Pike expedition sets out across the American Southwest

Pike expedition sets out across the American Southwest

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Zebulon Pike, the U.S. Army officer who in 1805 led an exploring party in search of the source of the Mississippi River, sets off with a new expedition to explore the American Southwest. Pike was instructed to seek out headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers and to investigate Spanish settlements in New Mexico.

Pike and his men left Missouri and traveled through the present-day states of Kansas and Nebraska before reaching Colorado, where he spotted the famous mountain later named in his honor. From there, they traveled down to New Mexico, where they were stopped by Spanish officials and charged with illegal entry into Spanish-held territory. His party was escorted to Santa Fe, then down to Chihuahua, back up through Texas, and finally to the border of the Louisiana Territory, where they were released. Soon after returning to the east, Pike was implicated in a plot with former Vice President Aaron Burr to seize territory in the Southwest for mysterious ends. However, after an investigation, Secretary of State James Madison fully exonerated him.

The information he provided about the U.S. territory in Kansas and Colorado was a great impetus for future U.S. settlement, and his reports about the weakness of Spanish authority in the Southwest stirred talk of future U.S. annexation. Pike later served as a brigadier general during the War of 1812, and in April 1813 he was killed by a British gunpowder bomb after leading a successful attack on York, Canada.

READ MORE: What Is Manifest Destiny?

United States Camel Corps

The United States Camel Corps was a mid-19th-century experiment by the United States Army in using camels as pack animals in the Southwestern United States. While the camels proved to be hardy and well suited to travel through the region, the Army declined to adopt them for military use. The Civil War interfered with the experiment and it was eventually abandoned the animals were sold at auction.

United States Camel Corps
CountryUnited States of America
BranchU.S. Army
PostCamp Verde, Texas
First commanderMajor Henry C. Wayne

Photo Gallery

Pike drew up this map (left) of New Spain from his time spent as a captive in Mexico before he was released and taken back into Louisiana

– Below: By Clive Siegle Inset: True West Archives –

– All images by Clive Siegle unless otherwise noted –

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Pike expedition sets out across the American Southwest - HISTORY

Between 1803 and 1861 the people and the institutions of the United States expanded into what is now Oklahoma. This phenomenon did not take place in isolation, nor was it a sequence of random events that were of little consequence to the basic sweep of national development. Instead, it was part of a much larger story that was programmed intentionally by eastern centers of power to meet predetermined objectives. The agents of expansion, consequently, usually found in Oklahoma what they were looking for—exploitable natural resources, commercial opportunities, an agricultural paradise, a Great American Desert, a resettlement zone, and a military and administrative problem.

Oklahoma did not become part of the United States until 1803, when the new American republic acquired the Louisiana Purchase. The U.S. Congress divided the purchased domain into two territories: Orleans in the south and Louisiana in the north. The Territory of Louisiana included what is now Oklahoma and had its administrative center at St. Louis. In 1812 northern Louisiana became the Territory of Missouri in 1819 southern Louisiana, including Oklahoma, was organized as the Territory of Arkansas. The territorial governors of Arkansas exercised administrative jurisdiction over Oklahoma for the next thirty years.

Pres. Thomas Jefferson believed that Louisiana was the stuff of empire. For the United States, it could provide needed natural resources, living room for an expanding population, a barrier against foreign aggression, opportunities for profitable commerce, and the space for the resettlement of eastern Indians. Jefferson recognized, however, that effective use of Louisiana's resources required better knowledge of its people, its topography, its flora and fauna, and its rocks and minerals. His desire for that kind of information caused him and his successors to dispatch a series of military expeditions to undertake scientific exploration of the province once it passed into the possession of the United States.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark commanded the earliest and the best known of these expeditions. Between 1804 and 1806 it gathered detailed information about the northern reaches of Louisiana, in addition to impressing the Indians about the power and might of the Great Father in Washington. What it had done in the north, Jefferson hoped that other expeditions would do in the south and southwest.

In 1806 the president dispatched two of these. One, led by Capt. Richard Sparks, was to ascend the Red River to the Wichita Villages and then go by horseback to the Rocky Mountains. The other, commanded by Capt. Zebulon M. Pike, was to search out the origins of Red River by going overland to the Rockies and then south to the river. Confronted early by units of Spanish cavalry, the Sparks expedition (also known as the Freeman-Custis expedition or Red River expedition) aborted without achieving any of its goals. The Pike expedition, however, was more successful and heralded important consequences for Oklahoma.

In July 1806 Pike departed from St. Louis on a route that took him up the Missouri River to the Osage villages and then across Kansas to the Great Bend of the Arkansas River. At that point Lt. James B. Wilkinson and five men went east down the Arkansas, while Pike and the rest of his command continued west to the Rocky Mountains and south to an uncertain future in New Mexico. Wilkinson's route took him through Oklahoma during November and December, where water in the river, when not frozen, was barely deep enough to float dugout canoes.

