Zebulon Pike, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

Zebulon Pike, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

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by Matthew L. Harris

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In life and in death, fame and glory eluded Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779–1813). The ambitious young military officer and explorer, best known for a mountain peak that he neither scaled nor named, was destined to live in the shadows of more famous contemporaries—explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. This collection of thought-provoking essays… See more details below


In life and in death, fame and glory eluded Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779–1813). The ambitious young military officer and explorer, best known for a mountain peak that he neither scaled nor named, was destined to live in the shadows of more famous contemporaries—explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. This collection of thought-provoking essays rescues Pike from his undeserved obscurity. It does so by providing a nuanced assessment of Pike and his actions within the larger context of American imperial ambition in the time of Jefferson.

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Zebulon Pike, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

By Matthew L. Harris, Jay H. Buckley


Copyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8844-7


Pike as a Forgotten and Misunderstood Explorer

Jay H. Buckley

Zebulon Montgomery Pike's legacy remains mired in limbo. He is best remembered for a Colorado mountain peak that he neither climbed nor named; few today know much if anything about his adventurous life or his important historical contributions. For two centuries, critics have maligned the hapless explorer (often unfairly) as a lost pathfinder, an American spy, or even a poor man's Lewis and Clark. Others have brusquely characterized Pike as a young, inexperienced, and uneducated soldier whose expeditions were ill timed and poorly planned, even though the funding and timing of those expeditions were not decisions he had control over. James Ronda has characterized Pike as "a young army officer cursed by galloping ambition, an inadequate education, and a misplaced loyalty to his commanding officer, General James Wilkinson." Donald Jackson sympathized: "Nothing that Pike ever tried to do was easy, and most of his luck was bad."

Although Lewis and Clark commanded a single epic journey that is well known, Pike's two similar ventures went largely unnoticed even though he published his map and journals well before the captains did. That America's collective memory of Pike's exploratory achievements and soldiering prowess continues to languish in historical obscurity is thus somewhat surprising. The bicentennial of Pike's expeditions was a mild affair compared to the celebratory tone that marked the bicentennial commemoration of the journey of his more famous contemporaries.

Pike deserves a fresh reappraisal. Although long overshadowed by Lewis and Clark and vilified for his alleged involvement in a shadowy conspiracy to wrest Louisiana Territory from U.S. control or to acquire the Spanish Borderlands, Pike can be seen, upon closer examination, to have been a patriotic and indefatigable explorer intent on advancing Thomas Jefferson's "empire of liberty" in the trans-Mississippi West. Contrary to popular belief, some of Pike's luck was pretty good. He was a dutiful son, a devoted husband, and a caring father. A capable army officer, Pike did not lose a man on either expedition, advanced to the military rank of general, published his observations, and died defending his country in the War of 1812. With little government support, he successfully conducted what he considered as three expeditions, survived harsh winter conditions in the frozen north and the Rocky Mountains, negotiated with half a dozen Indian nations, sparred with Spanish and British diplomats, and was a true American standard bearer. Pike's expeditions helped form the foundation of the political, commercial, diplomatic, and military circumstances that culminated in the United States' solidifying its northern border with Britain and securing the southern borderlands with New Spain. Despite the challenging circumstances he faced from Mother Nature, British and Spanish personnel, Indian nations, and his misunderstood association with James Wilkinson, Pike emerges from the forgotten memory of his country as a patriotic explorer filled with grit and determination and personally willing to sacrifice everything—including his life—to advance the cause of liberty.

Pike's father, also named Zebulon Pike, hailed from New Jersey and fought in General George Washington's army during the Revolutionary War. On April 17, 1775—two days before the shots heard round the world were fired at Lexington and Concord—the elder Pike married Isabella Brown of New York in New York City. As the war between the American colonists and the British soldiers and Indian allies commenced, Captain Pike achieved prominence for his courage in battle, and some Indians called him the "Great Brave." The Pikes' first daughter, Mary, died in infancy. Their second child, Zebulon Montgomery Pike, was born on January 5, 1779, in the port city of Lamberton (Trenton, New Jersey).

Not much is known of young Pike's early life. He spent his childhood near the Delaware River on the Pennsylvania frontier, where he received a rudimentary education. A lifelong learner, Pike loved books. He bought or borrowed them whenever he could and devoured them as occasion allowed. He also learned French and a smattering of Spanish. Standing 5 feet 8 inches tall, Pike compensated for his slim physique by developing physical stamina through regular rigorous exercise. He had striking blue eyes and habitually tilted his head to one side. The Pike family moved frequently, traveling from a succession of posts in western Pennsylvania until they reached the newly constructed Fort Washington (near present-day Cincinnati) in 1790. Intent on following in his father's footsteps, the teenage cadet joined the elder Pike's regiment, commanded by General Anthony Wayne, during Little Turtle's War.

