The interpreter Vasquez and Private Patrick Smith were detailed to stay with the horses in a small wooden stockade, while Pike set out with the others to find the Red River on January 14, 1807, through a howling blizzard in Wet Mountain Valley. Nine of the 14 men soon suffered from frostbitten feet, including Pike’s best hunters. Pressing on, wading through sometimes waist deep snow, Pike left three men behind who could not continue. Crossing the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Pike found the area of present day Great Sand Dunes National Monument and the headwaters of the Rio Grande, which he mistakenly thought was the Red River. A small stockade was built near modern-day Alamosa, Colorado.
Dr. Robinson begged leave to contact the Spanish officials in Santa Fe, as he had a document which gave him authority to collect a debt there for a merchant in Kaskaskia, Illinois. Pike gave his permission, and Robinson hiked overland to reach his objective, telling Spanish Governor Alencaster on his arrival that he had recently left a party of hunters. Suspicious, Alencaster reported the incident to his superiors and sent out patrols in the hope of apprehending some of the doctor’s companions.
In the meantime, Pike sent back two relief parties to bring up the horses and his three scattered men with frostbite. Only one of these men returned, the others, too sick to move, actually sending bits of gangrenous toe bones to Pike in a macabre appeal not to be abandoned. On February 26, 1807, a troop of Spanish soldiers rode up to Pike’s stockade and informed him that he was in Spanish territory. “I immediately ordered my flag to be taken down and rolled up,” Pike wrote. The Spanish patrol rounded up the frostbitten stragglers, escorting the entire party to Santa Fe. Pike’s papers were confiscated and he was sent south to Chihuahua. Neither Pike nor his men were mistreated; the majority were returned to U.S. territory at Natchitoches, Louisiana on June 30, 1807. Dr. Robinson claimed asylum in Mexico, but was not allowed to stay. Five of the men were held by the Spanish for two years, and one, Sergeant William Meek, after killing Private Theodore Miller in a drunken scuffle, was imprisoned until 1821. The Spanish governor was reprimanded by his king for releasing Pike before receiving an apology from the U.S. Government for trespassing. Zebulon Pike was suspected of having a role in the “Burr Conspiracy” upon his return to the United States; although untrue, this tainted his career for some time. Pike was not received with a glowing welcome by President Jefferson, who considered him a competent military man but not an explorer/scientist on the level of Lewis and Clark. Neither Pike nor his men received extra pay or grants of land for their service.
Pike’s chance for personal glory came when war was declared on Great Britain in 1812. While leading a successful attack on York, the capital of Upper Canada (today’s Toronto) on April 27, 1813, now-Brigadier General Pike was fatally wounded by flying debris when a powder magazine exploded. Throughout an amazing life, this stubborn and persistent man performed extraordinary feats on behalf of his country, but luck was never with him. Unlike his rivals, Lewis and Clark, he is little remembered today; save for the use of his name on a mountain he never climbed.