Zebulon Pike: Biography, Facts & Timeline

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Zebulon Pike is best known as an explorer of the American West. He explored the southern portion of the Louisiana Purchase, and Pikes Peak in Colorado is named after him.

Pike in Training

Pike was born in New Jersey in 1779. He grew up around military outposts as his father was an American Revolutionary War veteran and remained in the army afterwards. Pike had little formal education though he was known to enjoy reading. Pike married in 1801, and the couple had one daughter who later married one of the sons of future President William Henry Harrison. Pike joined the army and was assigned to various outposts in the Ohio Valley to oversee the transportation networks and supply lines running between forts.

Pike's First Expedition

Pike ended up at Fort Bellefontaine in St. Louis, where General James Wilkinson was Governor of the Louisiana Territory. He ordered Pike to find the northern source of the Mississippi River. His assignment was fairly broad - he was to map out the territory, find suitable sites to build forts, negotiate with Indian tribes, and report on British activity in the territory. The latter was a particular concern because British trappers continued to encroach on American soil from their base in Canada. Pike departed with his crew in August 1805 and made it all the way to Minnesota before returning unharmed in April 1806.

Zebulon Pike
Zebulon Pike

Pike's Second Expedition

Pike was soon assigned a second mission. His second was preceded by the much celebrated Lewis and Clark expedition which explored the northern portion of the Louisiana Purchase along the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. Pike was instructed to explore the southern portion which took him through the five states of Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. His purpose was two-fold. First, he was to return ransomed Osage Indians to their tribal home, negotiate a peace treaty between the Kansas and Osage tribes, and establish general diplomatic and economic ties. Second, he was to map the general geographical and topographical features of the region. There was much risk in this expedition. Spain still controlled much of the American southwest and resented the growing presence of trappers and mountain men the recent Louisiana Purchase brought in. Spain suspected that most of the trappers were U.S. government spies. There was a measure of truth to this. Unbeknownst to Pike, Wilkinson had gotten involved with the bizarre scheme of Aaron Burr's to create a separate country out of Spanish Louisiana which soon put Pike in jeopardy.

Pike and his crew left Fort Bellefontaine in July 1806 and traveled along the Missouri and Osage Rivers. First, to Kansas to return the Osage Indians and then to Missouri to meet with Pawnee tribes. From there, Pike took the Arkansas River into Colorado where he first saw the mountain - he termed it the 'Grand Peak' - that was later named after him. This is where Pike's troubles began. He entered Colorado in November 1806 in the dead of winter, and his crew was not properly outfitted for the cold. He attempted to climb the peak, but the horrid cold and lack of winter clothing forced him to turn back. He continued on to the Arkansas River then to the South Platte River, and then onto what he thought was the Red River, only to discover that he had traveled in a complete circle over several weeks! Even worse, some of his party suffered from frostbite. Pike hurriedly built a makeshift fort on the Conejos River for the protection of his men and crossed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains into Santa Fe, New Mexico in February 1807.

Historical Marker at the site of a Pawnee Village Pike Stopped At
Pike Historical Marker

Santa Fe brought him more trouble as it was Spanish territory. Thinking him a spy, Pike was taken captive and questioned by Governor Joaquin del Real Alencaster before being sent off to Chihuahua, Mexico for further questioning by the Commandant General Nemesio Salcedo. Most of his personal papers were confiscated. Though he was treated well, he was, in essence, under house arrest in Mexico. Eventually, Salcedo agreed to his release and provided him an armed escort out of Spanish territory through Texas and into southern Louisiana, arriving there in July 1807. In 1810, Pike published a book recounting his experiences which provided some of the earliest insight by an American into the southwestern territories.

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