Zebulon Pike

The career of Zebulon Pike (1779-1813), American soldier and explorer, was dominated by ambiguously motivated explorations of the American West. During one of these he unsuccessfully tried to climb the Colorado mountain named for him, Pike's Peak.

Zebulon Pike was the son of a U.S. Army major of the same name. Zebulon was born on Jan. 5, 1779, in Lamberton (now Trenton), N.J. He entered his father's company as a cadet and was commissioned a first lieutenant when he was 20 years old. He served on the frontier with the Army but made no particular mark until Gen. James Wilkinson chose him to lead an expedition to find the source of the Mississippi River.

Pike left St. Louis, Mo., on Aug. 9, 1805, in a keelboat. He got 100 miles above the Falls of St. Anthony in Minnesota before winter closed in on his 20-man party. He took a few men onward, hauling supplies on sleds, and decided that Lake Leech was the source of the mighty Mississippi. He was wrong; Lake Itasca is the actual source. Wilkinson may not have cared where the true source lay. There were rumors that Wilkinson was using Pike to test British reaction to American invasion of the fur-trapping country. Even more likely was the story that the expedition was a dry run to test Pike for a venture closer to Wilkinson's heart.

Returning to St. Louis, Pike was sent out again on this pet expedition of the wily Wilkinson. Ostensibly, Pike was to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers and to "approximate" the settlements of New Mexico. Perhaps no one will ever know exactly what was in Wilkinson's mind, but the American general, who was a paid secret agent of Spain, was not above double-crossing the Spanish. If Pike had questions, he was too good and obedient an officer to balk at the orders of his general. He set out on April 30, 1806, mindful of Wilkinson's impossible admonition not to give alarm or offense to the Spaniards. He knew that relations between the United States and Spain on their common frontier had never been good, but especially so since the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1804-1806.

While Pike was making his preparations in St. Louis, Spanish spies in the United States were rushing word of the proposed march to Chihuahua, Mexico, where Don Nemesio Salcedo y Salcedo maintained his headquarters as commander in chief of the northern provinces of New Spain. The general ordered a force of cavalry under Lt. Don Facundo Melgares to move north out of Santa Fe, pick up Native American allies, and stop Pike.

Pike moved from the Pawnee Indian villages on the Republican River to the area of modern Pueblo, Col., and tried—unsuccessfully—to climb Pike's Peak. He then explored South Park and the head of the Arkansas River in the Rocky Mountains before turning southward in search of the source of the Red River, as ordered. Crossing the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Pike halted on the Conejos fork of the Rio Grande and built a fort of cottonwood logs. This was intended as a defense against Native Americans, not Spaniards, according to Pike. Melgares did not find Pike in the great open spaces of the High Plains, but another Spanish detachment did. They came up to Pike's stockade and invited him to visit Santa Fe with them. Pike told them that he thought he was on the Red River, not the Rio Grande, but accepted the "invitation" and went to Santa Fe; here Melgares took over, escorting him to Chihuahua.

If he was indeed a prisoner, Pike was treated very well by the Spaniards. However, they confiscated most of his papers. (He managed to conceal some notes in his men's rifle barrels.) Finally, after a year's absence, he was returned to the United States at Natchitoches, La., by a Spanish escort.

Pike's name was now linked with Wilkinson's, and the young explorer had to protest his innocence directly to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn. The latter absolved him of all complicity in any plot against Spaniards or anyone else. Though the information that Pike brought back on the western plains region and the Rocky Mountains was useful, it pales when contrasted with the rich and detailed journals of Lewis and Clark.

Resuming his military career, Pike became a major in 1808 and a colonel in 1812. After the outbreak of the War of 1812 he was promoted to brigadier general (1813) and took command of the troops attacking York (now Toronto), Canada. In the assault he personally led his men to victory. Rifle fire and shore batteries were keeping off the landing of the American troops at York when he personally took command, telling one of his aides: "By God, I can't stand here any longer. Come on, jump into my boat." He then led the assault on the heavily defended town. The British withdrew but they deliberately exploded their powder magazine. Forty of their own men were killed in the blast along with 52 Americans. Another 180 U.S. soldiers lay wounded, among them Gen. Zebulon Pike. He was in terrible pain from a piece of stone which had broken his spine. Moved to a boat and then to the flagship Madison, he lived long enough, in agony, to hear the cheers of his victorious men and to have a captured British flag placed under his head as a pillow. He died on April 27, 1813.

Pike's An Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi. … (1810), though clumsily put together for the press, managed to capture the imagination of a large segment of the American public which was curious about the West. Later editions proved to be more dependable and less chaotic. It is as difficult to judge Pike the writer as Pike the explorer, for he apparently was intent on putting things in the best light. Thus his account is not as honest a work as Lewis and Clark's journals. Still, Pike was a dedicated American soldier and a patriot.


Further Reading on Zebulon Pike

Pike's career has attracted the attention of many historians of the West, and there is no shortage of books and articles about his expeditions. The most scholarly biography is W. Eugene Hollon, The Lost Pathfinder: Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1949). Less scholarly is John Upton Terrell, Zebulon Pike (1968). An excellent edition of Pike's travel accounts is Donald Jackson, ed., The Journals of Zebulon M. Pike, with Letters and Related Documents (1966).