As brutal as the crossing had been, Wilkinson's report to the Jefferson administration contributed much to the knowledge base of southern Louisiana and of Oklahoma. He established that the Osage Indians were numerous and at war with intruder eastern tribes. He recorded that exploitable resources seemed abundant, for he had heard of lead mines and a salt-encrusted prairie. Wilkinson also made particular note of a seven-foot waterfall on the Arkansas River (Webber Falls).

Nothing in Wilkinson's report intrigued government officials more than his reference to a salt prairie, which renewed interest in long-circulating rumors about a "salt mountain." In 1811 George C. Sibley, an Indian agent at Fort Osage, was finally able to confirm the reports when he visited the Great Salt Plains in Alfalfa County and the Big Salt Plain in Woods County. Impressed by the vast sheets of salt that glistened "like a brilliant field of snow" and by rocks of salt sixteen inches thick, Sibley reported that there was in northern Oklahoma an "inexhaustible store of ready made salt" just waiting to enter "into channels of commerce."

An expedition eight years later, undertaken as a private enterprise by the noted English botanist Thomas Nuttall, substantiated the growing sense that Oklahoma was a place of natural wonder and economic promise. In the spring of 1819 Nuttall accompanied a military unit out of Fort Smith that followed the Poteau and Kiamichi rivers to Red River. "Nothing," he enthused, "could exceed the beauty of these plains" with their uncommon variety of flowers, which possessed "all the brilliancy of tropical productions."

The image of Oklahoma as portrayed by Sibley and Nuttall was dramatically revised by reports published in the wake of a military expedition that crossed Oklahoma in the late summer 1820. Commanded by Maj. Stephen H. Long of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, its mission was to search out once and for all the sources of the Red and Arkansas rivers and to descend each to the Mississippi River. In June Long led his command west from Omaha to the Rocky Mountains and then south to the headwaters of the Arkansas River. There, as had Pike before him, he divided his column, sending Capt. John R. Bell and eleven men down the Arkansas while he continued south to the headwaters of the Red River.

Like Wilkinson fourteen years earlier, Bell found the Arkansas route tough going. Only this time the problem was not cold but hot temperatures. Three soldiers deserted, taking with them the journals of zoologist Thomas Say. Bell and his remaining men were glad to reach Fort Smith on September 9, 1820. Based upon his memory rather than his notes, Say later published an account of the expedition that described the Arkansas River valley in unenthusiastic terms.

In the meantime, Major Long continued southward from the Arkansas, looking for the headwaters of the Red River. His party also included a noted scientist, Edwin James. In due time, Long encountered a broad stream which he took to be the Red River. Although cognizant of abundant wildlife, botanist James was more impressed by the scorching, mid-August heat and the dry bed of what turned out to be the Canadian River. From his perspective, the entire region was little more than a "wide sandy desert" and should "forever remain the unmolested haunt of the native hunter, the bison, the prairie wolf and the marmot." Its only value to the nation was as a barrier to the "ruinous diffusion" of the American people. James and his superior, Major Long, reached Fort Smith on September 13, embarrassed that they had explored the wrong river but relieved that the "Great American Desert" was behind them.

Although separated by one year only, the portraits of Oklahoma as presented by Nuttall and the military explorers were as different as night and day. One, painted in the spring, was hopeful and enthusiastic the other, painted in late summer, was pessimistic and apathetic. Given their time and place, both observations were probably correct. At least for the next one hundred twenty years, however, the perception of the Long expedition prevailed in the national consciousness. Oklahoma was part of the Great American Desert twelve months a year, an image that eastern power brokers would use to shape its future.

While some Americans traversed Oklahoma in the interest of scientific knowledge, others explored it in the interest of financial profit. Among the latter were the Chouteau brothers, Pierre and Auguste, as well as Joseph Bogy, who had established profitable fur trading houses in the Three Forks region (where the Verdigris and Neosho rivers enter the Arkansas River) at about the same time the United States acquired Louisiana. Over the next decade, they were joined by Nathaniel Pryor, George W. Brand, Henry Barbour, Tom Slover, Hugh Love, and A. P. Chouteau. Because of their commercial interests and activities, their collective knowledge of Oklahoma's resources and people made the "discoveries" of Pike and Wilkinson in 1807 and Long and Bell in 1819 old news. Hunters such as Alexander McFarland, who operated out of Pecan Point on the Kiamichi River, and entrepreneurs such as Natchez-based Anthony Glass possessed similar knowledge regarding the Red River. In 1808 Glass spent most of the year with the Wichita Indians at their Twin Village site trading for horses and searching for a meteorite the tribe considered sacred.

Following the negotiation of the Adams-Onís Treaty with Spain in 1819, the activities of the Three Forks and Red River traders foreshadowed an even greater commercial, natural, and strategic interest in Oklahoma. Among other things, the treaty set the southern and western boundary with Texas. Spain had hoped that a clearly defined border would assure its continued possession of Mexico, but its officials miscalculated. In 1821 the colony declared and won its independence. This unexpected development galvanized the Three Forks traders and merchants into extraordinary commercial activity.

