Zebulon Pike

Zebulon Pike

Zebulon Pike, the son of an army officer, was born in Lamington, New Jersey, on 5th January, 1779. He joined the army and served under Anthony Wayne.

On 9th August, 1805, Lieutenant Pike left St. Louis with a group of twenty men in order to discover the headwaters of the Mississippi. The following month he negotiated with the Sioux in order to gain permission to build a stockade near the mouth of the Swan River. Pike reached Cass Lake in February, 1806. Deciding it was the source of the Mississippi he returned home reaching St. Louis on 30th April, 1806.

Later that year General James Wilkinson ordered Lieutenant Pike to determine the extent of the Louisiana Territory in the south west. He left St. Louis on 15th July, 1806. Travelling along the Arkansas River with a party of 15 men he followed the route of what was later to become known as the Santa Fe Trail. He also attempted to climb the mountain that was later named Pikes Peak. He also discovered the Royal Gorge (4th December) and the upper waters of the South Platte (13th December).

In January, 1807, Pike reached the upper Rio Grande. The following month he was captured by a 100-man Spanish force. He was held in captivity until being forced to leave Spanish territory in April, 1807.

As a result of his expedition Pike was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. A book about his travels, An Account of Expedition to the Sources of the Mississippi was published in 1810.

Brigadier General Pike led his forces to victory at York, Ontario, but was killed on 27th March, 1813, after a British power magazine exploded, causing a rock to strike him in the back. Zebulon Pike was buried at Sackett's Harbour.

15th November, 1806: Saturday. Marched early. Passed two deep creeks and many high points of the rocks; also, large herds of buffalo. At two o'clock in the afternoon I thought I could distinguish a mountain to our right, which appeared like a small blue cloud; viewed it with the spy glass, and was still more confirmed in my conjecture, yet only communicated it to doctor Robinson, who was in front with me, but in halt an hour, they appeared in full view before us. When our small party arrived on the hill they with one accord gave three cheers to the Mexican mountains. Their appearance can easily be imagined by those who have crossed the Alleghany; but their sides were whiter as if covered with snow, or a white stone. Those were a spur of the grand western chain of mountains, which divide the waters of the Pacific from those of the Atlantic oceans, and it divided the waters which empty into the bay of the Holy Spirit, from those of the Mississippi; as the Alleghany does, those which discharge themselves into the latter river and the Atlantic. They appear to present a natural boundary between the province of Louisiana arid New Mexico and would be a defined and natural boundary. Before evening we discovered a fork on the south side bearing S. 25° W. and as the Spanish troops appear to have borne up it, we encamped on its banks, about one mile from its confluence, that we might make further discoveries on the morrow. Killed three buffalo.

27th November, 1806: Thursday. Arose hungry, dry, and extremely sore, from the inequality of the rocks, on which we had lain all night, but were amply compensated for toil by the sublimity of the prospects below. The unbounded prairie was overhung with clouds, which appeared like the ocean in a storm; wave piled on wave and foaming, whilst the sky was perfectly clear where we were. Commenced our march up the mountain, and in about one hour arrived at the summit of this chain: here we found the snow middle deep; no sign of beast or bird inhabiting this region. The thermometer which stood at 9° above 0 at the foot of the mountain, here fell to 4° below 0. The summit of the Grand Peak, which was entirely bare of vegetation and covered with snow, now appeared at the distance of 15 or 16 miles from us, and as high again as what we had ascended, and would have taken a whole day's march to have arrived at its base, when I believed no human being could have ascended to its pinical. This with the condition of my soldiers who had only light overalls on, and no stockings, and every way ill provided to endure the inclemency of the region; the bad prospect of killing any thing to subsist on, with the further detention of two or three days, which it must occasion, determined us to return.

Proceeding westwardly across the meridian above specified (ninety-fifth), the hilly country gradually subsides, giving place to a region of vast extent, spreading towards the north and south, and presenting an undulating surface, with nothing to limit the view or variegate the prospect, but here and there a hill, knob, or insulated tract of tableland. At length the Rocky Mountains break upon the view, towering abruptly from the plains, and mingling their snow-capped summits with the clouds.

On approaching the mountains, no other change is observable in the general aspect of the country, except that the isolated knobs and tablelands above alluded to become more frequent and more distinctly marked, the bluffs by which the vallies of watercourses are bounded present a greater abundance of rocks, stones lie in greater profusion upon the surface, and the soil becomes more sandy and sterile. If, to the characteristics above intimated, we add that of an almost complete destitution of woodland (for not more than one thousandth part of the section can be said to possess a timber-growth) we shall have a pretty correct idea of the general aspect of the whole country.


Zebulon Pike's Mysterious Western Expeditions

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    The soldier and explorer Zebulon Pike is remembered for two expeditions he led to explore territory acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.

