A Revolutionary War travelogue
November 8, 2012
It’s fun to see how the other 99 percent live. Of course I’m talking about those living below us in altitude.
Like Manitou Springs, for instance. Manitou is a tight-knit community of 500 artists and 4,500 rich folks who buy art. The town is located between Garden of the Gods and Pike’s Peak, sacred territory for centuries of Native Americans, relaxing in the mineral springs and sipping the effervescent waters that bubble from the ground. The land is still sacred today, judging from real estate prices.
Pike’s Peak owes its discovery to James Wilkinson, the highest-ranking spy to ever infiltrate the American Military. George Washington himself appointed James Wilkinson to the position of Commanding General of the U.S. Army. History later proved Wilkinson to be a traitor, a fraud and a liar, but also a superb self-promoter with a secret second life as a paid agent of the Spanish government, working to prevent American expansion into the territory beyond the Mississippi River. Unknowingly, in 1805, President Thomas Jefferson promoted him to the dual role of Commanding General of the U.S. Army and the first territorial governor of the Louisiana Territory.
His power was second only to Jefferson’s and he used it trying to have Kentucky secede from the fledgling union and swear allegiance to Spain. Later he conspired with Vice President Aaron Burr to use the military might under his command to split the western half of North America into two nations. Neither succeeded but secret documents, decoded two decades after Wilkinson’s death, detailed negotiations with the Spanish governor of Louisiana requesting pension payments and land grants for his undercover work for Spain.
In 1776, Wilkinson was military aide to Colonel Benedict Arnold during America’s ill-considered invasion of Canada. Superior British forces at Quebec City drove Arnold back across the border and the northern attack was written off as a bad idea. Arnold defected to the British, failing in his infamous attempt to surrender the fort of West Point, New York, to the British.
Wilkinson landed on his feet and was later appointed as aide to General Horatio Gates who won the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point of the American Revolution. Because this was simply eons before Twitter, Wilkinson was dispatched to inform Congress of Gates’ success. Along the way, Wilkinson turned himself into the hero of the battle. A mesmerized Congress hung on his every word and Wilkinson walked out with a commission as Brigadier General. Sixty years later, President Theodore Roosevelt said this about Wilkinson’s deeds, “In all our history, there is no more despicable character.”
Trying to provoke a border incident with Spanish-controlled Mexico, Wilkinson sent Captain Zebulon Pike exploring deep into the Mexican territory of southern Colorado with a mere 20 men, woefully inadequate provisions and very little food. Ultimately confused and lost, after nearly freezing to death in October of 1806 halfway up Pike’s Peak, Pike and his men bivouacked for the winter at the foot of the mountain. There they were arrested by Mexican soldiers and taken to Chihuahua for questioning. Mexico was simmering with its own struggle for independence from Spain at the time, and wanted nothing to do with Pike or America. Pike and his men were escorted north and dumped back on American soil.
Wilkinson himself died in Mexico in 1825 while seeking money and a Texas land grant for his work on their behalf.
Struggling to survive, Zebulon Pike missed the beauty and the effervescent waters of Manitou Springs but you don’t have to. It’s a perfect getaway, less than two days’ ride on horseback from Grand County.