Assuming that new authorities in Mexico would welcome American manufactured goods in Santa Fe, something that Spanish colonial officials had not, two notable trading expeditions left Three Forks for New Mexico in 1821. One, led by Hugh Glenn and Jacob Fowler, was formed from residents of the Three Forks area the other, led by Thomas James, was organized in St. Louis. Both carried trade goods for Mexican as well as Indian customers both were prepared to trap for furs if the opportunity presented itself.

On the way west the two groups took different routes. The Glenn-Flower party followed the Arkansas River, while the James party followed the Cimarron River. With the former stopping near Pueblo, Colorado, to trade with the Indians and to trap for beaver, only the latter enjoyed a hearty welcome in Santa Fe. It was not the first American party, however, to set out goods in Market Square. That honor belonged to William Becknell of Franklin, Missouri, who arrived a few days earlier by following an overland trail that cut across the Panhandle of Oklahoma. Over the next thirty years, tens of thousands followed this Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico, including the noted Josiah Gregg.

In purchasing Louisiana Territory President Jefferson had envisioned it as an area suitable for the relocation of American Indian people east of the Mississippi River who declined to embrace the cultural and political sovereignty of the people and government of the United States. By 1820 this aspiration had become settled government policy, with removal first voluntary and then mandated. Government officials very early selected Oklahoma, already identified in the national psyche as marginally useful for agriculture, as a suitable Indian Colonization Zone, or Indian Territory. No decision or event impacted Oklahoma more. Most obvious was that tens of thousands of tribal people poured into the region.

Equally important was that the designation accelerated American expansion into Oklahoma. Not only did the population of tribal people increase, but so too did the number of individuals and groups who exchanged goods, provided services, and secured peace. These included commercial entrepreneurs such as Holland Coffee, who opened a trading post on Cache Creek in 1836, and Abel Warren, who operated a trading house in Love County after 1837. It also included missionaries like Cyrus Byington, Cyrus Kingsbury, Robert Loughridge, William S. Robertson, Evan Jones, and Joseph S. Murrow, artists like John Mix Stanley, and writers like Victor Tixier. Above all, it included the U.S. Army.

In Oklahoma the principal role of the army was to keep the peace between resident tribes (the Osage, Wichita, Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa) and emigrant tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole). Early on, the conflict between the two groups threatened to undermine the entire removal policy by discouraging eastern emigration. To institute and enforce a peace, the army first established Fort Smith on the Arkansas River (1817), Fort Gibson on the Neosho River (1824), and Fort Towson on the Red River (1824). As Indian removals accelerated during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, tension between the emigrant tribes and the resident tribes, especially the Plains tribes, increased. In 1834 the number of posts more than doubled, including Fort Coffee (on the Arkansas River), Camp Holmes (on the Canadian River), Camp Arbuckle (in Tulsa County), and Camp Washita (on the Washita River).

The army seldom, if ever left one of these posts to do battle with a "hostile" tribe. At the same time, commanders often dispatched troops on reconnaissance missions designed to impress all tribal groups with the military muscle of the United States. In 1833 one such mission of Mounted Rangers out of Fort Gibson became world famous. It included the noted American writer Washington Irving and two prominent Europeans, Charles Latrobe and Count Albert-Alexandre de Pourtales, all three of whom wrote notable memoirs of the experience. The next year the Rangers and a new unit, the First U.S. Dragoon Regiment, participated in an even more remarkable mission, known as the Leavenworth-Dodge Expedition.

Commanded by Gen. Henry Leavenworth and junior officers Henry Dodge, Nathan Boone, and Jefferson Davis, the five-hundred-man expedition hoped to facilitate a peace between the Osage and the Kiowa, Wichita, and Comanche. The warfare between these four tribes had been a principal concern of the so-called Stokes Commission, appointed in 1832 by President Jackson to bring peace to Indian Territory. Riding some three hundred miles southwest of Fort Gibson to the Wichita villages and back, a journey documented ethnographically by artist George Catlin, the column met its strategic goals. Specifically, the Comanche and Wichita signed treaties of peace and amity with the Stokes Commission at Camp Holmes (or Mason in Cleveland County) in 1835, and the Kiowa signed at Fort Gibson in 1837. But the mission exacted a huge price. Some 150 dragoons died in the Oklahoma heat, including General Leavenworth.

While the army was facilitating the occupation of Oklahoma by tens of thousands of eastern Indians, it was also marking trails and building roads utilized by both Indians and non-Indians. Among the more important of these were local roads that connected the different forts. Some roads, however, had national significance. In April 1849 following the discovery of gold in California, Capt. Randolph B. Marcy with the help of a trusted Delaware guide, Black Beaver, marked a route west from Fort Smith along the south bank of the Canadian River. The next year they selected the site for Camp Arbuckle, commissioned to protect travelers along the road. Camp Arbuckle was relocated and renamed Fort Arbuckle in 1851. The road paralleled ones described a decade earlier (1839 and 1840) by the noted Santa Fe trader Josiah Gregg and by the 1845 expedition that Lt. James W. Abert had led eastward from Santa Fe. Marcy's return route through Texas and Indian Territory to Fort Smith was subsequently followed by thousands of argonauts going to the gold fields and became the route of the Butterfield Overland Mail. In 1853 Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple, with artist Baldwin Möllhausen in his command, traversed the same course along the 35th Parallel, reviewing it as a suitable corridor for an intercontinental railroad to California.