    It is often assumed he climbed Pike's Peak, the Colorado mountain named for him. He did not reach the peak's summit, though he did explore in its vicinity on one of his expeditions.

    In some ways, Pike's western voyages are second only to Lewis and Clark. Yet his efforts have always been overshadowed by nagging questions about the motivations for his journeys. What was he trying to accomplish by trekking around in the previously unexplored West?

    Was he a spy? Did he have secret orders to provoke a war with Spain? Was he simply an adventurous Army officer seeking adventure while filling in the map? Or was he actually intent on trying to expand the limits of his nation's boundaries?


    Zebulon Pike’s Life on the Mississippi

    The Old St. Louis County Courthouse, part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial at Gateway Arch National Park, began operations on the site in 1816 and served as a city, county and federal courthouse until 1877.
    – Courtesy NPS.gov –

    If William Clark and Meriwether Lewis are the Yankees and Dodgers of American West explorers, then Zebulon Montgomery Pike has to be the St. Louis Cardinals.

    I can’t believe I just wrote that. I hate the Yankees, and I rarely root for the post-Brooklyn Dodgers or the Cardinals, though it’s hard to find a better baseball town than St. Louis (Kansas City still has better barbecue).

    Zeb Pike seemed an unlikely choice to lead an expedition up America’s best-known river (or have a Colorado mountain named after him). Born in Lamberton, New Jersey, in 1779, Zeb came from a sickly family. Four of his siblings died young three others contracted tuberculosis. Zeb’s soldier father moved the family west after the Revolutionary War to Pennsylvania and Ohio, where Zeb joined the Army at age 15. General James Wilkinson took a liking to the boy, promoting Zeb to lieutenant, then summoning him to St. Louis to send him up the Mississippi.

    Twenty-six-year-old 1st Lt. Zebulon Pike was stationed at Fort Belle Fontaine near St. Louis in 1805 when Upper Louisiana Territorial Governor Gen. James Wilkinson charged him with the command of a survey
    party to locate the source of the Mississippi River. Pike’s company
    left the fort in August 9, 1805, and returned on April 20, 1806.
    – Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, S-NPG_80_15, Smithsonian Institution –

    Our river trip begins in St. Louis, too, with history stops at Jefferson Barracks Park, Gateway Arch National Park and, of course, Fort Belle Fontaine. On August 9, 1805, Zeb and 20 others left the new fort, the first U.S. military installation west of the Mississippi River (now a county park). Zeb didn’t know it at the time, but when they launched that 70-foot keelboat, he was also launching his way to fame.

    Wilkinson’s reasons for ordering the mission are unclear. Zeb’s orders were basically to find the river’s source, make notes of distances and geography, investigate the fur trade, find possible sites for military bases, make peace with Indian tribes and collect plant and animal specimens. But Wilkinson didn’t have a sterling reputation. Historian W.E. Hollon called Wilkinson “Vain, bombastic, and incompetent” and “a master of petty treason with a gift of scandal.” If Wilkinson played baseball, he would have been a Houston Astro.

    Visitors to Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis, Missouri, should include a tour of the new Museum of Westward Expansion, which includes a history of the founding of St. Louis in 1764 by French fur traders Pierre Laclède and Auguste Chouteau.
    – Courtesy Gateway Arch Park Foundation –

    My major-league baseball comparison doesn’t quite work, but not because the game wasn’t around in 1805. Major league? This appears to be Class A ball. No one thought to assign a doctor to this corps. Or an interpreter to make those Indian negotiations productive. Zeb did have a device to determine latitude, along with a watch and thermometer—all the scientific instruments one needs for such an endeavor. He brought along some hunting dogs and, better yet, whiskey. Best guess is that the government spent roughly $2,000 to equip Zeb’s crew, just a tad less than the Kansas City Royals’ annual payroll.

    Zeb’s men had to drag that keelboat over sandbars on their way north. And Zeb was not the patient type. Near present-day Muscatine, Iowa, after losing two of his hunting dogs, Zeb left behind the dogs—and the two soldiers who volunteered to look for them. Helped by a Scottish trader and an Indian, the men caught up with Zeb near Dubuque, Iowa. The dogs remained AWOL.

    While much of Zeb’s trip is overlooked today, Old West history flows along both shores of the river.

    Years after Zebulon Pike’s Mississippi adventures, Samuel Clemens of Hannibal, Missouri, worked as a riverboat pilot, which is commemorated by this statue in the fabled Missouri city.
    –Mark Twain Statue Photo by Johnny D. Boggs/Mark Twain Photo Courtesy Library of Congress –

    There’s Hannibal, Missouri, (Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, Hannibal History Museum), because who can travel the Mississippi without thinking about Samuel Clemens? There’s Nauvoo, Illinois, (several Latter-day Saints sites), once called the “Kingdom of Pike.” There’s Fort Madison, Iowa, home of Old Fort Madison, established in 1808 to protect the new Louisiana Territory.

