Zebulon Pike

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Zebulon Pike
Zebulon Pike by Charles Willson Peale, 1808
Zebulon Montgomery Pike

January 5, 1779
DiedApril 27, 1813(1813-04-27) (aged 34)
Cause of deathKilled in action
Resting placeMilitary Cemetery, Sackets Harbor, New York
OccupationGeneral, explorer
Spouse(s)Clarissa Harlow Brown
Parent(s)Zebulon Pike Sr.

Zebulon Montgomery Pike (January 5, 1779 – April 27, 1813) was an American brigadier general and explorer for whom Pikes Peak in Colorado was named. As a U.S. Army officer he led two expeditions under authority of President Thomas Jefferson through the new Louisiana Purchase territory, first in 1805–1806 to reconnoiter the upper northern reaches of the Mississippi River, and then in 1806–1807 to explore the Southwest to the fringes of the northern Spanish-colonial settlements of New Mexico and Texas. Pike's expeditions coincided with other Jeffersonian expeditions, including the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806) and the Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis expedition up the Red River (1806).[1]

Pike's second expedition crossed the Rocky Mountains into what is now southern Colorado, which led to his capture by the Spanish colonial authorities near Santa Fe, who sent Pike and his men to Chihuahua (present-day Mexico), for interrogation. Later in 1807, Pike and some of his men were escorted by the Spanish through Texas and released near American territory in Louisiana.

In 1810, Pike published an account of his expeditions, a book so popular that it was translated into Dutch, French, and German languages, for publication in Europe. He later achieved the rank of brigadier general in the American Army and served during the War of 1812, until he was killed during the Battle of York, in April 1813, outside the then British colonial capital of Upper Canada (later Toronto, Ontario).

Early and family life[edit]

Early life and education[edit]

Pike was born during the Revolutionary War, on January 5, 1779, near Lamberton,[2][3] now called Lamington in Bedminster, New Jersey,[4] in Somerset County, New Jersey. He was the son of Isabella (Brown) and Zebulon Pike, and would follow in the footsteps of his father, who had begun his own career in the military service of the United States in 1775, at the outset of the American Revolutionary War.[5]

The younger Pike grew to adulthood with his family at a series of outposts in Ohio and Illinois – the United States' northwestern frontier at the time. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant of infantry in 1799 and promoted to first lieutenant later that same year.

Marriage and family[edit]

Zebulon Pike, Jr. married Clarissa Harlow Brown in 1801.[6] They had one child who survived to adulthood, Clarissa Brown Pike, who later married President William Henry Harrison's son, John Cleves Symmes Harrison. They had four other children who died before reaching adulthood.[7]

Military career[edit]

Pike's military career included working on logistics and payroll at a series of frontier posts, including Fort Bellefontaine near St. Louis. General James Wilkinson, appointed Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory and headquartered there, became his mentor.

In 1796 Pike shadowed the expedition of General Georges Henri Victor Collot, a French officer who had been tasked to tour the Mississippi frontier and draw maps that France might use if it were to try and seize this lightly settled territory from the nascent USA.[8]

First Pike Expedition[edit]

In the summer of 1805, Wilkinson ordered Pike to locate the source of the Mississippi River, explore the northern portion of the newly created Louisiana Territory, and expel Canadian fur traders illegally trading within the borders of the United States. Pike left St. Louis on August 9, 1805, proceeding upstream by pirogue. They reached the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers on September 21, where he negotiated a treaty with the Dakota, purchasing the future site of Fort Snelling. The expedition proceeded further upriver, stopping to construct a winter camp at the mouth of the Swan River, south of present-day Little Falls, on October 16. On December 10, they continued upstream along the now-frozen river on foot, visiting a number of British North West Company fur posts along the way.

They reached the fur post at Leech Lake on February 1, and stayed nearly three weeks. Pike informed the traders they were within the boundaries of the United States, and henceforth required to abide by its laws and regulations. Pike met with many prominent Ojibwe chiefs, prevailing on them to surrender the medals and flags given to them as tokens of allegiance by the British, and offering American replacement medals. He also relayed the United States' desire that the Ojibwe and Dakota cease their mutual hostility, and invited the chiefs to attend a peace conference in St. Louis (all declined the invitation to travel through several hundred miles of hostile territory). On February 10, they ceremonially shot the British red ensign from the fur company's flag pole, replacing it with an American flag. On a short side trip (February 12 to 14), Pike traveled to the North West Company fur post on Upper Red Cedar Lake (later renamed Cass Lake), designating the lake as the ultimate source of the Mississippi, and taking celestial observations to determine its latitude.