Pike spent most of the mid to late 1790s at Fort Massac (in what is now Illinois), where he helped make repairs on the fort and once saved his father from drowning in the Ohio River. He studied math and French whenever he could find the time and continued to expand his knowledge through reading. On March 3, 1799, at the age of twenty, Pike accepted a second lieutenant's commission in the Second Infantry regiment and earned a promotion to first lieutenant in the First Infantry regiment before the year's end, on November 1, 1799. He won notice for his loyalty to superiors, his zeal for discipline, his marksmanship, and his reputation as a teetotaler. Fond of sports, he exhibited a strong, independent will and dignified confidence tinged with a little self-righteousness. Political persuasion mattered during this era, and Pike, a devout Federalist, apparently lent his support to the public whipping of a Republican newspaper editor at Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1799. As a young officer, he shaped up his men, served as regimental paymaster, and supervised supply distribution and transportation between frontier fortifications.

In addition to his military duties, Pike turned his attention to courtship. While traveling to the Ohio River forts, Pike often stopped at the Sugar Grove plantation, fifteen miles below Cincinnati. The object of his interest—a dark-haired beauty named Clarissa "Clara" Harlow Brown—cut a striking figure, but Clara's father, Captain John Brown of Boone County, Kentucky, was Pike's maternal uncle. Uncle John tried to discourage Pike from courting his cousin, because Brown desired more for his daughter Clara than the transient life of an army wife. Against Brown's wishes, in 1801 the cocksure twenty-two-year-old soldier and his spirited eighteen-year-old betrothed eloped to Cincinnati, where they married. Brown never forgave his nephew, now son-in-law, for his insolence and forbade him to visit the Brown estate ever again.

The army regularly transferred Pike, who went to Fort Knox (Vincennes, Indiana) in April 1802 and Kaskaskia (Illinois) in 1803. Clara missed her home, her family, and Cincinnati society. Her husband urged her to "cheer up and try to be lively and laugh," but the lonesome life her father had warned her about became a reality. The birth of a healthy daughter, Clarissa, on February 24, 1803, brought her only temporary solace.


Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and Hernando de Soto called the Mississippi the "Rio del Espiritu Santo." French explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette descended it only as far as the Arkansas River in 1673, but in 1682 Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle reached the delta and claimed all lands drained by it for France and named the region "Louisiana." France claimed the "right of discovery" to this central river except for a brief period between 1762 and 1800, when Spain exercised dominion. Reports and maps from American explorers such as Jonathan Carver whetted American desires to know more about the Mississippi, particularly after the 1783 treaty of Paris made it the western boundary of the United States and again in 1803 when the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon.

America's largest river, the Mississippi, extended 2,350 miles from northern Minnesota to its delta, but no one knew for certain where its elusive headwaters originated. After the Louisiana Purchase, Americans began to redirect their focus from Europe to North America's continental interior. Jefferson's desire for an agrarian republic required sufficient land to satisfy the demands of a growing population, and that expansion required national control over the continent's interior waterways and trade routes.

General James Wilkinson—one of the great scoundrels in American history—has received the fitting moniker of "the general who never won a battle and never lost a court-martial." Placed on the Spanish payroll as "Agent 13" as early as 1787, Wilkinson received a "retainer" or pension from them for more than two decades, even as he ascended the ranks in the U.S. Army to become the nation's highest-ranking military officer. As a secret agent, the American general offered officials in Madrid valuable intelligence in exchange for monetary or land compensation. Wilkinson's appointment as commanding general of the army in 1802 increased his interest in locating the source of the Mississippi. While stationed at New Orleans in 1803, the general accepted the transfer of Louisiana from France on behalf of the United States. With assistance from Vice President Aaron Burr, Wilkinson was reassigned to St. Louis, where he assumed his new duties as governor of Louisiana Territory in 1805.

Wilkinson, who had commanded Pike's father during the Indian wars of the Old Northwest, took an interest in his former subordinate's ambitious son, who was by then serving as district paymaster for the First Infantry Regiment at Fort Massac. During the summer of 1805, the general enlisted the twenty-six-year-old Lieutenant Pike's services to undertake a reconnaissance mission to ascend the Mississippi to its source. Wilkinson instructed his young protégé to survey the commercial prospects of fur and mineral resources, gather useful geographical and scientific information, and assert U.S. sovereignty along the upper Mississippi in conformity with the terms of John Jay's 1794 treaty with Great Britain. The assignment called for him to monitor British fur-trading activities, evict foreign interlopers, and lure Indians from the British to the American side. He directed Pike to select sites for future military and commercial establishments that would sustain America's imperial aspirations and to seek the approbation and permission of the Indians, whose leaders Pike was to invite to St. Louis to parlay with Wilkinson.

Pike quickly assembled his team of twenty enlisted men (Sergeant Henry Kennerman, two corporals, and seventeen privates) and was allowed two thousand dollars' worth of supplies from St. Louis and Fort Bellefontaine—the westernmost army outpost, located at the mouth of Coldwater Creek overlooking the Mississippi about fifteen miles north of St. Louis. Pike bade a fond farewell to Clara and their two-year-old daughter Clarissa. With four months of provisions aboard the seventy-foot keelboat, Pike departed on August 9, 1805.

