Zebulon Pike — American Explorer

January 5, 1779–April 27, 1813

Zebulon Pike was a soldier who explored a significant portion of the Louisiana Territory. He was killed during the War of 1812 and Pike's Peak in Colorado is named after him.

Zebulon Pike, Portrait, Charles Willson Peale

Zebulon Pike by Charles Willson Peale. Image Source: Archive.org.

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Zebulon Pike Biography

Zebulon Pike was a frontiersman and explorer who rose to prominence by exploring the Louisiana Territory, including the Mississippi River, Central Plains, and Southern Plains. 

His father served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. Afterward, he continued in the Philadelphia Militia, which allowed Pike to grow up around military outposts. When he was 15, he joined his father’s regiment when he was 15. He was stationed at Fort Bellefontaine near St. Louis, Missouri, during the time the Lewis and Clark Expedition was traveling to the west coast. 

In 1805, General James Wilkinson, Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory, put Pike in charge of an expedition to explore the northern portion of the Mississippi River. The purpose of the first expedition was to warn French traders to leave American territory and to establish friendly relations with Native American Indian tribes. The mission was considered a success and was followed by a second expedition in 1806. 

The “Pike Expedition” sent him into the American Southwest to find the headwaters of the Arkansas River and the Red River, find natural resources and establish friendly relations with Indians in the area. Pike and some of his men ascend a high peak in the Rocky Mountains but failed. Suffering from the winter weather, they continued to move South and built a shelter. However, they were in Spanish territory and were captured. While Pike was held prisoner in the Chihuahua Province, he gathered intelligence. He studied maps and learned Mexico was unhappy with Spanish rule. Although the Spanish protested the presence of Pike and his men, they were released on July 1, 1807.

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Pike fought at the Battle of Tippecanoe and after the War of 1812 broke out he served as Quartermaster General in New Orleans and Inspector General. He led troops at the First Battle of Lacolle Mills in November 1812, which led to an American defeat. The following year, in 1813, he was promoted to Brigadier General and led troops at the Battle of York on April 27, 1813. He was killed in action by an explosion. His remains were taken to Sackets Harbor, New York, and buried in a military cemetery.

General Zebulon Pike, Portrait, War of 1812
This portrait of Zebulon Pike is from From Great Explorers of the West by Conrad Louis Wirth. Image Source: Archive.org.

Zebulon Pike Quick Facts

  • Born: Zebulon Pike was born on January 5, 1779, in Lamberton, New Jersey.
  • Parents: Pike’s parents were Zebulon Pike and Isabella Brown.
  • Married: In 1801, he married Clarissa Harlow Brown. They had five children, but only one, Clarissa Brown Pike, survived to adulthood.
  • Died: He died on April 27, 1813, during the Battle of York.

Highlights from the Life and Career of Zebulon Pike

Military Career

  • Pike followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Army.
  • In 1799, Pike was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of the Infantry and joined his father’s unit at Fort Massac in present-day Illinois.
  • He piloted cargo vessels on the Ohio River from Pittsburg and Cincinnati, west to the frontier. 
  • Pike was assigned to several forts along the Ohio River, which led him to Fort Kaskaskia on the Mississippi River in 1805.

Personal Life

  • He married Clarissa Harlow Brown in 1801. 
  • They had one child who survived to adulthood — Clarissa Brown Pike — who later married John Cleves Symmes Harrison, the son of President William Henry Harrison.

First Expedition

In 1805, General James Wilkinson, Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory, sent Pike on an expedition up the Mississippi River. The purpose of the expedition was to:

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  1. Find the source of the Mississippi River.
  2. Select sites for military posts, in case of another war with Britain.
  3. Meet with the chiefs of the different Indian tribes, and establish friendly relations with them.
  4. Discover what he could about the British traders who were operating in the territory.

