When we first started researching early American exploration, we learned that Zebulon Pike, of Pike’s Peak fame, was a contemporary of Lewis & Clark. Pike conducted his expedition to the Southwest at about the same time as Lewis & Clark were blazing the trail to the Pacific. He has a small “cameo” appearance in our forthcoming book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe. Although his career intersected with Lewis & Clark, Pike was anything but an equal. To tell the truth, he was a bit of a putz.
The National Park Service has an excellent website that compares and contrasts Pike’s expedition with that of Lewis & Clark. The essential point is that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were highly trained military officers who possessed expertise in diplomacy, field science, navigation, and cartography, not to mention leadership. To assist them, they were allowed to recruit a corps of the best soldiers the frontier army had to offer. They were sent west under a presidential commission to understand the Louisiana Territory, find a practical route across the continent, and establish relations with the Indians along the way. At this they succeeded to a remarkable degree.
By contrast, Captain Pike was sent out west with virtually none of the education or abilities that Lewis & Clark had. Though considered a crack shot and an efficient officer (if a bit of a martinet), he was an ordinary, mediocre man who seemed destined to live and die without making much of a mark. That is, until he became the protégé of none other than James Wilkinson. And thereby hangs a tale.
It never ceases to amaze me how far Wilkinson’s reach extended and how many people became his pawns. Certainly his machinations in our book The Fairest Portion of the Globe and his attempted “seduction” of Lewis in To the Ends of the Earth are entirely realistic. At any rate, Pike became a lackey for Wilkinson, then the commanding general of the United States Army and the first Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory (Meriwether Lewis was the second). Wilkinson also happened to be a traitor, and one of the worst scoundrels in American history.
In 1805, Wilkinson dispatched Pike to explore the upper Mississippi River. Pike was to find the headwaters of the Mississippi, stop the illicit fur trade, persuade the Indians to come meet with Wilkinson, and produce useful maps. At all this Pike failed utterly. He and his hastily assembled ragtag crew set off with no medical training, no interpreter, and no scientific instruments. The expedition was a disaster, with the men saved from freezing to death only by the kindness of British traders, still our enemies at this time.
Nonetheless, Wilkinson sent Pike on an even more difficult mission the following year. Supposedly, Pike was to head west to explore the Arkansas and Red Rivers to their sources. But the exploration was only a cover story. Pike’s real job would be to spy on the Spanish, determine their strength and the location of their forts, and report on how hard it might be to invade the southwest.
The story takes an astonishing turn when you learn that, at the same time, Wilkinson (who was a double agent) tipped off the Spanish that Pike was going to be traveling illegally into their territory! Though it is known that Wilkinson had earlier betrayed the route of Lewis & Clark to the Spanish (who failed to catch up with them), this time he betrayed his own man! Some historians believe that Wilkinson’s plan from the beginning was to have Pike captured so he could get an inside look into Spanish territory.
It is difficult to say whether Pike knew what was going to happen. At times he certainly behaved like a man who wanted to be found, rather than a man protecting the interests of his supposed mission and the welfare of his men. He and his men bumbled their way west with no warm clothing, no scientific instruments, and insufficient horses. They made it to Colorado, starving and desperately cold, where they found the mountains that include Pike’s Peak. Pike never successfully reached the summit of the famous peak that bears his name; his rations ran low and he turned back after two days of slogging through waist-deep snow.
In February, 1807, Pike’s party was arrested by Spanish authorities and escorted to Santa Fe. Here Pike was able to take notes on the Spanish forts and settlements, the real purpose of his expedition all along. The Spanish escorted Pike across Texas and expelled him back across the border into Louisiana. The incident led Spain to break off diplomatic relations with the United States. Eight of Pike’s men were held by the Spanish for two years before finally being released.
After this adventure, Pike returned to more routine duty in the Army. A better officer than he was an explorer, he won a series of promotions and wrote a book about his adventures, which, though poorly written and inaccurate, provided Americans with the first accounts of the Spanish southwest.
Pike was promoted to brigadier general during the War of 1812. He died at the Battle of York (now Toronto) in April 1813, ironically after leading his men in a successful attack. As the town’s surrender negotiations were going on, the retreating British garrison blew up its ammunition without warning, and Pike was killed by flying rocks and other debris. His body was brought by ship back to Sackets Harbor, where his remains are buried.