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United States Army Captain Zebulon Pike led the Pike expedition (July 15, 1806 – July 1, 1807) to explore the south and west of the Louisiana Purchase. Roughly contemporaneous with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Pike's excursion was the first American effort to explore the western Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and marked the discovery of Pikes Peak.



Pike's orders were sent by General James Wilkinson on June 24, 1806[1]. Pike left Fort Bellefontaine near St. Louis, Missouri on July 15 with a detachment of 20 soldiers and 50 freed Osage prisoners. They followed the Missouri River and Osage River to the Osage Nation village at the present-day border of Kansas and Missouri. There, on August 15th, they returned the hostages and parleyed with the natives[2]. Striking northwest, the group made for the Pawnee territory on the Republican River in southern Nebraska. At the Pawnee village on September 29, Pike met with the Pawnee council and announced the new protectorship of the United States government over the territory[3]. He instructed them to remove a Spanish flag and to fly the Stars and Stripes instead.

The expeditionary force then turned south and struck out across the prairie for the Arkansas River. They reached the river on October 14, and the party split in two. One group, under Lieutenant James Biddle Wilkinson, traveled downstream along the length of the Arkansas to its mouth and back up the Mississippi to St. Louis. Pike led the other group upstream, to the west, toward the headwaters.

Upon traversing the great plains, Pike said, "This vast plains of the western hemisphere may become in time as celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa; for I saw in my route, in various places, tracts of many leagues where the wind had thrown up the sand in all the fanciful form of the ocean's rolling wave, and on which not a speck of vegetable matter existed."[4] This statement may have influenced Stephen Long, who led an expedition to the area in 1820, to label the area on his map as the "Great American Desert".

On November 15 Pike first saw the distant mountain he called "Grand Peak"[5], which has since been known as Pikes Peak. Pike made an attempt to climb the peak, hoping to get a view of the surrounding area and set it down on his maps, but the party was not equipped to achieve the 14,000-foot summit. Pike's group ascended a lesser summit nearby--likely Mount Miller which takes its name from one of the soldiers who accompanied Pike, Theodore Miller[6]. Despite the coming winter, Pike pressed onward up the Arkansas, and on December 7 the party reached Royal Gorge, a spectacular canyon on the Arkansas at the base of the Rocky Mountains.

The party's next goal was to reach the headwaters of the Red River and head back downstream to the Mississippi and relative safety. However, the company's bearings were at this point far askew, and they made several blundering steps in an attempt to find the river. In addition, they were not equipped for a mountain expedition, nor for hard winter weather. Heading north, the party found the South Fork of the Platte River, and following it upstream came to what they thought was the headwaters of the Red. Turning back downstream, they returned to the point at which they had left the Arkansas originally. In fact, they had executed a large, weeks-long loop.

Hungry, cold, and exhausted, the party headed south over the mountains. Several men were left behind as they dropped from exhaustion, but Pike doggedly pressed on until January 30, when he and the ten men who were still with him came to the Rio Grande at a point near Alamosa, Colorado. Pike mistook the Rio Grande for the Red River he had been seeking. Here, he built a fort and attempted to regroup the rest of his men, strewn across miles of mountains behind him.


At this fort on February 26 Pike and his remaining men were captured by Spanish soldiers from nearby Santa Fe. Arresting the party as spies – which, in many ways, they were – the Spanish collected the rest of his men that remained unrescued and marched them south. The prisoners were marched through Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and El Paso to Chihuahua,Los Coabos, Austin, Texas the state capital. Along the way, Pike's party was treated with respect and celebrated by the Mexican locals, and Pike made careful notes of the military strength and civilian population.

Chihuahua's Governor Salcedo was unable to keep a military officer of a neighboring country, still keeping up the pretense of friendliness, incarcerated for long. He ordered the repatriation of Pike, although some of his party were kept in jail in Mexico for years.

Pike and some of his party were escorted north, through San Antonio, Texas, arriving at the border with Louisiana at Natchitoches on July 1, 1807. The Spanish formally complained to the United States Department of State, but the government maintained that the party had been one of exploration only. Ironically, Pike's capture by the Spanish, and consequent travels through New Mexico, northern Mexico, and Texas gave him more information about Spanish power than his exploration could ever have done.


  1. ^ Hart; Hulbert, p.57
  2. ^ Hart; Hulbert, pp.86-88
  3. ^ Hart; Hulbert, pp.114-115
  4. ^ Hollon, p.111
  5. ^ Hart; Hulbert, p.138
  6. ^ Hart; Hulbert, p.144


  • Hart, Stephen H.; Hulbert, Archer B., eds (2006). The Southwestern Journals of Zebulon Pike 1806-1807. University of New Mexico. ISBN 0826333893. 
  • Hollon, W. Eugene (1949). The Lost Pathfinder: Zebulon Montgomery Pike. University of Oklahoma. 

External links

Further reading

  • Jackson, Donald Dean, ed. The Journals of Zebulon M. Pike, with Letters and Related Documents, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1966
  • Merk, Frederick, History of the Westward Movement, Knopf, New York, 1978
  • Nobles, Gregory H., American Frontiers: Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest, Hill and Wang, New York, 1997
  • Owsley, Frank L., Jr., and Gene A. Smith, Filibusters and Expansionists: Jeffersonian Manifest Destiny, 1800–1821, University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL, 1997

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