Pike and his men left Leech Lake on February 18, carrying diplomatic tokens from the Ojibwe chiefs to present to the Dakota chiefs as a gesture of reconciliation, arriving at their winter encampment on March 5. They re-embarked in their pirogues for the downriver journey on April 7, reaching St. Louis on April 20. Pike's was the second expedition dispatched by the government into its new territory, and the first to return.

Second Pike Expedition[edit]

Pikes Peak, central Colorado

After Pike returned from this first expedition, General Wilkinson almost immediately ordered him to mount a second expedition, this time to explore, map, and find the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers. Additional objectives of this exploratory expedition into the southwestern part of the Louisiana Territory were to evaluate natural resources and establish friendly relations with Native Americans.

Beginning July 15, 1806, Pike led what became known as the "Pike Expedition". General Wilkinson's son James served as one of his lieutenants, although it now seems that Wilkinson planned that the Spanish who controlled Mexico would capture him and his men.[citation needed]

In early November 1806, Pike and his team sighted and tried to climb to the summit of the peak later named after him (Pikes Peak). They made it as far as Mt. Rosa, located southeast of Pikes Peak, before giving up the ascent in waist-deep snow. They had already gone almost two days without food.

They then continued south, searching for the Red River's headwaters, and built a fort for shelter during the winter. However, they had crossed the border, whether through confusion or deliberation. Spanish authorities captured Pike and some of his party in what was then northern New Mexico (now part of southern Colorado) on February 26, 1807.

Pike and his men were taken to Santa Fe then to the capital of Chihuahua province, and presented to Commandant General Salcedo, who was governor of the state.[9] Pike was treated well and invited to formal social dinners, but still not quite given the treatment of a visiting dignitary, and his men were kept prisoner. Salcedo housed Pike with Juan Pedro Walker, a cartographer who also acted as an interpreter. Walker transcribed and translated Pike's confiscated documents, including his journal. Spanish authorities feared the spread of both democracy and Protestant Christian sects that might undermine their rule.

During this time, Pike had access to various maps of the southwest and learned about Mexico's discontent with Spanish rule. Spain filed official protests with the United States about Pike's expedition, but since the nations were not at war (and Spain was rebelling against Napoleon's brother, who was fighting England in the Peninsular War), Commandant Salcedo released the military men. The Spanish escorted Pike and most of his men north, releasing them at the Louisiana border on July 1, 1807. However, some of Pike's soldiers were held for years in Mexico.[citation needed]

War of 1812[edit]

Pike was promoted to captain during the southwestern expedition. In 1811, Lt. Col. Zebulon M. Pike with the 4th Infantry Regiment fought at the Battle of Tippecanoe. He was promoted to colonel of the 15th Infantry Regiment in July 1812. Pike's military career also included service as deputy quartermaster-general in New Orleans and inspector-general during the War of 1812.

Pike commanded the advance guard of an American force which was defeated - primarily due to the poor planning and half-hearted effort of his commander, Henry Dearborn - at the first Battle of Lacolle Mills in November 1812. Pike was promoted to brigadier general in March 1813.[10] Along with General Jacob Brown, Pike departed from the newly fortified rural military outpost of Sackets Harbor, on the New York shore of Lake Ontario, for what became his last military campaign. On this expedition, Pike commanded combat troops in the successful attack on York (now Toronto), on April 27, 1813. Pike was killed, along with numerous other American troops, by flying rocks and other debris when the withdrawing British garrison blew up its ammunition magazine as Pike's troops approached Fort York.[11] His body was brought by ship back to Sackets Harbor, where his remains were buried at the military cemetery.[12]


The Spanish authorities confiscated Pike's journals, which were not recovered by the United States from Mexico until the 1900s. Pike wrote an account from memory of his expeditions, which was published in 1810 as The expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike to Headwaters of the Mississippi River, through Louisiana Territory, and in New Spain, during the Years 1805-6-7.[13] It was popular; was later translated into Dutch, French, and German editions; and became required reading for all American explorers who followed him in the 19th century.

Pike's capture by the Spanish and travel through the Southwest gave Pike insight into the region. For example, he described the politics in Chihuahua, which led to the Mexican independence movement, and described trade conditions in the Spanish territories of New Mexico and Chihuahua, which contributed to development of the Santa Fe Trail.[citation needed]

In some eastern regions of North America a tradition or legend pervades often referred to as The Lost City of Palanor or Zebulon's Amulet which has been attributed to Pike's journals. The myth, said to be derived from a missing portion of Pike's confiscated journals, is usually told in two segments. The first sequence involves Pike receiving an amulet from a native chieftain as a reward for the rescue of the chief's daughter. The second is a description of Pike's discovery of the lost city "Palanor," said to be built by pre-Columbian European settlers, and his decision to bury the amulet there.[14]


