Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Arkansas River - 5

While wintering at the confluence of the Missouri, Meriwether Lewis’ time spent in St. Louis was to gather supplies, but also to pick the brains of the Chouteau’s to learn what information they had been able to gather from fur traders working along the Missouri.

Two expeditions were sent to explore and map the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. Lewis and Clark’s Expedition up the Missouri River and to the Pacific Northwest has become so famous that the two men’s names can’t be uttered without being said jointly, not unlike macaroni-’n’-cheese. Roughly contemporary with their trip was the other expedition sent to the southwest to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red Rivers. This was led by 27-year-old Lt. Zebulon Pike, who was promoted to captain during his trip.

Pike's Peak
Photo credit: Becky Hale
Royal Gorge
Photo Credit:
On July 15, 1806, Pike left Fort Bellefontaine, near St. Louis, with a much smaller group of 20 soldiers. They went up the Missouri and Osage Rivers to the present border of Kansas and Missouri, and then struck southwest for the Arkansas River. There Pike split the group, with the fewer men going downstream on the Arkansas to the confluence with the Mississippi, then up the river to arrive back at St. Louis in time to winter-over there.  Zebulon Pike led the larger group up the Arkansas to the Rocky Mountains. On November 15, they spotted a prominent mountain peak that Pike labeled Grand Peak. It has since been known as Pike’s Peak in his honor. On December 7th, they reached Royal Gorge, the great canyon of the Arkansas.

Pike was far from finding himself in love with what we call the Great Plains. He wrote: “The vast plains of the Western Hemisphere may become in time as celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa; for I found 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.” When the map from the expedition was published by Stephen Long in 1820, the area of the plains was labeled the “Great American Desert.” This played a major part in the decision to relocate all the Native American tribes into the Great American Desert, thus leaving richer, more habitable lands to be settled by the white man. The continuing expedition along the Red River and Rio Grande is worthy of your interest, but since we are concerned with the Arkansas River, we will leave Captain Zebulon Pike here.


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