    There’s LeClaire, Iowa, where Zeb’s boys camped April 24, and where a historical marker commemorates pre-Buffalo Bill William F. Cody’s birth in 1845. The farmhouse Cody’s father built in 1847 has been restored near Princeton, and, to keep our baseball theme going, the Field of Dreams movie site is a tad inland near Dyersville.

    Two miles south of McGregor, Iowa, Pikes Peak State Park brings us back to our subject. Pike found this spot at the mouth of the Wisconsin River in September 1805. Iowa’s Pikes Peak, by the way, is a 500-foot bluff—call it 1,112 feet in elevation, a tad under Colorado’s 14,114-feet summit. Pike recommended the location as a possible military site, but the Army picked nearby Prairie du Chiene, Wisconsin, where the Fort Crawford Museum honors the two forts operating here from 1816 to 1856.

    When Zeb reached present-day Minneapolis-St. Paul (Fort Snelling State Park, Minnesota History Center), he noted that the hills, valleys and trees were “sometimes interrupted by a wide extended plain.” With snow falling in October, Zeb’s party stopped near Little Falls, Minnesota (Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum) to build a winter stockade. Sleds and legs took the party north to Brainerd (Crow Wing County Museum) and Grand Rapids (Judy Garland Museum) and finally, on February 1, Zeb discovered the Mississippi’s source at what is now Cass Lake.

    When driving north on the River Road in Iowa, take time to tour historic LeClaire, Iowa, Buffalo Bill Cody’s hometown. Before Zeb Pike’s survey party arrived at their campsite on the future townsite’s shores in April 1805, they would have encountered 14 miles of dangerous rapids, shallow waters and shifting sandbars beginning at the confluence
    of the Rock and Mississippi rivers near the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa.
    – Stuart Rosebrook –

    Only…the Mississippi’s source is 25 miles west at Lake Itasca. Well, it’s not like Zeb was good at finding where rivers begin.

    “Where do the Mississippi and Red River begin? That’s what Zebulon Pike was ordered to find out in 1805 and 1806,” Western Writers Hall of Fame member Will Bagley says. “He got close but didn’t find either. He did find the sources of the South Platte, built a fort on the Rio Grande and discovered Grand—now Pikes—Peak…before he disappeared into the shadow of his fellow adventurers Lewis and Clark.”

    The boys began their return home on April 8, arriving three weeks later, after covering more than 2,000 miles in 264 days.

    A hike out to Point Ann Overlook at Pikes Peak State Park, just south of McGregor, Iowa, provides grand views of the Mississippi River Valley and the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. The park and the park’s high point were named in honor of 1st Lt. Zebulon Pike and his survey party, which surveyed the area in September 1805.
    – Courtesy TravelIowa –

    “Although his mission was mostly successful, he failed in locating the exact beginning of the Mississippi,” says James A. Crutchfield, another historian in the Western Writers Hall of Fame. “He did, however, obtain from the natives a large tract of land surrounding the Falls of St. Anthony, which eventually became the site of the massive Fort Snelling, and later the cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul.”

    The Minnesota History Center is a museum and research center in St. Paul, part of the 100,000 acres Dakota Indians ceded to the United States through Zebulon Pike’s negotiations. The U.S. paid $2,000, although Pike had valued the land at $200,000.
    – Johnny D. Boggs –

    Zeb “would be little remembered today as an explorer if he were judged solely by the Mississippi expedition in 1805-6,” Hollon wrote in a 1949 article for The Wisconsin Magazine of History. But Zeb’s life on the Mississippi helped him in the end.

    Says Crutchfield: “The leadership, wilderness and negotiating skills that Pike developed on this nearly nine-month-long journey well prepared him for his second foray into the Western wilderness—to the frontier of New Mexico and beyond—the mission for which he will always be remembered and which ensured his legacy as one of the foremost of American explorers.”

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    Zebulon Pike to Santa Fe

    In 1806 William Morrison, a Kaskaskia, Illinois merchant, sent United States Army Lieutenant Zebulon Pike to explore the Arkansas and Red Rivers. Pike’s mission was to evaluate the possibilities of trade with New Mexico.

    Leaving from Belle Fontaine, Missouri Zebulon Pike, with 75 men, was now on his way. For reasons uncertain Pike established a fort on what he claimed to be the Red River. In reality, the fort was constructed near the banks of the Rio Grande on Spanish soil. Pike then proceeded to fly the Stars and Stripes over his fortification. Understandably, the Spanish didn’t consider this arrangement a good idea. They illustrated their displeasure with a force of 100 New Mexican dragoons and militia that rode down on this invading fort and its occupants.

