The Curious Expeditions & Conspiracies of Zebulon Pike
By Karen Harris
The Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 to 1806 was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the land the United States had acquired in the Louisiana Purchase.
And in 1806, military officer and explorer Zebulon Pike led a second expedition to explore the southern parts of the Louisiana Purchase. Today, Lewis and Clark may take up more space in school history textbooks, but Pike led a fascinating life in assisting a growing nation map out its newly acquired territory.
The Early Life of Zebulon Pike
Zebulon Montgomery Pike, the son of Isabella Brown Pike and Zebulon Pike, was born in New Jersey on January 5, 1779. The elder Zebulon had joined the military in 1775 at the start of the Revolutionary War, and helped the fledgling nation defeat the British.
Following the war, he remained in the army and the entire Pike family followed him to military outposts on the wild frontiers of Ohio and Illinois. The younger Zebulon grew up exploring the untamed Midwest. Zebulon Pike Jr. was just 15 years old when he enlisted in the U.S. military, which didn’t seem to raise any eyebrows at the time.
By the time he reached the age of 20, he had already earned the rank of first lieutenant, and was well on his way to earning a respectable reputation.
“From an early age, he aligned his interests with those of the nation,” wrote Jared Orsi in Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike. “As an ambitious young man, he absorbed the era’s cultural advice that happiness lay in self-discipline, civic virtue, and a moderated appetite for personal self-aggrandizement.”
Zebulon Pike was the direct descendant of Robert Pike, who in 1692, was the Assistant to the General Court in Massachusetts and was tasked with taking depositions of people accused of crimes, as well as those of people doing the accusing.
In this role, he took several depositions for women accused of witchcraft in Salem. Robert Pike spoke out against the atrocities of Salem Witch Trials, specifically about the use of spectral evidence at trial, making him one of the first authority figures to criticize the Salem court for its handling of the witchcraft trials.
In another eyebrow-raising move, Pike and his cousin, Clarissa Harlow Pike, were married in 1801. The couple had five children together, though four of them died in childhood. Their only surviving child, a daughter named Clarissa Brown Pike, grew up to marry John Cleves Symmes Harrison, the son of President William Henry Harrison.
Pike’s First Expedition
Zebulon Pike accepted a commission by the United States government in 1805 to explore the upper Mississippi River and locate its headwaters. He was supposed to explore the region, take note of its geography, establish friendly relations with the Native American tribes living in the area, and inform tribal leaders of the U.S.’s legal claim to their land.
Pike led a team of twenty men some 2,000 miles from St. Louis, Missouri, to the northern parts of what is now Minnesota. Upon his return, Pike announced that the Mississippi River begins at Leech Lake, a discovery that was heralded as significant. The only problem was, Pike got it wrong: Lake Itasca is the headwater of the Mississippi. Oops.
Pike and the Peak that Bears His Name
Everyone thought Zebulon Pike did such a great job exploring the upper Mississippi River that he was offered another expedition in 1806. With little known about the territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase, Pike was sent to lead a party of soldiers into the southern portions of the region to locate the headwaters of the Arkansas River, a major tributary of the Mississippi.
“What directions could a raft go along various other rivers he [Jefferson] had heard of — the Arkansas, Missouri, and Red Rivers?” wrote Charles Cerami in Jefferson’s Great Gamble: The Remarkable Story of Jefferson, Napoleon and the Men behind the Louisiana Purchase. “The center of the continent was largely conjectrue; neither its size nor shape could be reliably envisioned.”
This mission took the men into what is now Colorado, where Pike spotted an imposing mountain in the distance. But winter was approaching. Pike’s men built a sturdy fort to protect them from the harsh winter and to keep them safe from Indian attacks. Yet the mountain called to Zebulon Pike.
Pike was determined to explore this mountain. He and a small group of men left the safety of the fort in hopes of climbing to the top of the peak. It was dangerously cold and soon the party was plowing through waist-deep snow.
They were forced to turn back before they even got close to the summit. When he returned from the expedition, Zebulon Pike described the mountain and declared it unclimbable. He was wrong once again.
In 1820, Edwin James, a member of Stephen Harriman Long’s Long Expedition of 1820, reached the peak. Long named the mountain “James Peak” to honor his achievement. Later, however, people began calling it “Pike’s Peak” after Zebulon Pike. In 1890, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names officially listed the mountain’s name as “Pikes Peak,” dropping the apostrophe to make it easier for people who don’t know how apostrophes work.
So now Pikes Peak, the tallest mountain in the Rocky Mountains’ southern Front Range, forever bears the name of a man who never climbed it.
The Capture of Zebulon Pike
In the spring of 1807, Zebulon Pike led his expedition from Colorado southward to the border of New Mexico, which was under Spanish control. The entire party, Pike included, were apprehended and imprisoned by Spanish officials who accused them of illegally entering New Mexico.
Pike maintained that they were simply lost and didn’t realize they had crossed into Spanish territory. They were held in Santa Fe for several months while the U.S. military worked with the Spanish to secure their release.
Pike and his men were marched across Texas to Natchitoches, Louisiana, the location of the U.S. border, and were eventually released on July 1, 1807. Pike immediately reported to the U.S. military, sharing the notes he took on his observations of Santa Fe.
He pointed out weaknesses in their military stations, relayed information about the security around the city, and noted the potential for overland trade with Mexico through the Southwest.
Was Zebulon Pike merely a keen observer? Or had he purposely allowed his party to be captured so he could spy on the Spanish in Santa Fe? There are no records or documents to prove or disprove his intentions, though some historians have speculated about Pike’s ulterior motives.