The army also conducted new boundary and additional topographical surveys. In 1850 and 1851, for example, two different expeditions that included noted naturalist S. W. Woodhouse marked the boundary between the Creek and Cherokee Nations. In 1852 Marcy systematically surveyed the sources of Red River, a goal set one-half century earlier by President Jefferson.

By 1861, then, most of Jefferson's expectations for the Louisiana Purchase had been realized, at least in Oklahoma. Early official and unofficial exploring parties demonstrated that it was a land of natural beauty brimming with exploitable resources. Subsequent expeditions proved its value as a barrier to the diffusion of the American population and to the northward expansion of Spanish influence. Three Forks and Red River traders demonstrated that Oklahoma had commercial potential, especially in exchanges with the Osage, Wichita, Comanche, and Kiowa, but also as a gateway to Santa Fe and even California. The successful concentration of eastern Indians illustrated the appropriateness of Oklahoma as a resettlement zone for tribal people who did not welcome American hegemony. And the administrative and peacekeeping activities under taken by the U.S. Army proved that colonies like Indian Territory were expensive. In all of this, Oklahoma faithfully fulfilled the expectations of eastern centers of economic and political power, a pattern of cause and effect that shaped the course of the state's history then and now.


Brad Agnew, Fort Gibson: Terminal on the Trail of Tears (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980).

Ray Allen Billington and Martin Ridge, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier (1949 rev. ed., Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001).

Grant Foreman, Pioneer Days in the Early Southwest (Cleveland, Ohio: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1926).

William H. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 1803–1863 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959).

Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, ed. by Max L. Moorhead (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954).

Stan Hoig, Beyond the Frontier: Exploring the Indian Country (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998).

Joseph A. Stout, Jr., ed., Frontier Adventurers: American Exploration in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1976).

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W. David Baird, &ldquoWestward Expansion,&rdquo The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture,

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The Louisiana Purchase has caused multiple political effects that have greatly altered the United States development course. For starters, the Louisiana Purchase avoided war with France, a major superpower at the time. Jefferson realized the importance of the port of New Orleans.

The purchase doubled the size of the country and provided room for the growing population to settle in new lands. However, there were already people living in the Louisiana Territory. Before the Louisiana purchase, the native peoples did well.


On December 25, 1526, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, also known as Carlos I of Spain, granted Pánfilo de Narváez a license to claim what is now the Gulf Coast of the United States for the Kingdom of Spain. The contract gave him one year to gather an army, leave Spain, found at least two towns of one hundred people each, and garrison two additional forts anywhere along the coast. Narváez had to secure his own funding for the expedition. He recruited investors by marketing the promise of riches comparable to those recently discovered by Hernán Cortés in Mexico. He also called in many debts owed to him, and used this money to pay for major expenses of the expedition.

Appointed by the Spanish Crown as treasurer and sheriff, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was to serve as the king's eyes and ears, and was second-in-command. He was to ensure the Crown received one fifth of any wealth acquired during the expedition. Other expedition members included Alonso de Solís as royal inspector of mines, Alonso Enríquez as comptroller, an Aztec prince called Don Pedro by the Spanish, and a contingent of Franciscan and diocesan priests led by Padre Juan Suárez (sometimes spelled Xuárez). Most of the expedition's 600 men were soldiers, chiefly from Spain and Portugal, including some of mixed African descent, and some 22 from Italy. [6]

On June 17, 1527, the expedition departed Spain from the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. The total force included about 450 troops, officers, and slaves. About 150 others were sailors, wives (married men could not travel without their wives to the Indies), and servants.

The first stop on the voyage was the Canary Islands, about a week's journey and 850 miles into the Atlantic. There the expedition resupplied such items as water, wine, firewood, meats, and fruit.

Hispaniola and Cuba Edit

The explorers arrived in Santo Domingo (Hispaniola) sometime in August 1527. During the stay, troops began deserting. Although always a problem on such expeditions, the men may also have deserted because of hearing about the recent return of an expedition led by Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, in which 450 of 600 men perished. Nearly 100 men deserted the Narváez expedition in the first month in Santo Domingo. The expedition stopped here to purchase horses, as well as two small ships for exploring the coastline. Although Narváez was able to buy only one small ship, he set sail once again.

The expedition arrived in Santiago de Cuba in late September. As Cuba was the home of Narváez and his family, he had many contacts through whom he could collect more supplies, horses, and men. After meeting with his wealthy friend Vasco Porcallo, Narváez sent part of the fleet to Trinidad to collect horses and other supplies from his friend's estate.

Narváez put Cabeza de Vaca and a captain named Pantoja in charge of two ships sent to Trinidad, while he took the other four ships to the Gulf of Guacanayabo. On about October 30, the two ships arrived in Trinidad to collect requisitioned supplies and seek additional crew. [7] A hurricane arrived shortly after they did. During the storm, both ships sank, 60 men were killed, a fifth of the horses drowned, and all the new supplies acquired in Trinidad were destroyed.