As Pike hastily embarked on his arduous ascent up the Mississippi, he had cause for concern. The lateness of his departure ensured that he would have to confront snow and cold, but he failed to properly prepare for a winter expedition. In all likelihood, the haste stemmed from Wilkinson's desire for Pike to observe the British fur traders in the region during the winter trapping season. Pike did not have the benefit or assistance of an aide, a slave, a scientist, or an interpreter, nor did he benefit from the preparation, training, or funding afforded other Jeffersonian exploratory parties. Pike's scientific instruments consisted of a thermometer, a theodolite (for determining latitude), and a watch.

The keelboat made slow but steady progress up the river by sailing, poling, and pulling, sometimes making twenty miles a day. The river presented many dangers; shoals, submerged logs, sandbars, rock ledges, and rapids impeded their ascent. Supplying the men with enough calories to sustain their arduous labors depended on the hunting skills of expedition members, and Pike proved to be the best shot and did most of the hunting. On August 24, Pike and his two dogs went on shore to hunt, but the dogs grew tired and lay down to rest. When the animals did not come back to camp, two men volunteered to search for them. When neither duo returned, Pike's party spent several anxious days before a kind Frenchman known as Blondeau found the two men and reunited them with the party. The dogs never returned. In camp, Sergeant Kennerman attempted to help the men forget their fatiguing labor through listening to his fiddle playing.

A group of Sac (Sauk) Indians, including Black Hawk, came out to assist the expedition's ascent by helping haul the craft up the rapids near Rock River. A few weeks later, Pike surveyed the lead deposits at the Dubuque mines and pressed on through the Mississippi rapids through a howling gale. Just before arriving at Prairie du Chien, Pike noticed some five-hundred-foot-high bluffs with a commanding view of the river that he noted would be a good place for a fort.

Pike continued upstream and arrived at Prairie du Chien, the major fur trade entrepôt, at the junction of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, and his men engaged in an athletic contest with the Indians assembled there. Pike made two excellent decisions while at the French village. First, he exchanged his keelboat for two smaller watercraft better suited for plying the shrinking river. Second, he hired mixed-blood guide Pierre Rousseau and interpreter Joseph Renville to facilitate his interactions with the Dakota Sioux. Within the week, as he entered modern Minnesota, Pike put Rousseau's skills to work. Pike arrived at a Sioux village and met with Chief Wabasha. Some days later he had a council with Chief Hupahuduta ("Wing of the Wild Swan Dyed Red," namesake of Red Wing, Minnesota). A few weeks later, while camped on Pikes Island at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, Pike held a major council with Indian leaders. Using the sail to form an awning, Pike elicited a land deal with a collection of Sioux leaders on September 23 to procure 100,000 acres for a military site (future Fort Snelling, near present-day Minneapolis). After the treaty council, Pike distributed two hundred dollars' worth of presents.

The Falls of Saint Anthony—the major falls of the upper Mississippi—forced Pike's party to endure a laborious portage around the falls before proceeding on. Winter overtook the party several hundred miles above St. Anthony Falls, at the Little Falls of the Mississippi. Pike had pushed his men to the breaking point. The October cold, combined with wading in the frigid, freezing water to propel the boats, exhausted and numbed the men; one of the toughest of the party, Sergeant Kennerman, exerted himself sufficiently to break a blood vessel, and he vomited a half gallon of blood. Pike wrote "that [even] if I had no regard for my own health and constitution, I should have some for these poor fellows, who were killing themselves to obey my orders." The men's deteriorating condition and the adverse weather forced Pike to establish a winter camp. From October 28 to December 10, they labored to construct a stockade near present Little Falls, Minnesota, approximately 1,500 miles upstream from St. Louis.

Leaving the boats, half the party, and most of the supplies under the care of Sergeant Kennerman, Pike led a dozen men northward, employing snowshoes and pulling sleds to venture up the mud, snow, and ice along and upon the frozen river. One sled fell through the ice, soaking Pike's baggage and books. With the real threat of frostbite on exposed fingers, noses, and toes, Pike walked ahead to light fires for his men to warm themselves when they caught up. In February 1806, Pike received a hospitable welcome by trader Hugh McGillis at the Montreal-based North West Company post at Leech Lake, the third largest lake in Minnesota. McGillis probably regretted it later when Pike castigated him for illicitly trading for furs in the United States without a proper license and reprimanded the British traders for trespassing on U.S. soil. To make matters worse, when Pike's host refused to lower the Union Jack, Pike ordered one of his men to shoot the flag down! His patient host reciprocated with kindness by supplying Pike with a map of the area and providing several sled dogs and two voyageurs to guide Pike and one companion to Red Cedar or Cass Lake in February 1806. Upon his arrival there, Pike was euphoric: "I will not attempt to describe my feelings on the accomplishment of my voyage, this being the main source of the Mississippi." Thinking he had accomplished his task of finding the headwaters, Pike turned south, gathered his men at Leech Lake Post, and set off to rejoin Kennerman on February 18.


Excerpted from Zebulon Pike, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Matthew L. Harris, Jay H. Buckley. Copyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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