    This fine show of Spanish military force made an excellent escort for Pike and his men who were conducted into Santa Fe to pay their respects to Governor Joaquin del Real Alencaster. After their introduction to Alencaster Pike and his men were given a grand Spanish tour, which included a 600-mile voyage to Chihuahua, Mexico to meet General Nemesio Salcedo, Commandant General of all Spanish forces in Northern Mexico.

    On the way to Chihuahua a stop was made in Albuquerque where Pike and his men were wined and dined by priest. Continuing on with this involuntary vacation, in El Paso the most lovely of Spanish ladies entertained them at a ball. And so it went until reaching Chihuahua and General Salcedo who courteously relieved Pike of the burden of transporting home all his official papers. Fortunately, Pike did manage to conceal the pages of one of his journals in the barrels of some guns. In those papers Pike wrote the most encouraging descriptions of New Mexico, its landscape, and its people. So promising were Pike’s published words concerning the forbidden Spanish province that it served to inflame the seemingly endless American appetite for exploration, trade, and the possibility of a new source of gold, Spanish gold.

    Such incursions as Pike had made into Spanish held territory were forbidden by its government. They preferred to keep her imperial borders closed to foreigners, and especially to any foreign trade. Spain also did not want any revolutionary ideas seeping in from outside her borders. She held a tight monopoly on colonial trade and intended to keep it that way. All trade in New Spain was conducted deep within Mexico, resulting in manufactured goods being costly as well as scarce.

    As Pike observed, New Spain was virtually sealed off from the outside world. The people had almost no knowledge of young America that was to soon be knocking at their doors. The news Pike and his men brought home of the wealth in Spanish gold to be had to the southwest fired the imaginations of Americans. One other factor surely stimulated the ambitions of Americans towards the Santa Fe trade New Spain told the Americans they could not enter her borders. That, alone, could have been enough to entice Americans to invade New Spain.

    But by 1821 Mexico had broken free of Spanish rule. As an independent nation Mexico welcomed American traders. Soon could be seen long caravans of wagons and pack mules crossing the Great Plains, in the future state of Kansas, to the Great Bend of the Arkansas River. Following this waterway the traders entered the part of Kansas that would become Colorado as they wound their way over the rocky summit of Raton Pass. It was a long and dangerous journey but at last they would reach their destination. And so, the Santa Fe Trail was born.


    Why is it called Pikes Peak? The history behind the name

    COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- Every year locals and tourists flock to Pikes Peak to enjoy the mountain air and climb (or drive) up one of the more difficult 14ers in Colorado. But do you know the full story behind why it's called Pikes Peak?

    It's believed that Pikes Peak is named after 19th-century explorer Zebulon Montgomery Pike, however, he wasn't the first one to name the mountain.

    He might've been the first white American explorer in the area to document his journey, but long before he ever set foot on the mountain, the Ute People called it Tavakiev or "Sun Mountain."

    "When Zebulon Pike actually came here, he didn't necessarily note it as 'Pike's Peak' -- he called it The Highest Peak or Grand Peak," said Brett Lobello, Director of Regional History and Genealogy for the Pikes Peak Library District. "Folks ended up calling it 'Pike's Grandest Peak', and that's where the possessive came from."

    According to Lobello, Pike never actually referred to the mountain as his own. In his writings and maps, the reference to his name was only used because he was the one observing the mountain. He never meant to claim Pikes Peak as his own.

    "Pikes Peak never was Pike's specific peak, it was always just a qualifier for the highest peak," said Lobello, "His purpose wasn't to come here and necessarily claim land for himself or the people that were with him to settle it, it was to figure out and track how you could get through these mountains."

    Pike never actually climbed to the top of Pikes Peak. James Edmund is known as the first white explorer to succeed, and the name "James Peak" began to gain traction soon after.

    The Gold Rush changed it all.

    By the 1850s, the mountain began to be known as "Pike's Highest Point" or "Pike's Grand Peak." According to PBS, the slogan "Pikes Peak or Bust" became well known after gold was discovered in Colorado.

    When looking at Zebulon Pike's maps, people would refer to it as "Pike's Grandest Peak", and the name we know now came soon after.

    However, during that time period, the printing press was difficult to use and required each individual letter to be placed by hand. Out of convenience, newspapers, and topographers shortened the name to simply "Pike's Peak."

    "Everybody knew about Pikes Peak, it was almost this mythical place that represented all of the Rocky Mountains," Lobello said.

    But there was still the apostrophe back then. Towards the end of the 1800s was when the name as we knew it came into existence.

    In 1890, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) was founded to establish and maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the Federal Government.