Recognizing the need to regroup, Narváez sent the four remaining ships to Cienfuegos under the command of Cabeza de Vaca. Narváez stayed ashore in order to recruit men and purchase more ships. After nearly four months, on February 20, 1528, he arrived in Cienfuegos with one of two new ships and a few more recruits. The other ship he sent on to Havana. At this point, the expedition had about 400 men and 80 horses. The winter layover caused a depletion of supplies, and they planned to restock in Havana on the way to the Florida coast.

Among those hired by Narváez was a master pilot named Diego Miruelo, who claimed extensive knowledge of the Gulf Coast. Historians have debated for centuries his full identity and the extent of his knowledge. In any case, two days after leaving Cienfuegos, every ship in the fleet ran aground on the Canarreos shoals just off the coast of Cuba. They were stuck for two to three weeks, while the men depleted the already meager supplies. Not until the second week of March, when a storm created large seas, were they able to escape the shoals.

After battling more storms, the expedition rounded the western tip of Cuba and made its way toward Havana. Although they were close enough to see the masts of ships in port, the wind blew the fleet into the Gulf of Mexico without their reaching Havana. Narváez decided to press on with the journey and colonization plans. They spent the next month trying to reach the Mexican coast but could not overcome the Gulf Stream's powerful current.

Arrival in Florida Edit

On April 12, 1528, [8] the expedition spotted land north of what is now Tampa Bay. They turned south and traveled for two days looking for what the pilot Miruelo described as a great harbor. During these two days, one of the five remaining ships was lost. Finally, after spotting a shallow bay, Narváez ordered entry. They passed into Boca Ciega Bay north of the entrance to Tampa Bay. They spotted buildings set upon earthen mounds, encouraging signs of culture (and wealth), food, and water. The natives have since been identified as members of the Safety Harbor Culture. The Spaniards dropped anchors and prepared to go ashore. Narváez landed with 300 men in Boca Ciega Bay at what is known as the Jungle Prada Site in present-day St. Petersburg.

The comptroller Alonso Enríquez was one of the first ashore. Making his way to the nearby native village, he traded items such as glass beads, brass bells, and cloth for fresh fish and venison. Narváez ordered the rest of the company to debark and establish a camp.

The next day, the royal officials assembled ashore and, with ritual, performed the formal declaration of Narváez as royal governor of La Florida. He read (in Spanish) the Requerimiento, which stated to any natives listening that their land belonged to Charles V by order of the Pope. He also said that natives had the choice of converting to Christianity. If they converted, they would be loved and welcomed with open arms if they chose not to, war would be made against them. The expedition ignored both pleas and threats by a party of natives the next day.

After some exploring, Narváez and some other officers discovered Old Tampa Bay. They headed back to the camp and ordered Miruelo to pilot a brigantine (brig) in search of the great harbor he had talked about. If he was unsuccessful, he should return to Cuba. Narváez never regained contact with Miruelo or any of the crew of the brig.

Meanwhile, Narváez took another party inland, where they found another village, perhaps Tocobaga. [9] The villagers were using Spanish freight boxes as coffins. The Spanish destroyed these and found a little food and gold. The locals told them that there was plenty of both in Apalachee to the north. After returning to their base camp, the Spanish made plans to head north.

Narváez splits forces Edit

On May 1, 1528, Narváez made the decision to split the expedition into land and sea contingents. He planned to have an army of 300 march overland to the north while the ships, with the remaining 100 people, sailed up the coast to meet them. He believed the mouth to Tampa Bay to be a short distance to the north, when in fact it was to the south. Cabeza de Vaca argued against this plan, but was outvoted by the rest of the officers. Narváez wanted Cabeza de Vaca to lead the sea force, but he refused. He later wrote it was a matter of honor, as Narváez had implied he was a coward. [10]

The men marched in near-starvation for two weeks before coming upon a village north of the Withlacoochee River. They enslaved the natives and for three days helped themselves to corn from their fields. They sent two exploratory parties downstream on both sides of the river looking for signs of the ships, but found none. Narváez ordered the party to continue north to Apalachee.

Years later, Cabeza de Vaca learned what had become of the ships. Miruelo had returned to Old Tampa Bay in the brigantine and found all the ships gone. He sailed to Havana to pick up the fifth ship, which had been supplied, and brought it back to Tampa Bay. After heading north for some time without finding the party on land, commanders of the other three ships decided to return to Tampa Bay. After meeting, the fleet again searched for the land party for nearly a year before finally departing for Mexico. Juan Ortiz, a member of the naval force, was captured by the Uzita. He later escaped to Mocoso, where he lived until rescued by Hernando de Soto's expedition.

Meeting the Timucua Edit

From scout reports, the Timucua knew the Spanish party was nearing their territory. They decided to meet the Europeans as they came near on June 18. Through hand signs and gestures, Narváez communicated to their chief, Dulchanchellin, that they were headed to Apalachee. Dulchanchellin appeared pleased by this (it turned out the Apalachee were his enemies).