The Burr Conspiracy
Remember Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s vice president who famously killed Alexander Hamilton in a famous duel that spawned the hit Broadway musical?
Burr was a politically ambitious man who was frustrated in his efforts to reach the pinnacle of the U.S. government. He envisioned himself an emperor or king, and when it became clear that he would not become the all-powerful ruler of the new United States, he set his sights on building his own independent nation.
“Still bitter over his loss to Thomas Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800 and disillusioned at the fallout from killing his arch nemesis Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel, Burr’s future lay in the West,” wrote Matthew Harris in Zebulon Pike, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.
To accomplish his lofty goals, Aaron Burr recruited his buddy, General James Wilkinson, the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army, to help his cause. Burr and Wilkinson believed that they needed only a small army to forcefully carve off a portion of the Louisiana Purchase, so they put their plan into action.
First, Burr talked up Wilkinson and convinced President Thomas Jefferson to appoint Wilkinson as Northern Louisiana’s governor. Next, General Wilkinson — not the president, as was the case with the Lewis and Clark Expedition — commissioned Zebulon Pike to explore the exact region Burr was eyeing for his new nation.
This questionable fact has led to speculation that Pike was involved in the plot, and that the true purpose of his expedition was to scout out the area and spy on the Spanish, as Burr hoped to eventually take over Mexico, too.
To support the theory that Zebulon Pike may have been involved in the Burr Conspiracy, historians point to discrepancies between Pike’s notes and observations from his expedition, and his official report submitted after his return.
In his journals, Pike described the Great Plains as “a natural meadow.” He made observations about the abundance of rainfall and wildlife in this vast meadow. He recorded rain on 13 of the 37 days it took his party to cross the Great Plains, and in one passage, Pike wrote, “We were continually passing through large herds of buffalo, elk, and cabrie (pronghorn); I have no doubt that one hunter could support 200 men.”
From the accounts in his journal, Pike viewed the Great Plains as a lush, fertile grassland that supported great herds of buffalo and other wild game.
Yet, these descriptions drastically changed when Pike published his official report of his findings from his expedition. Instead of calling the Great Plains a “natural meadow,” he used the word “desert” to describe the region.
“But here a barren soil, parched and dried up for eight months of the year, presents neither moisture nor nutrition sufficient, to nourish the timber,” Pike wrote. “These vast plains of the western hemisphere, may become in time equally celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa.”
After Pike was released by the Spanish and returned to U.S. soil, he was once again in contact with General Wilkinson. In an interesting letter written by Wilkinson to Pike, the general was discussing Pike’s observation of the Great Plains when he wrote, “you must be cautious, extremely cautious how you breathe a word, because the publicity may excite a spirit or adventure adverse to the interests of our government.”
If the U.S. government and the general public believed the Great Plains to be fertile, open land that was ideal for farming, settlers would flock to the region and the government would want to hang onto this lush resource.
On the other hand, if the public thought the area was nothing more than a sandy desert and wasteland, they would avoid settling there, and the United States would not fight to keep it.
If Zebulon Pike purposely doctored his notes to dissuade settlers, does this mean he was in cahoots with General Wilkinson and Aaron Burr and a willing participant in their plans against the U.S. government? This is a theory that has not been proven.
Pike and a Lost Pre-Columbian City
Zebulon Pike’s name is also linked to a strange tale of a legendary lost city of pre-Columbian origin.
As the story goes, Pike’s journals were confiscated by the Spanish when he was imprisoned in Santa Fe. Not all of his papers were returned to him when he was released: some were kept by Spanish authorities, and not rediscovered until decades later.
One passage apparently details Pike’s discovery of the “Lost City of Palanor,” a legendary city built by Europeans who visited the region long before Christopher Columbus’s famous voyage. The city was said to be laden with treasure. The tale became known as “Zebulon’s Gift,” or “The Lost City of Palanor.”
Palanor has not been located again, nor has the alleged treasure been found.
The War of 1812
A career military man, Zebulon Pike continued his service after his westward expedition. Now a captain in the army, Pike fought in the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 as a member of the 4th Infantry Regiment.
After the battle, Pike was promoted once again in 1813, this time to the position of brigadier general. He was sent to lead troops on an attack on York — what is now Toronto.
The U.S. was successful in the battle; however, as Pike and his men closed in on the city on April 27, 1813, the retreating British set fire to their own ammunition magazine to prevent the enemy from seizing it.
The ensuing explosion sent rocks and stones into the air. Zebulon Pike, along with several other soldiers, were struck by the flying debris and killed.
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Sources & Further Reading
OldWest.org strives to use accurate sources and references in its research, and to include materials from multiple viewpoints when possible.
- Cerami, C. (2004). Jefferson’s Great Gamble: The Remarkable Story of Jefferson, Napoleon and the Men behind the Louisiana Purchase. Sourcebooks.
- Harris, M. L., & Buckley, J. H. (Eds.). (2012). Zebulon Pike, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. University of Oklahoma Press.
- Hart, S. H., & Hulbert, A. B. (Eds.). (2007). The Southwestern Journals of Zebulon Pike, 1806-1807. University of New Mexico Press.
- Kukla, J. (2004). A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America. Anchor Books.
- Matthews, G. R. (2016). Zebulon Pike: Thomas Jefferson’s Agent for Empire. Praeger.
- Orsi, J. (2014). Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike. Oxford University Press.
- Pike, Z. M. (1987). The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike (Volume 2) (E. Coues, Ed.). Dover.
by Karen Harris
Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University.