Pike’s expedition into the “Internal Part of Louisiana,” published by C. & A. Conrad in 1810. Download the full-size map from the Library of Congress.

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