Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike

Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike

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by Jared Orsi

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It was November 1806. The explorers had gone without food for one day, then two. Their leader, not yet thirty, drove on, determined to ascend the great mountain. Waist deep in snow, he reluctantly turned back. But Zebulon Pike had not been defeated. His name remained on the unclimbed peak-and new adventures lay ahead of him and his republic.

In Citizen Explorer,


It was November 1806. The explorers had gone without food for one day, then two. Their leader, not yet thirty, drove on, determined to ascend the great mountain. Waist deep in snow, he reluctantly turned back. But Zebulon Pike had not been defeated. His name remained on the unclimbed peak-and new adventures lay ahead of him and his republic.

In Citizen Explorer, historian Jared Orsi provides the first modern biography of this soldier and explorer, who rivaled contemporaries Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Born in 1779, Pike joined the army and served in frontier posts in the Ohio River valley before embarking on a series of astonishing expeditions. He sought the headwaters of the Mississippi and later the sources of the Arkansas and Red Rivers, which led him to Pike's Peak and capture by Spanish forces. Along the way, he met Aaron Burr and General James Wilkinson; Auguste and Pierre Couteau, patriarchs of St. Louis's most powerful fur-trading family, who sought to make themselves indispensible to Jefferson's administration; as well as British fur-traders, Native Americans, and officers of the Spanish empire, all of whom resisted the expansion of the United States. Through Pike's life, Orsi examines how American nationalism thinned as it stretched west, from the Jeffersonian idealism on the Atlantic to a practical, materialist sensibility on the frontier. Surveying and gathering data, Pike sought to incorporate these distant territories into the republic, to overlay the west with the American map grid; yet he became increasingly dependent for survival on people who had no attachment to the nation he served. He eventually died in that service, in a victorious battle in the War of 1812.

Written from an environmental perspective, rich in cultural and political context, Citizen Explorer is a state-of-the-art biography of a remarkable man.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Orsi, an assistant professor of history at Colorado State University and author of a book about urban ecology in Los Angeles (Hazardous Metropolis), turns his hand to a study of an explorer whose name is attached to a well-known peak in the Rockies but who is otherwise forgotten. Orsi paints Zeb Pike as an exemplary member of a family seeking independence, stretching from ancestor John Pike, who came to the New World in 1635, to James Shepherd Pike, who gained prominence as an author and journalist from the 1840s onward. Orsi focuses on Pike’s journeys up the Mississippi River and west along the Arkansas River in the years 1805–1807, which resulted in his eventual captivity in New Spain. In Orsi’s treatment, Pike comes across as a stalwart but somewhat inept figure, and his quick rise to brigadier general and heroic death in the war of 1812 figure prominently in the narrative. Strangely, Orsi (Hazardous Metropolis) introduces “energetics” as an explanation of some of Pike’s actions, going so far as to imply that this modern concept was a direct motivation for Pike—as when he writes that Pike visited native tribes “to ensure that the nation’s energy system would subsume the natives’.” Elsewhere, he repeatedly squashes rumors and accusations of Pike’s collusion with or duping by either his superior, James Wilkinson, or Aaron Burr, in vague plots involving the Spanish colonies. Orsi ventures off the beaten track of Pike’s life but this is a useful update of an underappreciated explorer. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
2015 Colorado Book Awards Finalist

"In bringing the tools of environmental history to bear on themes that have long engaged scholars of the early republic, Orsi gives us a fresh take on Pike's life and the spaces he explored. ... [Citizen Explorer is] a boundary-crossing model worth emulating." —Western Historical Quarterly

"As Orsi demonstrates in this nifty environmental biography, the true state of Pike and his nation was in flux....Orsi's environmental biography invites further contemplations, large scale and small."—Jon T. Coleman, Environmental History

"This interesting and well-researched book fills the information gap concerning Pike. ... In Citizen Explorer Jared Orsi, an associate professor of history at Colorado State University, finally presents the complex and almost-quixotic life of Pike. ... In his impressive collection of primary and secondary sources, Orsi was able to discover the hidden life of a simple soldier who rose to the role of brigadier general." —Journal of American History

"With thorough research and clear prose, Jared Orsi insightfully recovers the dramatic life and violent death of a military hero and western explorer of the early republic. In an unstable age of competing regions, Zebulon Pike pioneered a national style of manhood which flourished in, and gave shape to, the American West." —Alan Taylor, author of The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832

"Shifting his lens between grand politics and the nitty-gritty of early American life, Jared Orsi gives us a wonderfully real Zebulon Pike, grounded in the material realities that determined personal and social choices in the evolving West. He presents us with Pike as a man of his times, caught by the promises of a nation that couldn't yet deliver on them." —Anne F. Hyde, author of Empires, Nations, and Families, A New History of the American West, 1800-1860

Library Journal
Orsi (history, Colorado State Univ.) considers the pioneering Western explorations of Zebulon Montgomery Pike. While incorporating the theme of his essay of last year in Matthew L. Harris and Jay H. Buckley's edited collection, Zebulon Pike, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, claiming Pike as the spearhead of the U.S. government's eventual control over Western ecosystems, here it is but a thread in a wider study of Pike. His 1806 mapping and information gathering was critical to U.S. Western expansion into the lands gained in the Louisiana Purchase of 1804 as well as those in the Spanish Southwest. Pike's expedition westward was forever stained in history by former vice president Aaron Burr's attempt to use the trip as part of a plan to create a Western independent nation after his fall from grace following his fatal 1804 duel with Alexander Hamilton. All of this deep and complex political intrigue is well handled by Orsi; lighter historic points, such as Pike bringing two grizzly bear cubs back for President Thomas Jefferson, help to keep reader interest. Writing in an engaging and accessible style, Orsi provides a balanced defense of Pike's personal honor within the context of an early American political scandal that overshadowed the significance of his explorations. VERDICT Highly recommended to academic and general readers of history and westward expansion biographies.—Nathan Bender, Albany Cty. P.L., Laramie, WY

Product Details

Oxford University Press
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11.40(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.50(d)

Meet the Author

Jared Orsi is Associate Professor of History at Colorado State University. He is the author of the prizing-winning Hazardous Metropolis: Flooding and Urban Ecology in Los Angeles.

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Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very good book and it dose not need much esplanation about what is happing in the boo no need for bad reviws but the book dose hsve it moments