Although Pike believed he found the source of the river, further explorations disputed his assessment. However, he did conduct successful talks with various tribes, which included the purchase of roughly 100,000 acres of land from leaders of the Dakota Tribe. Fort St. Anthony, which was later called Fort Snelling, was built there.

General James Wilkinson, Illustration
James Wilkinson. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The expedition took place at the same time the Lewis and Clark Expedition was making its way to the Oregon Country and the Pacific Coast. 

Additional facts about Pike’s First Expedition are:

  • Pike led a contingent of 20 men on a 70-foot keelboat up the Mississippi.
  • They left Fort Bellefontaine on August 9, 1805. 
  • Pike and his men explored the river into modern-day Minnesota, traveling to Cass Lake, which they identified as the source of the Mississippi River. 
  • They returned to St. Louis on April 30, 1806. 
  • Pike gathered important geographical information about the Northern Louisiana Territory.
  • Pike called the men who accompanied him the “Dam’d set of Rascals.”

Pike’s Expedition

Wilkinson was pleased with the results of the First Expedition and organized a second one for Pike to lead in 1806. The goals of the “Second Expedition,” which is more commonly known as “Pike’s Expedition,” were:

  1. Escort a group of Native American Indians to their homes. The group included 51 Osages who had been freed from captivity and a political delegation of Pawnee, Osages, and Otos who were returning from a visit with President Jefferson in Washington, D.C.
  2. Negotiate a peace treaty between the affect peace between the Osage and the Kansa.
  3. Make contact with the Comanches on the High Plains and establish relations with them.
  4. Explore the headwaters of the Arkansas River, and find the source of the Red River.
  5. Acquire knowledge of the Southwestern boundary with Spain.

The path the expedition took went from Southeastern Kansas to just North of the Kansas-Nebraska border near Burr Oak, Kansas. From there, the expedition turned South into Kansas and went to the Arkansas River, then West into present-day Colorado.

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The first leg of the journey took the expedition west of the Ozark Mountains to the Osage village. Soon after, Pike and his men visited a large Pawnee village on the Republican River, just north of the Kansas-Nebraska border near Guide Rock. The Pawnee were flying a Spanish flag, in support of New Spain. Pike convinced the Pawnee to replace it with the American flag. It is possible, though not confirmed, that it was the first American flag to fly west of the Missouri River.

After visiting the Pawnee, Pike and his men followed a trail up the Arkansas River. Despite the fact that winter was setting in, Pike and his men decided to keep going. They reached present-day Pueblo, Colorado on November 23 and established a base camp. From there, Pike and three other men went northwest and tried to scale a mountain he saw in the distance. Pike and the others scaled Mt. Rosa, but were unable to scale the higher mountain, which was later given the name “Pike’s Peak.”

After Pike and the men returned to the base camp, they went west to Cañon City and eventually to Salida, Colorado, where they spent Christmas Day. By then, winter had set in. The weather turned cold and brought heavy snow. The expedition went South, passed through present-day Great Sand Dunes National Park and build a small fort near present-day Alamosa, Colorado.

While they were at the camp, Pike gave permission to one of the men, Dr. John H. Robinson, to go to Santa Fe, which was in territory controlled by New Spain. Robinson went there in January 1807, which raised the suspicions of Joaquín Alencaster, the Spanish Governor of New Mexico. 

After Alencaster reported the presence of an American military expedition in New Mexico, Spanish officials sent patrols out to find Pike and his men. On February 26, a group of Spanish troops approached Pike’s stockade and informed him he was trespassing in Spanish territory. 

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Pike and the men who were at the stockade were taken to Santa Fe, where Alencaster questioned him about the purpose of the expedition. Afterward, Pike was sent South to  Chihuahua, where he was questioned by Nemesio Salcedo, Commandant General of the Internal Provinces. Although Salcedo confiscated Pike’s documents, the Americans were treated well. 

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Zebulon Pike, Santa Fe, Painting, Remington
Zebulon Pike Entering Santa Fe by Frederic Remington.