    According to the board's 'Principles, Policies, and Procedures,' apostrophes would not be applied when referring to a specific geographic name.

    Under genitive apostrophes, the guidebook states:

    "Apostrophes suggesting possession or association are discouraged within the body of a proper geographic name (Henrys Fork: not Henry’s Fork). The word or words that form a geographic name change their connotative function and together become a single denotative unit. They change from words having specific dictionary meaning to fixed labels used to refer to geographic entities. The need to imply possession or association no longer exists."

    Going forward, names like "James' town" and "Richard's son's creek" were no longer used, rather those places were called "Jamestown" and "Richardsons Creek".

    According to Lobello, the decision by the BGN wasn't implemented overnight. For a brief time after 1890, people and companies would use Pikes Peak and Pike's Peak interchangeably before the former became well known.

    "There was a gap time of about 10 to 15 years when you still had . advertisements and the newspapers [use] the apostrophe s," said Lobello. "It took a little bit of time before it became common use."

    During that time, the Pikes Peak Cog Railway came into existence. Having started in 1891, it's no surprise on the side of some of the trains, the name "Manitou and Pike's Peak Railway Company" remains with the inclusion of the apostrophe.

    While the name of Pikes Peak might have more to do with The Gold Rush and the printing press, other mountain names in Colorado have a more controversial past.

    Mount Evans is named after then-territorial governor John Evans, who, according to The Smithsonian Magazine, called on citizens to “kill and destroy" Native People in what's now referred to as the Sand Creek Massacre.

    The petition proposes to rename Mt. Evans as Mt. Blue Sky, saying the Arapaho were known as the Blue Sky People and the Cheyenne have an annual ceremony of renewal of life called Blue Sky.

    This wasn't the first time people have supported a name change. According to 9News, in 2018 a Denver Public Schools teacher started a petition asking to change the name to honor the Native People.

    "It’s time to discontinue using Evans’ name because we do not honor mass killing of human life for any reason," wrote the Denver American Indian Commission. "Colorado’s interest in promoting inclusivity is stronger than any prior interest in honoring a man who is known for politically targeting Tribes (Utes, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota) with messages of hate and fear, of which directly resulted in a massacre of over 160 people, including mostly women and children."

    While no decision has ever been officially made, Governor Polis established the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board in July 2020. Its purpose is to "evaluate proposals concerning name changes, new names, and name controversies of geographic features and certain public places in the State of Colorado and then making official recommendations to the Governor."

    From Tavakiev to The Highest Point to James Peak, Pikes Peak has undergone several changes, and the final decision of the name goes deeper than a grammatical decision. A name born out of convenience and notoriety has kept Zebulon Pike's memory alive in southern Colorado for centuries.


    Legends of America

    Drawing of Zebulon M. Pike, the early 1800s

    “Nothing that Zebulon Montgomery Pike ever tried to do was easy, and most of his luck was bad.” Thus Donald Jackson began his forward to the annotated edition of Pike’s journals and letters in 1966. A pathfinder who got lost, Pike could have been as revered as Lewis and Clark, but instead remains an indistinct historical figure.

    Born in New Jersey in 1779, Pike joined the U.S. Army at the age of 20, following in the footsteps of his father, also named Zebulon, who was a veteran of the American Revolution. Lieutenant Pike’s early duties along the Ohio frontier consisted of service as a regimental paymaster. Pike lamented his lack of formal education, carrying books into the wilderness and reading voluminously. A slim, blue-eyed, pompous young man with an odd habit of tilting his head to one side, Pike was highly ambitious and efficient.

    Pike soon became the protégé of James Wilkinson, the commanding general of the U.S. Army. Wilkinson, one of history’s worst scoundrels, was also secretly a double agent for Spain. In the summer of 1805, Wilkinson gave Pike the difficult assignment of conducting a reconnaissance of the upper Mississippi River. While Lewis and Clark were at the headwaters of the Missouri River far to the West, Pike left St. Louis, Missouri with orders to explore the Mississippi, purchase sites from American Indians for future military posts, and bring a few important chiefs back to St. Louis for talks. He took a force of 20 men on a 70-foot keelboat up the Mississippi River, departing from Fort Bellefontaine on August 9, 1805. Pike and his men explored the river into modern-day Minnesota, traveling to Cass Lake, which they identified (incorrectly) as the river’s source. The expedition returned to St. Louis on April 30, 1806. Pike was only modestly successful in his relations with the Indians but brought back important geographical information about a little known portion of the new Louisiana Territory.

    Pawnee Camp in Nebraska by John Carbutt, 1866.

