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A Prisoner of Good Fortune Image Credit: True West
A Prisoner of Good Fortune Image Credit: True West

A Prisoner Of Good Fortune

Zebulon Pike used Spanish incarceration to the U.S. advantage.

Mark Boardman

Lieutenant Zebulon Pike had little time to rest. Around the first of June 1806, he and his expedition returned to St. Louis from a trip to map the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It was a natural follow-up to the Lewis and Clark voyage that was in the process of returning to civilization.

But Gen. James Wilkinson, the governor of the Louisiana Territory, saw a new opportunity—exploration of the southwest part of that region. And he wasn’t willing to wait, so Pike and his men (who he once called a “Dam’d set of Rascals”) headed back out on July 15.

Wilkinson’s instructions were explicit: make contact with various Indian tribes. Arrest any unlicensed traders. Map the areas and collect scientific and geologic information. And avoid the Spanish, whose territory bordered the new U.S. acquisition.

What Pike didn’t know was that Wilkinson was a Spanish spy—and he fully expected the expedition to be arrested at some point. He hoped that Pike and company would get information that would benefit the U.S. in general and Wilkinson in particular; the man’s ambitions lay much higher than his current territorial position.

The first part of the trip was smooth. Accompanied by 23 men (including Gen. Wilkinson’s son, who reported back to his father), the group went through present day Kansas, Arkansas and then Colorado. It was there in late November that Pike and three of his men attempted to climb one


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