Zebulon Pike: Icon or Idiot?

Zebulon Pike was an idiot. At least that’s what I was taught in school. More than one of my teachers portrayed Pike as an example of how getting lost while blundering through the wilderness can land a person in the history books. For example, Pikes Peak wasn’t named for Pike because he climbed it; it was named for him having failed to climb it. But Pike wasn’t a dumb guy. Pike was a modestly educated young man who taught himself French and Spanish in preparation for a distinguished military career. Contrary to the modern (rather negative) view of Pike, he was so well-beloved and highly praised by early nineteenth-century Americans that not only was a mountain named after him, but so were hundreds of landmarks, towns, and other icons of early America. Pike wasn’t stupid as much as he was a victim of circumstance, poor decision making, and bad luck. Only his service during the War of 1812 helped to turn things around.

Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Pike was asked to explore the Southwest at around the same time Lewis and Clark were asked to explore a route to the Pacific. While Lewis and Clark had expertise along with plenty of money, men, supplies, ammunition, and the full endorsement of President Jefferson, Pike did not. In fact, he was asked to undertake a new mission just three months after returning from his first. In the first mission Pike was supposed to have bought important pieces of land from the Native Americans to be used later as fort locations. He didn’t do too well negotiating with the Natives, but he did bring back valuable geographical information and more accurate maps of the upper United States, so his superiors immediately put him to work on his next expedition.

In his second mission, Pike was asked to journey into the Southwest, befriending Natives and exploring the southern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase. He was also charged with finding the headwaters of the Arkansas River and following it to the source of the Red River, then following the Red River back to the Mississippi.  We know now that the Red and the Arkansas are far apart geographically, but back in the early 1800s nobody knew what lay in the wilds of the new American Territory. There wasn’t much time to prepare and to outfit his company, so with inaccurate maps, 19 men, and supplies and clothing for a few months, Pike departed St. Louis in July of 1806. Pike seemed to have had the mindset of, “it will take as long as it takes” to find the source of the Red River, and if it went longer than a few months, they would just live off the land until the job was done.

Pike and his men didn’t encounter too many Natives, so that part of the plan fell to naught, which was just as well considering Pike’s lousy communication skills. The good thing was that Pike kept a solid journal and was the first to map an area much larger than he or anyone else anticipated. The bad thing was that Pike was under the command of a scoundrel.

Pike had become the protégé of Lieutenant James Wilkinson, who thought Pike might be useful. Wilkinson sent Pike on his second mission without telling President Jefferson, only gaining approval for the expedition after Pike’s departure. Wilkinson figured that if he could use Pike’s expedition to divert people’s attention, Wilkinson, a cohort of Aaron Burr, could spy on the Spanish and help Burr foment his secret master plan: to take over the newly acquired territory of America, and make it into its own country—with Burr as its President (Aaron Burr is infamous for shooting Alexander Hamilton in a duel). Wilkinson asked Pike to scout as close to Santa Fe as possible without getting captured by the Spanish. If Pike was caught, he was supposed to say he’d gotten lost, although many scholars believe he actually was lost.

Wilkinson escorted Pike’s party to the headwaters of the Arkansas River, then took five men with him back to St. Louis. Pike and the remaining 14 men started north. When they got to what is now Bent’s Fort, near Pueblo, Pike saw a hazy blue cloud in the distance. As they got closer, he thought, “It’s a mountain! Let’s climb it this afternoon.” He thought they could make the climb in a day and get a better idea of the lay of the land. Four days later, he and his men reached the base of the peak which would later be named in his honor. Leaving most men in camp, he and a few stalwart souls attempted the climb, but it was late November, and they were still in summer uniforms. They had run out of food a long time ago, and had been subsisting on bison and prairie dogs (which they said were pretty tasty if they salted the meat and let it sit in the sun for a while). Pike declared that, under these conditions, no one would climb the mountain. They did climb Mt. Rosa, though, becoming the first Europeans to make a high-altitude ascent in North America.

Pike and his men found the south fork of the South Platte, and thinking it was the Red River, followed it upstream. When it joined the Arkansas, the men realized with dismay that they had just marched in a large circle and the Wet Mountains would have to be crossed on foot. In December.

A Map of Pike's two expeditions. (Credit: darkbrownhairs.org)

A Map of Pike’s two expeditions. (Credit: darkbrownhairs.org)

Enter the blizzard. Pressing forward through waist-deep snow, Pike crossed the Sangre de Cristos and found the headwaters of the Rio Grande, which he thought must be the Red River. Wrong again. After wandering in the mountains through the winter of 1806, his soldiers were starving, hypothermic, frostbitten, and disgruntled. Two men had been left with the horses on the Arkansas, and three had been abandoned because they could no longer walk. Pike sent a few troops to round up the missing men, but one guy only sent back his gangrenous toe bones in sort of a grisly plea. He wasn’t going anywhere, but he didn’t want to be forgotten.

In February of 1807 Pike’s group was discovered a little too near Santa Fe by a couple of Spanish scouts who alerted their superiors. Pike was informed that he was on Spanish territory and he and his men were taken into custody and marched to a compound in Santa Fe, then to Chihuahua where they spent the rest of the spring.

Pike returned to U.S. territory just two weeks shy of a year from starting his expedition. Even though he wasn’t directly involved with the charges of treason against Burr (which were eventually dropped), Pike was tainted by his association with Wilkinson and Burr. Pike didn’t get any compensation for his efforts, not even extra pay or land grants. He died in the War of 1812 after being promoted to Brigadier General.

Fourteen years later, Edwin James became the first man to climb Pikes Peak, calling it “Pike’s highest peak.” Much controversy has existed about whether to call it James Peak or Pike’s Peak, but somewhere along the way it has not only become acceptable to call it Pikes Peak but to spell it without the apostrophe. Diehard historians are very “possessive” about that apostrophe.

Pike has been misquoted as saying no one could ever climb Pikes Peak. This is wrong. He said no one could climb it under the same conditions as he had, which is likely true. Many thousands of people have flocked to Pikes Peak in the 200-plus years since Pike first tried climbing it. Marathons are run up it in what is considered to be one of America’s toughest running challenges. Thousands of people visit the summit of the Peak every week, even in the winter, and the Pikes Peak Highway is open as many days as possible throughout the year. I’m just happy the Peak watches over me every day, even if it was named for the rather lost soul of Zebulon Montgomery Pike.