    Pike’s second expedition, 1806-1807, was designed to accomplish several goals, including providing an escort for some Osage Indian travelers from St. Louis back to their villages negotiating a peace between the Kanza and Pawnee tribes, and attempting to make contact with the Comanche people on the high plains. Pike was also to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas River, then to proceed south, locate the source of the Red River, and descend it to the Mississippi. Most importantly, Pike was to ascertain what the Spanish were doing along the poorly defined southwestern border of the Louisiana Purchase. Pike brought along nearly all the soldiers from his Mississippi River expedition, men he called a “Dam’d set of Rascals,” but who, nonetheless, retained the confidence of their commander. General Wilkinson’s son, Lieutenant James Biddle Wilkinson, was to go part of the way and lead a small detachment back to St. Louis via the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. Pike’s expedition was launched by General James Wilkinson without the authorization of President Thomas Jefferson or the War Department, although it was approved retroactively. Tensions with Spain were high, and many Americans expected a war.

    Wilkinson, who was Governor of Louisiana during this period, was ordered to engage in intelligence operations against Spain, using army officers disguised as traders if necessary. What Wilkinson was really up to, however, has remained a mystery. It appears that, in collaboration with Aaron Burr, he was planning a coup in the West. It has never been determined whether this was a traitorous movement designed to separate the western territories from the Union, or a plot to conquer Spanish territory without officially involving the United States Government. At any rate, Pike’s expedition to the Spanish borderlands would serve the needs, both official and unofficial, of James Wilkinson. Pike almost certainly knew nothing of the Wilkinson/Burr intrigues but was aware that his service as a spy for his country was important. A letter between Pike and Wilkinson, written on July 22, 1806, leaves little doubt that Pike was to scout as close as possible to Santa Fe, New Mexico, allowing for the possibility that he might be captured by Spanish authorities. If discovered, he would use the cover story that he had become lost while en route to Natchitoches, Louisiana.

    Zebulon Pike set out on July 15, 1806, with an assortment of 18 enlisted men from the First Infantry Regiment his second-in-command, Lieutenant Wilkinson a volunteer physician, Dr. John H. Robinson and Baronet Vasquez, an interpreter from St. Louis. The group made their way across Missouri, returning the Osage people to their villages (in the area of today’s Lake of the Ozarks), and moving out diagonally across Kansas. Pike talked a band of Pawnee into hauling down the Spanish flag which flew above their village, and replacing it with the Stars and Stripes, despite the fact that a troop of Spanish cavalry 300 strong had recently visited.

    Upon reaching the Arkansas River, Lieutenant Wilkinson left the party with five men, returning successfully to St. Louis despite three desertions. Pike and the 15 others started up the Arkansas River on October 28th, following the trail of a troop of Spanish cavalry. On November 11th, Pike made a bold decision despite the fact that his party did not have the clothing, equipment, or supplies for a winter expedition, they would press on.

    Proceeding nearly due west, they reached the site of modern-day Pueblo, Colorado on November 23rd. Fascinated with a blue peak in the Rocky Mountains to the west, Pike set out to explore it with two soldiers and Dr. Robinson, leaving the bulk of the men at a base camp. Pike spent several days trying to reach the peak (which would later bear his name), but the lack of winter clothing and food eventually drove him back to the base camp. Zebulon Pike never set foot on Pike’s Peak.

    National Old Spanish Trail in Colorado

    The Arkansas River split in the mountains, and, Pike noted since the “geography of the country had turned out to be so different from our expectation we were somewhat at a loss which course to pursue unless we attempted to cross the sno cap’d mountains…” Pike decided to follow the trail of the Spanish cavalry and head up the north fork of the Arkansas River, called Four-Mile Creek. This branch soon dwindled, as did the Spanish trail, so Pike turned overland due northward, discovering a river on December 12th which he correctly determined was the south fork of the South Platte. Crossing over a mountain pass, he came to another river which he thought was the Red. In reality, the expedition was back on the Arkansas River, 70 miles upstream from where they had left it two weeks earlier. Snow began to deepen, and Pike was disappointed that he could not reach the source of the river. The men spent Christmas eating buffalo meat near the modern-day city of Salida, Colorado. They worked their way down the river, the ice solid enough to support their horses, the huge vertical walls of the Royal Gorge towering above them on both sides. They were soon frustrated to find that they had traveled in a big circle. In order to reach the Red River, the mountains would have to be crossed on foot.

    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 that gave him authority to collect 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.

    Summit of Pikes Peak, Colorado

    Compiled & edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated February 2020.


    Zebulon Pike

    Zebulon Pike, a brigadier general during the War of 1812, died on April 27, 1813. He was only 34 years old. Pike died young but he managed to fit quite a bit into his life including two trips into the mostly unmapped West.

