History of American Exploration from 1805 to 1822

About the history of American exploration from 1805 to 1822 including explorations of John Colter and Charles Waterton.


1806-1807 Wilkinson sent Pike to the Southwest to look for the headwaters of the Red River. On Nov. 15, one of Pike's men sighted a "blue cloud," which turned out to be the peak later named for Pike and which gave rise to the pioneers' motto of the 1850s, "Pike's Peak or Bust." On the difficult journey to the river Pike claimed was the Red (it was actually the upper Rio Grande), men froze and horses collapsed from fatigue and hunger. Spanish soldiers appeared to tell Pike he was on the wrong river, and Pike, "feeling low," ordered the American flag taken down. The group was arrested and taken to Santa Fe, where Pike's papers, except those he had safely hidden in gun barrels, were confiscated. Pike and his men were eventually released. Though he brought back valuable new information about the Southwest, his description of the central plains as "incapable of cultivation" and likely to become "as celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa" gave rise to the myth of the Great American Desert, which slowed settlement of that area for some time.

1807-1808 With a handgun and a 30-lb. pack, mountain man John Colter (1774?-1813), the first European to see the Teton Mountains, traveled alone in a 500-mi. loop from Lisa's Fort through unknown wilderness to discover the seething geysers and bubbling mudholes of "Colter's Hell," now Yellowstone National Park. Later he was captured by Blackfoot Indians, who stripped him, then raced him over sharp stones and prickly pear to bring him down. He outran all but one Indian, whom he killed, then kept running to the Madison River, where he hid under driftwood until the Indians gave up searching for him. He walked 200 mi., naked and with bloody feet, to Lisa's Fort. It took him 11 days.

1811-1812 Guided by Crow Indians, Wilson Price Hunt (1782?-1842), on a harrowing expedition for fur trader John Jacob Astor, took 60 men along what became the western part of the Oregon Trail. At one point they ate moccasins to keep from starving.

1812 Charles Waterton explored British Guiana (now Guyana), where he had been managing three family plantations since 1804, in a four-month, 1,000-mi. journey, guided by a Macosi Indian. His purpose was partly to investigate the manufacture and effects of "wourali" (curare), which he thought might be a curse for rabies.

1812-1813 Robert Stuart, a partner in John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company, discovered the South Pass, a 20-mi. gap wide enough for the passage of wagons, in the Wind River Mountains, as well as the section of the Oregon Trail between St. Louis and eastern Idaho.

1817-1818 On his third South American journey (the second, in 1816, was relatively uneventful), Charles Waterton spent nearly a year in British Guiana. He added to his collection of tropical birds and snakes, investigated the strange habits of the sloth, and studied anteaters. His most famous exploit--capturing a 10 1/2-ft, -long caiman (alligator) by leaping on its back--occurred during this expedition. It was "the first and last time I was ever on a cayman's back," he later wrote.

1822 The first wagon train west was led by Missourian William Becknell (1790?-1832?) from Dodge City to Santa Fe, then on to California, over what became known as the Santa Fe Trail. During the journey, mules dropped from thirst and men drank the animals' blood to stay alive.

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