June 21, 2014

Pages 1177-1180
Whole Number 63

JOHN SPARKS (born ca. 1776), SOLDIER AND EXPLORER WITH ZEBULON PIKE



Elden G. Burcham of 2020 West E Street, North Platte, Nebraska, has contributed some very interesting notes on a John Sparks who enlisted in the U.S. Army on Sep 5, 1804, for five years, and accompanied Zebulon Pike on his two famous exploring expeditions.

Mr. Burcham has gathered these notes on John Sparks from the two-volume Journals of Zebulon Montgomery Pike with Letters and Related Documents, edited and annotated by Donald Jackson (Norman, Okia., University of Oklahoma Press, 1966). Very little is known about this John Sparks. When he was a witness at a trial on Nov 19, 1807, he stated that he was thirty-one years old (thus born ca. 1776), that he was a native of Virginia, that he was unmarried, and a Presbyterian. (Vol. 2, p. 219) On the "Muster Poll of Pike’s Men" (Vol. 2, p. 232) dated June 30, 1807, John Sparks was listed as a private, having enlisted on Sep 5, 1804, for five years. His term of service ended in 1809, but at that time he was being held as a captive by the Spanish in Chihushua, Mexico. He was released later that year, and, although on one record was listed as having deserted, he had actually reenlisted in Captain Mathew Arbuckles’ company on December 13, 1809 (Vol. 2, p. 368). In Jan, 1807, Lieutenant Pike had noted in his journal that Sparks’s feet had been frozen and feared he would be crippled f or life, but apparently he recovered.

We have no further information on John Sparks, nor was Donald Jackson, who edited the Pike journals, able to learn what eventually became of him. Nevertheless, we know this about John Sparks - - he participated in two memorable expeditions in the opening of the West.  

Zebulon Montgomery Pike, an officer in the United States Army, was selected in 1805 to trace the upper course of the Mississippi River. He set out from St. Louis on August 9, 1805, with twenty men, one of whom was John Sparks, whose major function was that of a hunter. Captain Pike and his men reached what is now Little Falls, Minnesota, where they built a fort and continued their explorations. They returned to St. Louis in April 1806.

General James Wilkinson then sent Pike on a second expedition to explore the headwaters of the Red River and the Arkansas River, and to scout the Spanish settlements in New Mexico. John Sparks was again a member of the party. It was during this expedition in 1806 that the party discovered Pike’s Peak in what is now Colorado. Winter overtook Pike and his men and the party was arrested by the Spanish authorities. Pike himself was soon released, but some of his men, including Sparks, were held captive until 1809.

Following are the notes on John Sparks extracted by Elden G. Burcham from the two volume Journals of Zebulon Montgomery Pike with Letters and Related Documents, edited and annotated by Donald Jackson (Norman, Oklahoma., University of Oklahoma Press, 1966).

Page 6, Footnote 1.(Donald Jackson here gives a list of the men who comprised Pike’s party.) Sergeant Henry Kennerman; Corporals Samuel Bradley and William E. Meek; and Privates John Boley, Peter Brandson, Jeremiah Jackson, Hugh Menaugh, Theodore Miller, John Mountjoy, David Owens, Alexander Roy, Patrick Smith, John Sparks, Freegift Stout, and David Whelpley.

Page 31. 14th Septr. Saturday [1805.] Mr. Frazer, Bradley, Sparks and myself went out a hunting; crossed in the first instance, a dry, Flat Prairie.

Page 51. 24th Oct Thursday [1805] The snow having fell one or two inches the over night, I sent out one hunter, (Sparks) and went out myself - - my other hunter (Bradley), being sick. Each of us killed two Deer, one Goose and one Pheasant.

Page 51. 25th Oct Friday [1805] Sent out men with Spark’s, to bring in his game. Him and two of the men did not get in. We supposed them to be lost in the Hemlock Swamps, with which the Country abounds. But every thing afforded matter for the coward (of whom I believe my Interpreter to have been one) as he insisted they were killed by the Sauteaux. Made arrangements for my departure.

Page 53. 1st Nov Friday [1805] All turned out to hunt. None killed anything but Sparks one Doe.

Page 56. 6th Nov Wednesday [1805] After Miller left the camp on our way home Sparks killed two Deer, about six miles off; and it being near the River I sent the three boys down with the Canoe,

Page 57. 8th Nov Friday [1805] They were much grieved to hear my report of my other Boys, (Viz) Corporal Bradley, Sparks and Miller.

Page 58. 11th Nov Monday [1805] I went out a hunting, and saw but two Deer; and killed a remarkable large black Fox. Bradley and Miller arrived, having understood the writing on the snow, and left Sparks behind at the Camp to take care of the meat. Their detention was owing to their not being able to find their Deer; and being lost on the Prairie the first night.

Page 64. 2nd December Monday [1805] Sparks arrived from the party below, and informed me they could not kill any game, but had started up with the little perogue. Also that Mr. Dickson and a Frenchman, - - - - -

Page 100. 4th March Tuesday [1806] We passed on opposite to our Encampment, on the 13 Dec, and encamped at the place where Sparks and some men had an old hunting camp; and where the Fresiè (a Chipeway chief) surrounded them.

Page 247. No. 17, Pike to Henry Kennerman. Instruction delivered to sergeant Henry Kennerman, at Pine creek rapids, Oct 1, 1805.