    Pike was born in 1779 and joined the army when he was only 15 years old. His father, a captain within the army, moved the family to his new post at Fort Washington in Ohio where Pike first met James Wilkinson. Wilkinson became the commanding General of the U.S. Army in 1796 with Pike as one of his subordinates who was desperately seeking fame. Under Wilkinson, Pike rose quickly through the ranks and became a first lieutenant by 1800. Pike was a highly ambitious man and inspired loyalty among those under his command through his willingness to share in hardship and work.

    Fortunately for Pike’s ambitions, the United States acquired the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 which opened up the west for exploration and expansion. Wilkinson sent Pike to find the source of the Mississippi River which was of minor scientific interest to the nation. The second ulterior motive of Pike’s mission was to gather information about the fur trade in the region of the northern tributaries of the Mississippi and to bring the British fur traders under control of the United States. This second part, while advantageous to the nation, was far more beneficial to Wilkinson who had deals with a variety of people and nations to help line his own pockets. This expedition began in August 1805 and finally returned to St. Louis in April 1806. During this trip, Pike incorrectly named Lake Leech as the source of the Mississippi River.

    Almost immediately upon his return to St. Louis, Wilkinson told Pike he intended to send him out once again, this time to the southwest. His orders were to return 51 Osage prisoners of war, negotiate peace between the Osage and Kansas Indians, establish friendly relations with the Pawnee and Comanche, and survey the Arkansas and Red Rivers. The expedition departed in July 1806. Again, Pike had ulterior motives as ordered by Wilkinson. Pike planned to gather information about the Spanish and because the borders were largely undefined between the United States and Spanish territory, Pike could go across the border and then claim to be lost.

    During the expedition, Pike laid eyes on a “small blue cloud” of a mountain peak in what would later be named Colorado. Pike and three men attempted to climb what they called Grand Peak but miscalculated the actual size and failed to actually reach the top. This peak would later become known as Pikes Peak although he never succeeded in summiting it. Pike’s group also camped near what would soon be Cañon City at the Royal Gorge in early December. Following the river through the gorge, and believing he’d found the source of the Arkansas, Pike accidentally led his men in a circle, ending up back near Cañon City in early January. Even if Pike wasn’t lost when the Spanish arrested his expedition for illegal entry in Spanish territory in February 1807, he was certainly lost while wandering the Royal Gorge.

    Pike was released by the Spanish in July 1807 but his return didn’t bring him the glory he sought. Pike was able to resume his career but was followed by the cloud of disrepute from his expedition. He was killed in the Battle of York and his vow that the nation would hear of either his fame or death was fulfilled.

    The information presented in this article is compiled using research conducted by the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center.


    Pike Island

    Pike Island is central to Dakota history. It is located at the bdote (convergence) of the Mississippi and the Minnesota Rivers and is, therefore, a very sacred place. For some Dakota people, Pike Island is considered the starting point, the very spot of genesis for Dakota people.

    Pike Island is also the site of the beginning of the theft of Dakota lands. The name it is known by today refers to Zebulon Pike, who came here in 1805. Meeting with a few Dakota people here, he purchased 100,000 acres of land on which to build a fort (now known as Fort Snelling), an area that now includes much of the Twin Cities. Many aspects of the treaty have remained controversial since the day it was signed, including how much the U.S. would pay for the land, when it would pay, what the boundaries of the land were, and even whether the treaty is official.

    Most Dakota people have strong feelings about traditional Dakota sites in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. And many Dakota who have been cut off from their own history are regaining knowledge about their culture. Among all Dakota people, Pike Island is one of the most important spots in history.


    Zebulon Pike

    Lewis and Clark’s expedition was followed by an expedition led by Zebulon M. Pike in 1806. This expedition was General James Wilkinson’s idea. Wilkinson was a newly appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory. He sent Pike on an expedition towards Spanish territory, possibly to provoke a war or to spy.

    The Spanish in the New Mexico territory became very frightened about American plans when Jefferson sent out the Lewis and Clark expedition because Spain still claimed parts of the Louisiana Territory.
    When they learned of Pike’s expedition, they sent out troops under the command of Don Facundo de Melgares to intercept Pike and turn him back. Melgares attempted to swing north and intercept Pike at a Pawnee village near present-day Guide Rock, Nebraska. They were unable to find Pike, who had been delayed, but they did reinforce their friendship with the Pawnee.

    Pike arrived at the Pawnee camp after Melgares had left. Pike discovered a lot of evidence of Spanish trade and influence most notably the Spanish flag flying over the Pawnee village. Pike was a highly patriotic man, some said too patriotic. It bothered him to see foreign flags waving above soil he thought belonged to his country. Consequently, Pike convinced the Pawnee to replace the Spanish flag with an American flag and cautioned them that the Spanish would no longer be allowed to enter the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. As far as Pike was concerned, he had dissolved the Spanish claims.

