Somewhere in the middle of the Great Plains in November 1806, the explorer Zebulon Pike worried that the lateness of the season jeopardized the completion of his expedition. A contemporary of Lewis and Clark, Pike commanded a US military party that was exploring the southwestern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase. With cottonwoods turning gold and the nights chilling, Pike resolved to “spare no pains” to accomplish the national objects of his voyage.
Two centuries later, in an era that fetishizes military sacrifice while veterans’ services and other public programs languish for want of funding, the anniversary of a soldier who vowed to spare no pains for his country invites meditation on the relationship between citizen, nation, and the military. Pike’s hypothetical pains quickly turned into literal bodily suffering, as he led his men into the Rocky Mountains on the morning of winter’s first blizzard. For eight weeks they wandered, lost among the passes, enduring cold, fatigue, and hunger.
The misery climaxed on 22 January, when Privates John Sparks and Thomas Dougherty developed frostbite so badly they could no longer walk. Pike had to leave them behind to save the party. Still unable to travel in February when a rescue party returned for them, the hobbled soldiers sent Pike the toe bones that by then had separated from their gangrenous feet, begging him “by all that was sacred not to leave them to die.”
“Ah! Little did they know my heart,” Pike wrote in his journal. He vowed to stop at nothing in order to return them to “the bosom of a grateful country.” Sparing no pains now included body parts. Pike’s response expressed a covenant that he believed bound people and nation. Citizens owed their country sacrifice; their country owed them gratitude.
National Historic Landmark entrance
Before the rescuers returned, the Spanish army showed up. The commander ordered Pike to
lower his flag and accompany him to New Mexico. Pike, the officer said, had left the United
States. “What,” protested Pike, “is not this the Red?” “No, sir!” retorted the Spaniard, “the Rio
del Norte.” Pike was camped on the Rio Grande, on Spanish soil.” The Americans were now
headed for Santa Fe and a big detour. Today, the replica of Pike’s stockade, reconstructed at the
original site based on specifications in his journal, is a National Historic Landmark managed by
the state of Colorado. Photo by Jared Orsi.
In 1806, while Lewis and Clark were on their way home from their historic voyage, Lieutenant
Zebulon Montgomery Pike departed St. Louis at the helm of a U.S. military expedition to
explore the southwestern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase. His aim was to find the headwaters
of the Arkansas River and return via the Red River. This slide show follows his route from his
sighting of Pikes Peak, pictured here, until his arrest by Spaniards in southern Colorado. Photo
by Jared Orsi.
They built a small stockade and raised an American flag. For mysterious reasons, Robinson,
departed in search of Santa Fe. Some have attributed this, too, to Pike’s alleged secret orders.
Doubters say the pair knew exactly where they were and deliberately tried to get a glimpse of the
New Mexican capital. If so, Robinson took an odd route, heading not south, the obvious path to
Santa Fe, but southwest, the logical direction had he believed he was on the Red. Meanwhile
Pike sent a rescue party to retrieve the men stranded in the mountains. Photo by Jared Orsi.
Descending the river, the party made camp near here, a few miles up a tributary, the Rio Conejos,
in the southern part of Colorado’s San Luis Valley.
Great Sand Dunes
On January 28, they passed through what is now Great Sand Dunes National Park, whose sandy
ripples he compared to “the sea in a storm.” Climbing one of the dunes, Pike saw river. Once
again, he thought he’d found the Red. Photo by Jared Orsi.
San Luis Valley
After leaving yet another man, Hugh Menaugh, behind, the party finally straggled over the
Sangres and beheld San Luis Valley, depicted here somewhat south of where Pike would have
seen it. Photo by Jared Orsi.
Leaving Sparks and Daugherty
A few days later, Pike left Privates John Sparks and Thomas Daugherty behind near here, to face
the wilderness alone, unable to walk. Frostbite led to other problems. Hypothermia. Inability to
hunt. Starvation. The party repeatedly failed to cross the saw-toothed Sangres. Photo by Jared
Grape Creek crossing
The party crossed Grape Creek near here, getting their boot wet. By the time they made camp at
the foot of the mountains, the temperature was 10 degrees below zero. The party had marched
28 miles that day and several of the men could no longer walk on their frostbitten feet. Photo by
Wet Mountain Valley
This is the Wet Mountain Valley on nearly the same day of the year at about the same time of day
at about the same spot that Pike would have beheld it. With the sun setting over the Sangres and
little water or wood handy, Pike decided to keep marching, badly underestimating the distance to
the forested mountains across the valley. The consequences were disastrous. Photo by Jared
Up Grape Creek
If he was still on the Arkansas, where was the Red? Still believing it to be to the southwest, Pike
launched the party up Grape Creek, pictured here, intending to cross the Sangres, something he
had deemed impossible a month before. Photo by Jared Orsi.
Confluence of Arkansas and Grape Creek
But the expedition continued downstream—as any party believing it was heading homeward
along the Red River would have done. Trapped in the steep-walled canyons that enclose the
Royal Gorge and unable to find food, the party neared starvation. At last, Pike emerged from the
chasm on his birthday, January 5, and beheld this familiar place. The brutal month wandering in
the mountains had yielded only the rediscovery of the Arkansas, which they had been following
since October. Photo by Jared Orsi.
If he had any doubts about Poncha Pass, one glance to southeast would have cured him. To his
left loomed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Scaling the mountains would never get any easier
than at Poncha Pass. Photo by Jared Orsi.
