Archive for Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Kansas plain was ‘desert’ to 1806 explorer Pike

January 20, 2004


— He would call this place the "Great American Desert."

And for decades after Zebulon Pike's 1806 expedition, people heeded his words and kept their distance from this land that became Kansas.

"In that vast country of which I speak, we find the soil generally dry and sandy, with gravel.

"These vast plains of the Western Hemisphere may become in time as celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa, for I saw in my route, in various places, tracts of many leagues where the wind had thrown up the sand in all the fanciful form of the ocean's rolling wave, and on which not a speck of vegetable matter existed."

Pike described one Kansas stream as so full of salt "that it salted sufficiently, the soup of the meat which my men boiled in it."

Pike was assigned by the Louisiana Territory governor to explore and do for the Southwest what Lewis and Clark did for the Northwest.

He was to return 50 Osage prisoners held hostage by the Potawatomis, negotiate a peace settlement between the Kanza and Pawnee tribes, and establish relations with the Comanches. He also was to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers and determine the strength of Spanish forces on the Great Plains.

He did without the training of his predecessors -- and without the recognition that would come to them later.

He was a military man who reported simply what he saw.

In September 1806, Pike entered what would become Kansas from the southeast, near where Fort Scott is today.

He and his expedition would cross the Neosho and Verdigris rivers, camp on the Cottonwood and move on to the Smoky Hill, Saline and Solomon rivers. And he would explore the great bend of the Arkansas.

That year on the frontier, tensions were high between Americans and the Spanish. Most expected war.

Pike was to determine where Spanish forts were located, how many troops were stationed there and to determine what quality of life on the plains.

As he went southwest, he followed a path that later became known as the Santa Fe Trail.

On Nov. 23, 1806, Pike and his men reached the site of modern-day Pueblo, Colo. Taken with a mountain peak to the west, Pike set out to explore it. After wading in snow up to his waist in a temperature of 4 degrees below zero, Pike returned to his base camp. He never set foot on the mountain he called Grand Peak. Other explorers later would name it Pikes Peak.

In February 1807, Pike and his men were arrested as spies by Spanish soldiers.

Upon his release, Pike returned to the United States and to the routine duties of a career Army officer.

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