As Olsen (2006) shows, after Pike's death in battle, his military accomplishments were widely celebrated in terms of biographies, mourning memorials, paintings, poems, and songs, and he became the namesake for dozens of towns, counties, and ships. His memory faded after the Civil War but rebounded in 1906, at the centennial of his Southwest Expedition. His 20th-century reputation focused on his exploration, and his name appeared often on natural features, such as dams, islands, lakes, and parks.[15]

Pike was honored in 1901 by General William Jackson Palmer with a marble statue placed near the main entrance of the Antlers Hotel.[16]  Pike was later honored in 1926 with a bronze medallion portrait placed in the pavilion at Tahama Spring in Monument Valley Park, Colorado Springs.[17]





See also[edit]


  1. ^ Berry, Trey; Beasley, Pam; Clements, Jeanne, eds. (2006). The Forgotten Expedition, 1804–1805: The Louisiana Purchase Journals of Dunbar and Hunter. Louisiana State University Press. p. xi. ISBN 978-0-8071-3165-7.
  2. ^ Irving, Washington (November 1814). "Biographical Memoir of the Late Brigadier General Zebulon Montgomery Pike". Analectic Magazine. Vol. 4. p. 380.
  3. ^ Wilson, Thomas (1822). The Biography of the Principal American Military and Naval Heroes; Comprehending Details of Their Achievements During the Revolutionary and Late Wars. II (Second ed.). New York: John Low. p. 9.
  4. ^ Backes, William J. (October 1919). "General Zebulon M. Pike, Somerset-Born". Somerset County Historical Quarterly. 8 (4): 241–51.
  5. ^ Calvert, Patricia (2005). Zebulon Pike: Lost in the Rockies. ISBN 9780761416128.
  6. ^ Buckley, Jay H.; Harris, Matthew L., eds. (2012). Zebulon Pike, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-4243-2.
  7. ^ Zebulon Pike, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West
  8. ^ Tom Eblen (2017-03-19). "Kentucky invasion? Rare spy map shows French plans for frontier America". Kentucky Herald-Leader. Maysville, Kentucky. Retrieved 2019-09-29. Alas, Collot was not very secretive. Before he left Pittsburgh on his journey, American authorities discovered his mission and shadowed him. Zebulon Pike, a U.S. Army officer who would later become an explorer and the namesake of Pike’s Peak in Colorado, arrested Collot at Fort Massac near what is now Metropolis, Ill., but had no legal grounds to detain him.
  9. ^ Buescher, John. "Trailing Lewis and Clark". TeachingHistory.org. Retrieved July 12, 2011.
  10. ^ Valkenburg, Samuel Van (1976). "Pike, Zebulon Montgomery". In William D. Halsey (ed.). Collier's Encyclopedia. 19. New York: Macmillan Educational Corporation. p. 46.
  11. ^ Peppiatt, Liam. "Chapter 31B: Fort York". Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto.
  12. ^ Graves of Upstate New York
  13. ^ Pike, Zebulon Montgomery (1965). Elliott Coues (ed.). The expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike to headwaters of the Mississippi River, through Louisiana Territory, and in New Spain, during the years 1805-6-7. Ross & Haines (published 1895).
  14. ^ Simmons, Shane (2016). Legends & Lore of East Tennessee (American Legends) Mount Pleasant, South Carolina: The History Press. p. 113.
  15. ^ Olsen, Michael L. (Spring 2006). "Zebulon Pike and American Popular Culture – or – Has Pike Peaked?" (PDF). Kansas History. 29 (1): 48–59.
  16. ^ "William J. Palmer". Facts Illustrated Vol. 9 No. 13/14. January 1, 1902. pp. 31–32.
  17. ^ "Bronze Medallions" (PDF). Sunday Gazette and Telegraph. March 26, 1927. Retrieved October 21, 2018.
  18. ^ Upham, Warren (1920). Minnesota Geographic Names: Their Origin and Historic Significance. Minnesota Historical Society. p. 441.
  19. ^ Krakow, Kenneth K. (1975). Georgia Place-Names: Their History and Origins (PDF). Macon, GA: Winship Press. p. 176. ISBN 0-915430-00-2.
  20. ^ Garman-Schlaefli, Gloria (31 Jan 2008). "Pike Trail League formed 60 years ago". Jewell County Record (5). Retrieved 8 February 2016.

Further reading[edit]

  • Harris and Jay H. Buckley, Matthew L. (2012). Zebulon Pike, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-4243-2.
  • Hollon, W. Eugene (1949). The Lost Pathfinder, Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0806101934.
  • Orsi, Jared (2014). Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-976872-1.

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by
Thomas H. Cushing
Adjutant Generals of the U. S. Army
March 12, 1813 – April 27, 1813
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Alexander Smyth
Inspector General of the U. S. Army
March 12, 1813 – April 27, 1813
Succeeded by