Pike and the others spent about six months in New Spain. While he was there, Pike bought two grizzly bear cubs and had them sent to President Jefferson in Washington, D.C. Pike also used the time to gather intelligence about New Spain and learned that Mexico was not pleased with Spanish rule.

Jefferson helped secure the release of Pike by issuing an apology to Spain for trespassing. Spanish troops escorted him and some of the others to Natchitoches, Louisiana, and released him. Unfortunately, not all of Pike’s men were treated as well. Some of them spent another year and a half in a Spanish prison.

Additional facts about Pike’s Expedition are:

  1. The expedition started on July 15, 1806.
  2. Pike has 18 men from the First Infantry Regiment.
  3. Lieutenant James Biddle Wilkinson, the son of Governor Wilkinson, was his second-in-command.
  4. Dr. John H. Robinson, a volunteer physician joined the expedition.
  5. Baronet Vasquez, an interpreter from St. Louis, was also a member.
  6. When the expedition reached the Arkansas River, Wilkinson and five men returned to St. Louis.
  7. Five men were kept in a Spanish prison for two years.
  8. Sergeant William Meek killed Private Theodore Miller during a fight and was held until 1821.

Jefferson Informs the Senate of Pike’s Expeditions

Jefferson informed the Senate of Pike’s negotiations with the Indians on March 29, 1808, and asked for ratification of the land purchase, which was from the First Expedition.

In his message to the Senate, Jefferson wrote:

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“Lieutenant Pike on his part made presents to the Indians to some amount. this Convention, tho’ dated the 23d. of Sep. 1805. is but lately recieved: and altho’ we have no immediate view of establishing a trading post at that place, I submit it to the Senate for the sanction of their advice & consent to it’s ratification, in order to give to our title a full validity on the part of the United States, whenever it may be wanting for the special purpose which constituted in the mind of the donors the sole consideration & inducement to the cession.”

Thomas Jefferson, Painting, Rembrandt Peale
Thomas Jefferson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

James Wilkinson — Spanish Agent and Burr Conspirator

While Governor Wilkinson had permission to conduct spy missions against the Spanish, he did not have prior authorization for exploratory missions, like the ones he sent Pike on. Although the expeditions were approved after the fact, neither President Jefferson nor Henry Dearborn, the Secretary of War, appear to have known about them until they were completed.

Although it was unknown at the time, Wilkinson was working as a double agent on behalf of Spain, advising officials in New Spain on how to slow the westward expansion of the United States. Wilkinson also provided information on American operations in the Louisiana Territory, including details about the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Further complicating the situation was Wilkinson’s involvement with Aaron Burr. The two of them met and exchanged letters, which are said to have connected them in a conspiracy to establish a separate nation in the western states and territories. Burr was arrested and tried on charges of treason, but the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence. Wilkinson testified during the trial and his connection to the affair contributed to his being removed from the office of Governor. 

Because of Pike’s connection to Wilkinson, there were suspicions that he was also involved, and the expeditions were conducted to lay the groundwork for Burr’s new nation. Historians are in agreement that it is unlikely Pike was involved in either Wilkinson’s conspiracies with Spain or Burr.

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Battle of Tippecanoe

Pike fought in the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. The battle was fought between the United States and a confederation of Indians that was organized by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh. The Indians, led by Tecumseh and his brother, The Prophet, organized resistance to the settlement of the western frontier. William Henry Harrison, the Governor of the Indiana Territory, assembled a force of around 1,000 men, including Pike, and marched on the Tecumseh and his forces at Prophetstown, in Western Indiana. The Americans routed the Indians, ending the threat of Tecumseh’s Confederacy.

War of 1812

The Battle of York was fought on April 27, 1813, at present-day Toronto, Canada. In the early days of the War of 1812, British forces took control of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. 

