Pike's Expedition

views updated


Zebulon Pike (17791813) was born in Lamberton, New Jersey in January 1779. He followed his father, a U.S. Army major of the same name, into a military career. The younger Pike was commissioned first lieutenant in 1799. While he was serving on the western frontier in St. Louis, President Thomas Jefferson (18011809) completed the Louisiana Purchase with France. The acquisition added 828,000 square miles of land lying between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, northward to the source of the river. The United States needed to explore and assert legal claim to the newly gained lands as well as to establish friendly relations with the Native American tribes in the region. General James Wilkinson selected Pike to lead an exploratory expedition in search of the Mississippi River's source in the northern part of the Purchase area. (Wilkinson may have also intended to test British reactions to a U.S. military exploration venturing into traditional fur-trapping country.)

Pike assembled a 20-man party and departed northward from St. Louis in early August 1805. At this time, the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition had followed the Missouri River to its source and was crossing the northern Rocky Mountains en route to winter at the mouth of the Columbia River. When winter arrived, the Pike party had journeyed as far as 100 miles north of the Falls of St. Anthony in present-day Minnesota. Taking a smaller party and hauling supplies on sleds, Pike continued onward to Lake Leech, which he mistakenly proclaimed the source of the Mississippi River.

Upon the party's return to St. Louis, Pike received orders from Wilkinson for another venture. This time, Wilkinson requested that Pike explore the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers in the southwest corner of the Louisiana Purchase area and, curiously, to inconspicuously assess Spain's New Mexico settlements. Relations at the time between the United States and Spain were not good and, in the historical record, the purposes of Pike's orders were unclear, especially when it became known that Wilkinson was a secret agent for Spain.

Pike's expedition set out westward in April 1806, to the Arkansas River in modern central Colorado. Apparently, word of Pike's "secret" mission reached the Spanish headquarters for the northern provinces of New Spain in Chihuahua, Mexico. A Spanish military force was dispatched to intercept Pike. Meanwhile, Pike reached the present-day area of Pueblo, Colorado. En route in November 1806, he attempted to ascend a summit located in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains near modern Colorado Springs, what later became known as Pike's Peak. He had to turn back, however, as his party was not prepared for the snow and cold weather on the 14,110 foot peak.

After exploring the Arkansas River's headwaters in the Rocky Mountains, Pike then turned south, supposedly to find the Red River's source. However, he crossed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the Rio Grande River's Conejos fork, where he constructed a cottonwood log outpost. At that location a Spanish detachment finally found him. The Spaniards requested Pike and his men accompany them to Santa Fe. Pike, claiming he meant to be on the Red River, departed as requested, and wound up in Chihuahua as a prisoner charged with illegal entry into Spanish territory. A year later the Spaniards escorted Pike and his party back northward to the United States territory at Natchitoches, Louisiana, where he was released in July 1807.

After his return Pike was dispatched to the Secretary of War to answer for his actions and his relationship to Wilkinson. Wilkinson, along with Aaron Burr (17561836), was accused of plotting to illegally seize the Southwest from Spain. Absolved of wrongdoing, Pike resumed his military career. With the outbreak of the War of 1812 (18121814) Pike, who had a series of promotions after 1808, was promoted to brigadier general. In 1813 he lead U.S. troops in a successful attack against the British on York (now Toronto) in Canada. Pike was gravely wounded when a British powder magazine exploded, instantly killing over 90 soldiers from both sides and wounding 180. Pike sustained a broken spine and died a few hours later from wounds.

Pike's official expeditions report, Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi and through the Western Parts of Louisiana, provided the first description of the broad region lying between the Plains and the upper Rio Grande River region. Though his expeditions charted new expanses of the United Statesthe expeditions were some of the first sponsored by the U.S. governmentPike's journals were not of the same caliber of Lewis and Clark's. Regarding the headwaters of the Mississippi, Pike had misidentified the actual source (Lake Itasca), but he did learn much about the upper Mississippi region. Pike reported on the military weakness of Santa Fe, and he commented on the potential for lucrative overland trade with Mexico. The report fanned American curiosity about the expanding western frontier of the young nation and, in part, stimulated future U.S. expansion to Texas.

Topic Overview

(Pike) was completely lost among the great tossing peaks of the Colorado Rockies, some of the highest mountains on earth, lost in the middle of winter, half-starved, frozen, and admittedly "at a loss which course to pursue" . . . Going in a circular route, they passed through South Park, where a few years later the great rendezvous of the fur traders and mountain men would be held.

john upton terrell, zebulon pike; the life and times of an adventurer, 1968

See also: Lewis and Clark Expedition, Louisiana Purchase, Westward Expansion


Hollon, W. Eugene. The Lost Pathfinder: Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949.

Jackson, Donald Dean, ed. The Journals of Zebulon M. Pike, with Letters and Related Documents. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

Merk, Frederick. History of the Westward Movement. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Nobles, Gregory H. American Frontiers: Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest. New York: Hill and Wang, 1997.

Owsley, Frank L., Jr., and Gene A. Smith. Filibusters and Expansionists: Jeffersonian Manifest Destiny, 18001821. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1997.