 - - - - - Your guards to consist of one non-commissioned officer and three privates, yourself mounting in regular rotation, making one centinel by day and by night; and, until your position is inclosed by pickets, every man is to be employed on that object; after which Sparks is to be employed in hunting; but this will by no means excuse him from his tour of guard at night when in the stockade; but he must be relieved during the day by another man.

Journal of the Western Expedition

Page 291, Note 1. 15th July, 1806, Tuesday. The party consisted of Lieutenants Pike and Wilkinson, Dr. Robinson, Interpreter Baronet Vasquez, Sergeant Joseph Ballinger, Corporals Jeremiah R. Jackson and William E. Meek, and these privates: John Boley, Samuel Bradley, John Brown, Jacob Carter, Thomas Daugherty, William Gordon, Solomon Huddleston, Henry Smith, John Sparks, Freegift Stout, and John Wilson.

Page 298. 2d August, Saturday [1806] The loading being spread out to dry. Dr. Robinson, myself, Bradley, Sparks, and Brown went out to hunt. We killed four deer; the Indians two.

Page 301. 9th August, Saturday [806] Sparks went out to hunt, and did not arrive at our encampment, nor did the Indians.

Page 301. 10th August, Sunday [1806] Passed the Indians, who were encamped on the west shore, about half a mile, and halted for them. They all forded the river but Sans Oreille, who brought his wife up to the boats, and informed me that Sparks had encamped with them, but left them early to return in search of us. We proceeded after breakfast. Sparks arrived just at the moment we were embarking.

Page 302. Footnote 31. [Jackson, the editor, here explains:] Pike’s waiter or personal servant, Private Thomas Daugherty. His waiter on the first expedition, David Whelpley, was not a member of this party. Pike never identifies Daugherty as his waiter, but in his journal entry for 20 January 1807, two men are frostbitten and one is his waiter. The men are Sparks and Daugherty. Earlier, in an entry for Oct 18, 1806, Pike mentions his waiter under circumstances which rule out Sparks. Furthermore, Sparks is several times identified as a hunter; the two roles could never be combined.

Page 303. 13th August, Wednesday [1806] It continued to rain. In the morning sent a boat over for Sparks’s gun and deer.

Page 332. 8th Oct, Wednesday [1806] I conceived it best to send Baroney back to the village with a present, to be offered for our horse, the chief having suggested the propriety of the measure; he met his son and the horse with Sparks.

Page 335. 14th Oct, Tuesday [1806] Sparks did not come up, being scarcely able to walk with rheumatic pains.

Page 354. 4th Dec, Thursday [1806] Marched about five; took up Sparks who had succeeded in killing a cow. Killed two buffalo and six turkies.

Page 361. 24th Dec, Wednesday [1806] Sent our horses for the meat, shortly after Sparks arrived and informed us he had killed four cows. Thus from being in a starving condition we had 8 beeves in our camp. We now again found ourselves all assembled together on Christmas Eve, and appeared generally to be content, although all the refreshment we had to celebrate that day with, was buffalo meat, without salt, or any other thing whatever.

Page 370. 20th Jan, Tuesday [1807] On examining the feet of those who were frozen we found it impossible for two of them to proceed, and two others only without loads by the help of a stick. One of the former was my waiter, a promising young lad of twenty whose feet were so badly frozen as to present every probability of loosing them.

Page 370. 22d Jan, Thursday [1807] I furnished the two poor lads who were to remain with ammunition and made use of every argument in my power to encourage them to have fortitude to resist their fate; and gave them assurance of my sending relief as soon as possible. We parted, but not without tears. We pursued our march, taking merely sufficient provisions for one meal in order to leave as much as possible for the two poor fellows, who remained (who were John Sparks and Thomas Dougherty.)

Page 381. 17th February, Tuesday [1807] In the morning, our two Spanish visitors departed, after I had made them some trifling presents, with which they seemed highly delighted. After their departure, we commenced working at our little work, as I thought it probable the governor might dispute my right to descend the Red river, and send out Indians, or some light party to attack us; I therefore determined to be as much prepared to receive them as possible. This evening the corporal and three of the men arrived, who had been sent back to the camp of the frozen lads. They informed me that two men would arrive the next day; one of which was Menaugh, who had been left alone on the 27th Jan, but that the other two, Dougherty and Sparks, were unable to come. They said that they had hailed them with tears of joy, and were in despair when they again left them, with the chance of never seeing them more. They sent on to me some of the bones taken out of their feet, and conjured me by all that was sacred, not to leave them to perish far from the civilized world. Ah! little did they know my heart, if they could suspect me of conduct so ungenerous. Not before they should be left, I would for months have carried the end of a litter, in order to secure them, the happiness of once more seeing their native homes; and being received in the bosom of a grateful country.

Thus the poor lads are to be invalids for life, made infirm at the commencement of manhood and in the prime of their course, doomed to pass the remainder of their days in misery and want; for what is the pension? not sufficient to buy a man his victuals! what man would even lose the smallest of his joints for such a trifling pittance.

[Note: This is the last entry in Pike’s diary that refers to John Sparks. As we noted on p. 1177, it is known that Sparks was kept in captivity by the Spanish in Chihushua, Mexico, until 1809 when he reinlisted in the U.S. Army, in Captain Mathew Arbuckles’ company.]

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