After the two leaders exchanged gifts, the expedition followed the Timucua into their territory and crossed the Suwannee River. During the crossing, an officer named Juan Velázquez charged into it on his horse, and both drowned. His was the first non-shipwreck casualty of the expedition, and the men were disturbed by his death. The starving army cooked and ate his horse that night.

When the Spaniards arrived at the Timucua village on June 19, the chief sent them provisions of maize. That night, an arrow was shot past one of Narváez's men near a watering hole. The next morning, the Spaniards found the natives had deserted the village. They set out again for Apalachee. They soon realized they were being accompanied by hostile natives. Narváez laid a trap for the pursuing natives, and they captured three or four, whom they used as guides. The Spanish had no further contact with those Timucua.

Apalachee Edit

On June 25, 1528, the expedition entered Apalachee territory. Finding a community of forty houses, they thought it was the capital, but it was a small outlying village of a much larger culture. The Spanish attacked, took several hostages including the village's cacique, and occupied the village. Although the villagers had none of the gold and riches Narváez was expecting, they did have much maize.

Soon after Narváez took the village, Apalachee warriors began attacking the Europeans. Their first attack was a force of 200 warriors, who used burning arrows to set fire to the houses the Europeans occupied. The warriors quickly dispersed, losing only one man. The next day a second force of 200 warriors, equipped with large bows, attacked from the opposite side of the village. This force also quickly dispersed and lost only one man.

After these direct attacks, the Apalachee changed to quick assaults after the Spanish started trekking again. They could fire their bows five or six times while the Spanish loaded a crossbow or harquebus, then fade away into the woods. They harassed the Spanish with guerrilla tactics continuously for the next three weeks. During this time, Narváez sent out three scouting missions in search of larger or wealthier towns. All three came back without good news. Frustrated by misfortune and failing health, Narváez ordered the expedition to head south. The Apalachee and Timucua captives told him that the people of Aute had a great deal of food, and their village was near the sea. The party had to cross a large swamp to reach the place.

For the first two days out of the village, the Spaniards were not attacked, but once they were up to their chests in water in the swamp, the Apalachee attacked them with a shower of arrows. Nearly helpless, the Spanish could neither use their horses nor quickly reload their heavy weapons, and they found their armor weighing them down in water. After regaining solid ground, they drove off the attackers. For the next two weeks, they made their difficult way through the swamp, occasionally under attack by the Apalachee.

When the Spanish finally reached Aute, they found the village already deserted and burnt. They harvested enough corn, beans, and squash from the garden to feed their party, many of whom were starving, wounded and sick. After two days, Narváez sent Cabeza de Vaca to look for an opening to the sea. He did not find the sea, but after half a day's march along the Wakulla River and St. Marks River, he found shallow, salty water filled with oyster beds. Two more days of scouting produced no better results, and the men returned to tell Narváez the news.

Narváez decided to go to the oyster beds for the food. With many of the horses carrying the sick and wounded, the Spanish realized they were struggling for survival. Some considered cannibalism to survive. During the march, some of the caballeros talked about stealing their horses and abandoning everyone else. Although Narváez was too ill to take action, Cabeza de Vaca learned of the plan and convinced them to stay.

After a few days stuck near the shallow waters, one man came up with a plan: he suggested reforging their weaponry and armor to make tools and to build new boats to sail to Mexico. The party agreed and started action on August 4, 1528.

They constructed a forge out of a log and used deerskins for the bellows. They cut down trees and made charcoal for the forge. Then they made hammers, saws, axes, and nails out of their iron gear. Caulking was made from the pitch of pine trees, and palmetto leaves were used as oakum. They sewed shirts together for sails. Occasionally they raided the Aute village, from which they stole 640 bushels of corn to sustain themselves during the construction. Twice, within sight of the camp, ten men gathering shellfish were killed by Apalachee raids.

The men killed their horses for food and material while they were building the boats – one horse every three days. They used horsehair to braid rope and the skins for water storage bags. [11] As horses were highly valued by the Spanish, especially the nobility, they named the bay, now known as Apalachee Bay, "Bahia de los Caballos" in honor of the sacrifice of the animals.

By September 20, they had finished building five boats. They sailed on September 22, 1528. [11] After being ravaged by disease, starvation, and attacks by the various peoples they intended to conquer, 242 men had survived. About 50 men were carried by each boat, which were thirty to forty feet long and had a shallow draft, sail, and oars.

South Texas Edit

Closely following the Gulf Coast, the boats proceeded to the west, but frequent storms, thirst and starvation reduced the expedition to about 80 survivors before a hurricane cast Cabeza de Vaca and his remaining men on the western shore of a barrier island. Historians believe they landed at present-day Galveston, Texas. [12] However, other historians have pointed out that there are several inconsistencies between Cabeza de Vaca's description of the island and Galveston Island. As a result, many historians believe that it is more likely that Cabeza de Vaca and his companions actually landed at what is now Follet's Island. [13] For the next four years, Cabeza de Vaca and a steadily dwindling number of his comrades lived in the complex indigenous world of South Texas.