10. Poncha Pass
A few of Pike’s contemporaries believe he had secret orders to spy on Spanish Santa Fe. Some
subsequent observers have suggested that as he followed the river south, he knew it was not the
Red and that he intended to cross the mountains to find Santa Fe. Though plausible, this is
theory founders at this spot, near where Pike camped on Christmas Day. If Pike intended to
cross to Santa Fe, this was the place to do it. Poncha Pass, southwest of Salida, Colorado,
offered an easy route. Photo by Jared Orsi.
On December 18, the party crossed Trout Creek Pass out of South Park. Spying a broad river
flowing south, Pike wrote in his diary that they had found the Red. From this spot, on U.S
Highways 24 and 285, not far from Buena Vista, Colorado, he looked across the valley at the
Collegiate Peaks. The bedraggled party was overjoyed finally to be heading home. Photo by
Confluence of Arkansas and Grape Creek
With the party regrouped, Pike led them into the Rocky Mountains on the morning of winter’s
first blizzard. Confused by several small streams joining near modern Cañon City, Pike camped
for several days in early December near this spot, where Grape Creek enters the Arkansas River.
Believing he had found the headwaters of the Arkansas, he elected to turn north in search of the
Red River, unaware that it was 300 miles to the southeast. Photo by Jared Orsi.
Pikes Peak from Mt. Rosa
After an hour’s hike the next morning, Thanksgiving Day, they reached the top of Mt. Rosa.
“The summit of the Grand Peak,” Pike wrote, now appeared at the distance of 15 or 16 miles
from us, and as high again as what we had ascended, and would have taken a whole day’s march
to have arrived at its base, when I believe no human being could have ascended to its pinical.”
The explorers turned around and returned to their companions on the plains. Photo by Jared
Near the summit of Mount Rosa, they huddled into this cave, which Colorado Springs attorney
John Murphy has marked with a sign. They tossed and turned all night, trying to find a smooth
surface on which to sleep. Photo by Jared Orsi.
On November 26, they cached their blankets and food at the foot of the mountains and hiked up
a creek. Their view of the Grand Peak now blocked by lesser summits, they climbed all day.
Late in the afternoon, with daylight waning, they spied this peak, Mt. Rosa, and began ascending
it, perhaps hoping to get their bearings on the surrounding terrain. Photo by Jared Orsi.
Pikes Peak from Pueblo
Pike parked his men here, at the confluence of the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek in modern
Pueblo, Colorado. Taking Dr. John Robinson and privates John Brown and Theodore Miller, he
set out to climb the Grand Peak, visible here in the background, on November 24. Photo by Brian
Pawnee war party site
On November 22, Pike and his companions met a Pawnee war party on the Arkansas River,
perhaps near this spot. The Indians took some of Pike’s knives and tools. Pike would see no
other human beings until February 16. Photo by Jared Orsi.
Peak Sighting Spot
He first sighted Pikes Peak, which he called the Grand Peak, on November 15, 1806, near this
spot on the plains, between Las Animas and Lamar, Colorado. The 14,000-foot summit was
more than one hundred miles away. Photo by Jared Orsi.
Pike read widely in the popular advice literature of the day, which championed the rights of individuals to personal fulfillment. Liberating as it was though, individualism threatened to undermine deference, family, religion, and other constraints that had traditionally claimed to compel a citizens good behavior. Pike and others, therefore, tempered it with republicanism—the duty to forsake selfish interests for the good of others, especially the nation. “Be always ready to die for your country,” a young Pike scribbled in the margins of one of his favorite advice tracts. He spent most of his life trying to reconcile his willingness to die for his country with his desire to find individual personal fulfillment in life, and to win the social rewards he believed that merited.
Congress did not compensate the explorers for lost toes or other sacrifices. Other matters preoccupied the representatives. Britain was attacking American ships and impressing sailors, raising a national dilemma akin to Pike’s personal one: would Pike’s self-absorbed generation collectively sacrifice to defend the nation? War promised to remedy the nation’s diplomatic and cultural challenges. An external foe could unite self-interested individuals, who would sacrifice to defeat that very enemy. Pike, for one, itched to prove “that the sons are able to maintain the Independence handed down to us by our Fathers.”
After the Senate declared war in June 1812, he headed for the front lines, declaring, “You will hear of my Fame of my death.” He died in April 1813 at the Battle of York, one of the war’s few significant American victories. Newspapers and admiring biographers eulogized this ultimate sacrifice. The embattled James Madison administration—which had failed to beat its enemy on the battlefield—used figures like Pike to recast the war as being not about extracting concessions from Britain but about proving Americans were honorable.
As a result, for the next decade, Pike was the brightest star in the galaxy of American military martyrs. His glory far exceeded that of Meriwether Lewis, who killed himself while mired in debt and political scandal. Pike had won in death the status he had coveted in life.
Although Pike chose to sacrifice in the army, his world did not consider the military the only venue for doing so. In fact, contemporaries understood the American Revolution predominantly as a war in which civilians rose up to defeat a common enemy and then returned to their farms, leaving Europeans to their vice of standing armies. Pike fancied himself as a “Citizen Soldier.”
Today is different. Soldiers have become a specialized class, who sacrifice so that other citizens don’t have to. The nation celebrates them, making it easier to send them into harm’s way while asking little of the others. But the public is largely unwilling to fully support them before, during, or after their time of service.
Pike’s life, however, indicates the roots of this tragedy lie deep in history, in a never-fully-resolved paradox of American nationalism that celebrates both individualism and obligation to the community. The separation of soldiers and civilians originated during Pike’s life, at a moment when the republic narrowed from glorifying citizen sacrifice to lauding only soldier sacrifice. The anniversary of a citizen soldier sparing no pains recalls a path not taken but which remains an open option—a more genuine and widely shouldered commitment to the nation that would extoll citizen service rather than fetishize of the sacrifice of a few.