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Some Pikes Peak history

Living in Falcon, we see Pikes Peak almost every day, but wedon’t know much about the man, Zebulon Pike, for whom the mountain was named.Some historians have not been kind to Pike.In “A Pikes Peak Partnership,” authors Thomas Noel and Cathleen Norman reinforce Pike’s reputation as “the lost pathfinder” who confused the Red River with the Arkansas River.The authors repeat the falsehood that Pike determined the peak that would bear his name could not be climbed.They also reported that Julia Archibald Holmes “climbed to the top in her bloomers” 52 years after Pike’s “failed” attempt in 1806.Worst of all, they write that Pike was “blown up by his own men in the War of 1812.”Read “To Spare No Pain,” a compilation of essays gathered by Paula Miller, executive director of the Pikes Peak Library District, to commemorate Pike’s expedition of 1806 to 1807 and learn how Noel and Norman got it mostly wrong.It all started with the Louisiana Purchase, a $15 million deal to purchase land from the French, negotiated by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803.The elimination of French authority created a new border between the United States and New Spain, then ruled by Spain. With both countries disputing the boundary, tensions were high and war was likely.The Americans claimed the border followed the Red River or even the Rio Grande to the Continental Divide, and the Spanish claimed the border only extended to the western banks of the Mississippi River and the cities of St. Louis and New Orleans.After the Spanish intercepted two expeditions sent by Jefferson to explore the southern boundary, Gen. James Wilkinson, the appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory, ordered Lt. Pike to locate the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers and assess forts, enemy troops and terrain along the way.That is, Pike was a spy.After escorting a group of Indians to their lands on what is now the Kansas and Nebraska border, Pike and his party of 22 men headed south to the Arkansas River, which they reached near the modern town of Great Bend, Kan., on Oct. 16, 1806.Ten days later, Pike and his men headed west, following the Arkansas River.On Nov. 15, Pike saw for the first time the mountain that would be named for him, writing in his journal that it appeared as a ìsmall blue cloudî on the western horizon.Nearly two weeks later, leaving the bulk of his men at a base camp, Pike and three others spent several days trying to climb the peak. In doing so, they probably scaled the 11,499-foot Mt. Rosa.Wearing light summer clothing and facing a winter blizzard, Pike decided the peak could not be climbed at that time and resumed his exploration of the Arkansas River.When the river’s north fork dwindled out, he headed due north and correctly identified the south fork of the South Platte on Dec. 12.He then crossed a mountain pass and encountered the Arkansas River again, mistaking it for the Red River.Snow kept them from following the river to its source, so the expedition headed downstream on ice thick enough to support the weight of their horses, passing through Royal Gorge.Pike soon realized his error and headed south, setting out Jan. 14, 1807, through the Wet Mountain Valley and across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, finding the headwaters of the Rio Grande (which he mistook for the Red River) and the present-day Great Sand Dunes National Park.Spanish officers arrested Pike and his men Feb. 16, 1807, near what would become Alamosa, Colo., taking them to Santa Fe in modern New Mexico.From Santa Fe, Pike and his men were sent south to Chihuahua, which gave Pike an opportunity to gather valuable intelligence about largely unknown regions of that country.Pike’s journal confirmed Spanish suspicions that he was a spy, but rather than antagonize the United States, Spanish authorities escorted Pike and his men back to Natchitoches, La.Now prohibited from taking notes, Pike wrote in secret about the people of New Spain, its natural resources and military and hid his notes in the barrels of his men’s guns. The notes formed the first adequate report on New Spain ever brought back to the United States.Upon his return to the United States in June 1807, Pike was suspected of being a part of the “Burr Conspiracy,” a plot by former Vice President Aaron Burr and Pike’s commanding officer, Wilkinson, to sever the land acquired by the Louisiana Purchase and create a separate country ruled by dictatorship.Burr was arrested for treason but acquitted because he had not committed an act of war.Pike was exonerated and eventually promoted to major, colonel and then brigadier general in 1813.Pike died April 27, 1813, while leading a successful assault on the garrison in York, the capital of Upper Canada (now Toronto) during the War of 1812 with Great Britain.A mine buried by the British exploded, throwing a rock that pierced Pike’s back. He was 34.For decades, Pike was widely regarded as a hero, with 16 counties and towns named for him from the Appalachians to the Mississippi.An 1818 map refers to “Pike’s Peak,” but for a time it was also called “James Peak,” for Dr. Edwin James, who climbed the peak in 1820.After 1844, explorer John C. Fremont popularized the name “Pike’s Peak.”In 1891, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names recommended against using apostrophes in names, so the name officially became “Pikes Peak.”Historians are certain Wilkinson was a double-agent for the Spanish, based on his correspondence with Spanish authorities published in 1854, though his motives remain unclear. He died in 1825 and is buried in Mexico City.Additional sources:,,

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