The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> The West >> General History and Description
Zebulon Pike

explorer and mountain peak discoverer

Zebulon M. Pike

Zebulon Montgomery Pike was born at Lamberton (now a part of Trenton), New Jersey, on January 5, 1779, the son of Isabella (Brown) and Zebulon Pike, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U. S. Army who at the time of Zebulon's birth was serving in General George Washington's army. The elder Pike continued to serve in the military after the Revolutionary War, and brought his family to live in Cincinnati, Ohio, while serving with "Mad Anthony" Wayne's legion.

Early Military Career

After receiving a basic education in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Zebulon entered his father's regiment as a cadet and was put in charge of supplying frontier posts in Ohio. He subsequently followed his father's posts further to the west, serving at Fort Massac in Illinois, among others. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Second Infantry Regiment on March 3, 1799, and was promoted to First Lieutenant on November 1, 1799. On April 1, 1802, he transferred to the First Infantry.


In 1801, Pike married Clarissa Brown, his first cousin, in Cincinnati. The couple moved to Fort Vincennes (now Fort Knox), Kentucky in 1802, and to Kaskaskia, Illinois in 1803. Although the couple had several children, only one, a daughter, reached maturity. She grew up to marry a son of frontier governor and later President William Henry Harrison.

His First Expedition

In the summer of 1805, General James Wilkinson, Governor of Upper Louisiana Territory, ordered Pike to the Upper Mississippi Valley to seek the source of the river and to exert American authority over the region. Pike left St. Louis, Missouri, on August 9 and, with twenty enlisted men, traveled by keelboat and barges up the Mississippi. On September 23 they met with Dakota Indians at the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers (today's Minneapolis-St. Paul area), from whom they purchased over 155,000 acres -- on credit -- for a military reservation. The party made it as far north as Leech Lake, Minnesota, which Pike mistakenly identified as the source of the Mississippi, before starting its return trip. The expedition returned to St. Louis on April 30, 1806, having traveled almost 5,000 miles.

Pike's expedition was, for all intents and purposes, an overall failure. Despite meeting with several Indian chiefs he failed to convince any of them to visit St. Louis to meet with Wilkinson, failed to find the source of the Mississippi, failed to stop the illicit fur trade in the region, and did not locate a single stream or lake which was previously unknown. His only real success was the purchase of land for Fort Snelling, which was not even built until 1819.

map of Pike's travels

His Second Expedition

Despite the failures of his first expedition, Pike was called upon by General Wilkinson to undertake another expedition. Goals for this expedition included: the escorting of some Osage Indians who had been held as hostages by the Pottawatomies back to their home villages; to negotiate a peace settlement between the Kansa and Pawnee tribes; to make contact with the Comanche; to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers; and, of paramount importance to Wilkinson, to find out what the Spanish were doing along the southwestern border of the Louisiana Purchase. Although initially undertaken without authorization from any federal agency, the expedition was approved retroactively.

Pike's second expedition -- with a contingent of 23 men -- left St. Louis on July 15, 1806. It made its way west along the Missouri River and successfully returned the Osages to the villages on the border of modern-day Kansas. After staying with the Osage for a short period, the group struck out across the plains of Kansas. The expedition next entered a Pawnee village on the Republican River near the present-day Kansas-Nebraska border. Here Pike succeeded in talking the Indians into taking down a Spanish flag and replacing it with the Stars and Stripes, despite the fact that the Spanish flag had been recently put up by a force of 300+ Spanish cavalry that was still in the area. From the Pawnee village the expedition traveled almost due south to the Arkansas River, near present-day Great Bend, Kansas. Here Lieutenant James Biddle Wilkinson, son of General Wilkinson, left the party, traveling eastward with five privates and a few Osage guides to explore the lower reaches of the river. Upon reaching the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers he traveled north, and returned to St. Louis. Meanwhile, Pike and rest of the party followed the Arkansas River westward. On November 11, despite the fact that his party did not have the clothing, equipment or supplies for a winter expedition, Pike decided to press on rather than settle into a temporary fort for the winter. On November 23, Pike and his men reached the site of modern-day Pueblo, Colorado, from which Pike caught sight of the peak which now bears his name. Pike's records show that he spent several days trying to reach the peak, but never succeeded.

With winter now in full swing, Pike decided to head up the north fork of the Arkansas, but didn't get very far before that branch dwindled. Turning due north, he discovered the south fork of the South Platte River on December 12. Crossing over a mountain pass, he came to another river which he thought was the Red, but which was in reality the Arkansas. The party spent Christmas Day eating buffalo meat near present-day Salida, Colorado, without blankets. After traveling down the ice-choked river the party returned to the camp it had left a few weeks earlier -- they had traveled in a big circle.

After building a small wooden stockade and detailing two men to stay with the horses, Pike and 14 of his men set out on January 17, 1807, to cross the mountains on foot in hopes of finding the Red River. By the time they got across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and reached the area of present-day Great Sand Dunes National Monument the party was down to 10 men, plus Pike. Here, they discovered the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, but mistook them for the Red River. On February 1, a small wooden stockade was built on the Rio Conejos, near present-day Alamosa, Colorado. Pike then sent back two relief parties to bring up the horses and the men he had been forced to leave behind along the way. He also allowed the expedition's doctor to take off cross-country and make his way to Santa Fe, where he informed the Spanish Governor of Pike's expedition.

On February 26, 1807, a contingent of 100 Spanish cavalry and militia rode up to Pike's stockade and demanded to know why Pike was in Spanish territory. Unable to give an explanation suitable to the Spanish commander, Pike and his men were taken prisoner and escorted to Santa Fe, New Mexico. From Santa Fe they were then taken to Chihuahua. Along the way Pike gathered as much information as he could about the Spanish, as well as about the Apache and other Indians. Although he and his men were technically prisoners the Spaniards made no effort to prevent them from gathering information, nor were the men mistreated in any way. Having confiscated Pike's personal notes and journals, the Spanish escorted him and seven of his men through San Antonio to Natchitoches, Louisiana, where they arrived on July 1, 1807. Eight members of Pike's party were held by the Spanish for two years before ultimately being released.

Despite the extent of his travels and the amount of information he obtained, Pike was not well received by President Thomas Jefferson, who considered him a competent military man but not an explorer. Neither Pike nor any of his men ever received extra pay or grants of land for their service.

Later Service

Pike was appointed Major of the new Sixth Infantry Regiment on May 2, 1808, and then Lieutenant Colonel of the Fourth Infantry on December 31, 1809. He published the journals of his explorations in 1810 under the title An Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi and Through the Western Parts of Louisiana. He was appointed Deputy Quartermaster General of the Army of April 3, 1812, and served in that capacity until July 3. With the outbreak of the War of 1812 in June, Pike was promoted to Colonel of the Fifteenth Infantry on July 6; he was appointed Brigadier General, Inspector General and Adjutant General of the Army on March 12, 1813.

General Zebulon Pike was killed in action at the storming of York (now Toronto), Canada, on April 27, 1813, when the enemy's powder magazine exploded.

Site of Interest

Zebulon Pike Bicentennial Page

See Also

New Jersey
George Washington
Anthony Wayne
William Henry Harrison
Santa Fe, New Mexico
President Thomas Jefferson

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> The West >> General History and Description

This page was last updated on November 17, 2018.