Southwestern North America Edit

By 1532, only four members of the original expedition survived: Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and Estevanico, an enslaved Moor. They headed west and gradually south hoping to reach the Spanish Empire's outpost in Mexico, becoming the first men of Europe and Africa to enter Southwestern North America (present day Southwestern United States and Northwest Mexico). Their precise route has been difficult for historians to determine, but they apparently traveled across present-day Texas, perhaps into New Mexico and Arizona, and through Mexico's northern provinces near the Pacific Coast before turning inland.

In July 1536, near Culiacán in present-day Sinaloa, the survivors encountered fellow Spaniards on a slave-taking expedition for New Spain. As Cabeza de Vaca wrote later, his countrymen were "dumbfounded at the sight of me, strangely dressed and in the company of Indians. They just stood staring for a long time." [14] The Spaniards accompanied the survivors to Mexico City. Estevanico later served as a guide for other expeditions. Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain, where he wrote a full account, especially describing the many indigenous peoples they encountered. He later served the colonial government in South America.

The Moor's Account, a 2014 novel by Laila Lalami, is a fictional memoir of Estebanico, the Moroccan slave who accompanied Cabeza de Vaca as one of the four survivors of the expedition. He is known as the first black explorer of America. Lalami explains that nothing is known about him except for one line in Cabeza de Vaca's chronicle: "The fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor." [15] It was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. A Land So Strange, a 2007 historical narrative by Andrés Reséndez, retells the journey for a modern audience using primary sources by Cabeza de Vaca and the official report. Esteban: The African Slave Who Explored America, a 2018 nonfiction biography by Dennis Herrick, dispels centuries of myths and inaccuracies about the African.


On June 24, 1806, General James Wilkinson, commander of the Western Department, ordered Lieutenant Zebulon Pike, then age 27, to lead an expedition to the western and southern areas of the Louisiana Purchase to map the terrain and contact the Native American peoples, and to find the headwaters of the Red River. [2] Pike left Fort Bellefontaine near St. Louis, Missouri on July 15 with a detachment of 20 soldiers and 50 Osage hostages, freed for return to their people. The expedition followed the Missouri River and the Osage River to the Osage Nation village at the present-day border of Kansas and Missouri. On August 15, Pike returned the hostages and parleyed with the natives. [3]

Striking northwest, the group made for the Pawnee territory on the Republican River in southern Nebraska. At the Pawnee village on September 29, Pike met with the Pawnee tribal council. He announced the new protectorship of the United States government over the territory. [4] He instructed the Pawnee to remove a Spanish flag from their village and to fly the American flag instead.

The expeditionary force turned south and struck out across the prairie for the Arkansas River. After reaching it on October 14, the party split in two. One group was led by Lieutenant James Biddle Wilkinson, son of the General. [5] They traveled downstream along the length of the Arkansas to its mouth and back up the Mississippi, safely returning to St. Louis.

Pike led the other, larger group upstream, to the west, toward the headwaters of the Arkansas. Upon traversing the Great Plains, Pike wrote, "This 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." [6] When Stephen Long led an expedition to the area in 1820, he labeled the area on his map as the "Great American Desert."

Pike in Colorado

On November 15, Pike recorded the first sight of the distant mountain he called "Grand Peak". [7] It has since been called Pikes Peak in his honor. Pike tried to climb the peak, hoping to get a view of the surrounding area to record on maps, the 14,000-foot summit. Pike's group ascended a lesser summit nearby—likely Mount Miller, which was named for Theodore Miller, one of the soldiers who accompanied Pike. [8] With winter threatening, Pike pressed onward up the Arkansas, and on December 7 the party reached Royal Gorge, a spectacular canyon on the Arkansas at the base of the Rocky Mountains.

Pike next intended to travel to the headwaters of the Red River and head downstream to the Mississippi and relative safety in the lowlands. But, the company had gotten confused in its bearings, and they made several blundering steps trying to find the river. They were not equipped for a mountain expedition, nor for hard winter weather. Heading north, the party found the South Fork of the Platte River and, following it upstream, came to what they thought were the headwaters of the Red. Turning back downstream, they returned to the point at which they had left the Arkansas originally. They had executed a large loop, taking weeks of precious travel time.

Hungry, cold, and exhausted, the party headed south over the mountains. Several men were left behind as they dropped from fatigue, but Pike doggedly pressed on. By January 30, he and the ten men still with him came to the Rio Grande at a point near Alamosa in present-day southern Colorado and then part of the Spanish empire. Pike mistook the Rio Grande for the Red River he had been seeking. Here, he built a fort and attempted to collect the rest of his men, who were strewn across miles of mountains behind him.