Working with Major General Henry Dearborn, Secretary of War John Armstrong Jr. planned to gather a large force of American troops at Sackets Harbor, New York, on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. From there, the army would march to Kingston, Ontario, on the northeast corner of the lake. If they could take Kingston, then they would be able to capture other British strongholds, including Fort York. 

The American land force was under the command of Pike, who had been promoted to Brigadier General. Pike had nearly 1,700 men under his command, while the British garrison at York was roughly 700. Believing he could gain an easy victory, Dearborn changed the plan and decided to attack York first, but had to wait until the lake thawed in the spring.

On April 27, the Americans attacked York. Pike’s men were transported from Sackett’s Harbor to the other side of Lake Ontario with ships under the command of Commodore Isaac Chauncey. Pike led his men to the beachhead, where they were met by Indian warriors allied with the British. The landing was covered by Chauncey’s ships, who bombarded the Indians, pushing them back. Pike’s men advanced and easily overwhelmed the remaining British forces.

The British commander, General Roger Hale Sheaffe, ordered his men to abandon the fort. As they did so, they lit their supplies on fire. The fire spread to the ammunition magazine — containing hundreds of barrels of gunpowder — which exploded. Many of the Americans were hit by debris from the blast, including Pike, who was killed.

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Zebulon Pike, Death at York, Illustration
This illustration depicts the death of Zebulon Pike in the aftermath of the explosion during the Battle of York. Image Source: Archive.org.

Memoirs and Publications

  • In 1810 Pike published an account of his expeditions, An Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi and through the Western Parts of Louisiana.
  • Pike’s account was published four years before the account of Lewis and Clark.
  • Pike’s journals and diaries that were confiscated by the Spanish were published in the American Historical Review in 1908 and eventually returned to the United States.

Interesting Facts About Zebulon Pike

  • Pike’s book, which was published in 1810, gave Americans their first look at what the western frontier was like.
  • By climbing the 11,499-foot Mt. Rosa, Pike and the men with him became the first Americans to complete a high-altitude ascent of a North American mountain.
  • His legacy was later overshadowed by Lewis and Clark. Today he is known mostly for Pike’s Peak, the mountain he tried and failed to climb.
  • Pike’s Peak inspired “American the Beautiful.” Pike’s Peak was the original name of the poem “America,” written by Katharine Lee Bates. The poem was set to music and the title was changed to “America the Beautiful.”
  • Legend has it that Pike found the pre-Columbian city of Palanor on his second expedition, and buried a treasure there for safekeeping.
  • The information Pike gathered while he was in New Spain contributed to American expansion into Texas, which led to the Texas Revolution and later the Mexican-American War.
  • The information in his book about the Santa Fe Trail helped inspire the westward migration of Americans.

Frequently Asked Questions About Zebulon Pike

Was Zebulon Pike a Spy?

The debate over the purpose of Pike’s expedition, especially the second expedition, has always been questioned. In the book “Zebulon Pike: Thomas Jefferson’s Agent for Empire,” author George R. Matthews, lays out evidence that Pike was under orders from Jefferson and Wilkinson to spy on the Spanish.

What are Zebulon Pike’s achievements?

Pike’s great achievement was to explore a significant portion of the Louisiana Purchase. He led two expeditions. The first went north, to find the source of the Mississippi River. The second went southwest and ended with him begin captured by the Spanish. During the second expedition, he tried to climb a mountain in the Rockies that is now known as “Pike’s Peak.”

Significance of Zebulon Pike

Zebulon Pike is important to United States history for his contributions to American exploration and expansion. His expeditions helped to open up the western portion of the continent to American settlement and development. He is memorialized by Pike’s Peak and the Zebulon Pike National Historic Trail, which follows the route of his expeditions through the southern and northern portions of the Louisiana Territory.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Zebulon Pike — American Explorer
  • Coverage January 5, 1779–April 27, 1813
  • Author
  • Keywords Zebulon Pike, Pike's Expedition, Pike's Peak,
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date January 30, 2023
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 26, 2023

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