    Pike then prepared to travel west from the Pawnee village with his men. However, the chief of the Pawnee informed Pike he could not — the chief had been instructed by the Spanish commander to prevent Pike from continuing his westward journey. The story of what happened was told by the chief himself to an Indian agent a few years later, and the agent recorded the following account in his journal:

    The stage was set for a major confrontation and the suspense was almost unbearable. But the good sense and humanity of the chief prevailed. He ordered his warriors to put down their weapons and allow Pike to continue his journey.

    Pike entered present-day Colorado, Spanish territory, and stopped off long enough to try and climb, unsuccessfully, the mountain peak later named for him. On February 26, 1807, he was arrested by the Spanish, taken to Santa Fe, and eventually released.

    Pike kept a record of his experiences and his journal was published in 1810. One of his more interesting comments concerned his thoughts on the Great Plains geography. He agreed with the idea of the "Great American Desert" which some say slowed the movement of people onto the Great Plains. He wrote in his journal, published in 1810, that,

    An Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi and through the Western Parts of Louisiana to the Sources of the Arkansaw, Kans, La Platte, and Pierre Jaun, Rivers by Major Z. M. Pike, 1807. (From the last page of this document)

    Pike also wrote in his journal that Spanish leadership in Santa Fe was weak and that it was quite possible to develop a profitable trade with Mexico. His comments stirred businessmen and politicians to consider expanding into Texas.

    So if his comments about the "sandy deserts" slowed westward movement, it did not delay it for long. People were excited by the possibilities for trade with the Indians and the Spanish. Pike’s published reports contributed to the opening of the Santa Fe Trail, an increase in trade with the plains and mountain tribes, an increased use of waterways such as the Platte, and a general quickening of the westward expansion. Pike was killed in the War of 1812.


    The Expansionist Era (1805-1858)

    In 1805 the United States Army ordered Lieutenant Zebulon Pike to explore the Mississippi River and select sites for potential military posts. When he arrived at the junction of the Mississippi and St. Peters (present-day Minnesota) rivers, Pike made an agreement with several Dakota representatives to acquire land on which he promised a US fort and government "factory" (trading post) would be built. Pike drew up a document with three articles. The first granted the US land for military posts at the mouth of the St. Croix River and at Bdote, up the Mississippi River to St. Anthony Falls. Of the seven Dakota leaders present, only two signed the document.

    There were several problems with the agreement. The president of the United States had not authorized Pike’s expedition, and therefore the army lieutenant had no legal authority to negotiate a treaty with any Native Americans. The US Senate did not discuss the agreement until 1808. The Senate unilaterally set the amount of land granted by the treaty at over 51,000 acres at the St. Croix River and over 100,000 at Bdote, extending north up the Mississippi. Once the acreage was determined, the Senate set payment for the land at $2,000, though Pike had estimated its value at $200,000. No Dakota were present to agree to these terms. After the Senate ratified the treaty, President Thomas Jefferson did not proclaim it, which was standard procedure at the time. For these reasons, the “treaty” that set the legal groundwork for the construction of Fort Snelling was invalid. Even so, the US government continued to act as though it was a legally binding document.

    The first troops arrived in 1819 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Leavenworth and began construction on the stone fort the following year. Colonel Josiah Snelling arrived in 1820 to supervise construction, and by 1825 the fort was completed. Initially called Fort St. Anthony, the post was renamed "Fort Snelling" by the US War Department in honor of Snelling’s efforts.

    Bdote, which was important as a spiritual place and a meeting ground for Dakota people, was also the perfect strategic location for the US to fulfill its colonial aims. Fort Snelling was intended to dissuade the British from any further incursions into the Northwest and to stamp out British influence in the booming fur trade. The US intended to exploit the region’s resources for economic gain. Rather than protecting immigrants, the soldiers at Fort Snelling were tasked with keeping unauthorized people off Dakota and Ojibwe land so the fur trade could continue—until the land could be acquired through treaties. Finally, the United States sought to mediate the complex relationship between the sometimes clashing Dakota and Ojibwe. Peace between the two peoples would mean an uninterrupted flow of furs and tax revenue for the US government. The Dakota were far more powerful than the small garrison at Fort Snelling, but construction of the fort marked a seminal moment in the invasion of Dakota lands.

    Fort Snelling remained in service for nearly 40 years, until 1858 when Minnesota became the 32nd state. By then the US government had established forts further west and Fort Snelling was no longer considered necessary, so the post was officially closed later that same year. The fort and its military reservation was purchased from the government by Franklin Steele, a local entrepreneur and former Fort Snelling sutler, who intended to plot and sell off lots for a new city named "Fort Snelling." During this time, the post was turned into pasture and Steele's sheep were frequently seen grazing on the fort's old parade ground.


    Watch the video: Sound Bite Concert Series - Zebulon Pike 2012