Imagining the Frontier Before Drawing It

“Like many historians, Turner was interpreting the past in light of recent events. This presentism had great benefits and also great risks. History was bound to to go on. . . Turner himself moved on. In his later essays, he kept adding ‘more history’ as it accumulated. . .” -Patricia Nelson Limerick, 1987

On February 19, 1807, Vice President Aaron Burr was captured after escaping his earlier arrest when President Jefferson accused him of treason for his role in a conspiracy to colonize parts of Mexico. Seven days later, on February 26, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and the members of his expedition into the Southwest (which Jefferson ordered) were captured by Spanish authorities and taken to Chihuahua, then under Spanish control. He used the opportunity to analyze New Spain’s weaknesses for the possibility that the US would try to colonize parts of Mexico. The American Frontier, as Turner insists in his “Frontier Thesis,” shaped American historiography, but in 1807, what became the frontier was a highly militarized border zone.

The Pike Expedition began the year Lewis and Clark returned from their own expedition to the Northwest. Exploring modern-day Colorado, Pike lost members to abandonment or bad weather while wandering across the porous border into Mexico.

In his journals, Pike kept careful account of what he encountered, gathering information about local governments and geography. On their way to Chihuahua, Pike notes on March 27 that he “saw the Gazettes of Mexico, which gave rumors of colonel Burr’s conspiracies, the movement of our troops. . . stated in so vague and undefined a manner, as only to create our anxiety without throwing any light on the subject” (Pike, Journals, 240). He later notes on April 24 that he was reprimanded for discussing “subjects of religion or politics” but that he was held as a guest “under coercion of the Spanish government” and not as a prisoner of war. Pike then writes that he patriotically declared to Spanish authorities (over dinner with them): “To my government I am certainly responsible, and to no other” (246).

Because he was so dedicated to his government, Pike ended his 1810 account of his expedition by offering one final conclusion about US-Mexico relations:

Should an army of Americans ever march into the country, and be guided and governed there by these maxims, they will only have to march from province to province in triumph, and be hailed by the united voices of grateful millions as their deliverers and saviors” (Pike, Expedition, 806). As Vice President Dick Cheney put it two centuries later, “we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” This is how the US framed the frontier at the beginning of the nineteenth century: as a foreign nation in need of democracy and order.

Spanish colonial officers were suspicious of Pike’s discussions of politics with the locals because they feared that the US, which had separated from the English crown, would inspire Mexico to separate from the Spanish crown, as independence became increasingly popular in the region. Coupled with vague rumors that rogue US politicians planned to conquer sections of North America for themselves, the Spanish authorities had good reason to be suspicious. In 1810, independence movements spiraled into nationalist protests and a bloody war, forcing Spain to grant Mexican independence in 1821. Years later, the US would follow Pike’s advice and invade Texas and northern Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846. Unlike Pike predicted, though, the US military was not greeted as liberators.

Meanwhile, Aaron Burr and his compatriots were punished for trying to instigate exactly what Pike recommended. Jefferson’s exertion of control over who could, and who could not, conquer parts of New Spain demonstrates his role in creating the concept of the “American frontier” as a strategic borderland, rather than a raw, untamed wilderness.

New Western historian Patricia Nelson Limerick notes that the “opening of the Mexican borderlands to American colonists and merchants made the region into what it remains today: a true frontier, in the European sense, in which two nations confront each other and compete for control” (228). She goes on to detail Burr’s plot, alongside General James Wilkinson, to colonize parts of the continent and create a new nation using the available resources, admitting that when “Zebulon Pike set out to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas River in 1806, he might have been acting as Wilkinson’s agent” (229).

Intelligence about the borders of New Spain, then, became part of the ideological basis for the American frontier. The distance between Arkansas and Chihuahua was labeled the frontier because it was a borderland rather than a boundary, like the no-man’s land between trenches on the Western Front in World War One. Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” says more about how Americans viewed themselves in the 1890s than in the 1810s. The frontier was framed as contested territory. By the time Turner delivered his thesis, there was no longer a contest in federal or popular imagination.

But the frontier was also about quantification. First, the US had to map, measure, and count everything available in the frontier space, to determine where the gold, silver, copper, fur, timber, coal, and indigenous communities could be found, and where they could be removed to. Knowledge of the land preceded the frontier, rather than the other way around. This is the way American contradiction manifests in the frontier thesis: Americans wanted to discover land that had already been discovered, to be given access to the land they were told to imagine. A blank map could not be tolerated. It had to be filled out.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Legacy of Conquest. W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Pike, Zebulon. The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Harper, 1895.

Pike, Zebulon. The Southwestern Journals of Zebulon Pike, Ed. Stephen Hart & Archer Hulbert. University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” In The Early Writings of Frederick Jackson Turner, Ed. Everett E. Edwards, University of Wisconsin Press, 1938.

Photo Gallery

Pike drew up this map (left) of New Spain from his time spent as a captive in Mexico before he was released and taken back into Louisiana

– Below: By Clive Siegle Inset: True West Archives –

– All images by Clive Siegle unless otherwise noted –

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Candy Moulton is a frequent contributor to the Renegade Roads column in True West Magazine. For 17 years, she edited the Western Writers of America’s Roundup Magazine in 2012, she became WWA’s executive director. The Wyoming native leading the organization has written 13 Western history books (including the Spur-winning biography Chief Joseph), co-edited a short fiction collection and written and produced several documentary films (including the Spur-winning Oregon Trails documentary In Pursuit of a Dream).


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