On July 15, 1806, Captain Zebulon Pike set out from a landing at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers with two boats, two lieutenants, one sergeant, two corporals, sixteen privates, one surgeon, one interpreter, and fifty-one Indians, mostly Osages ransomed from the Pottawatomie tribe. Pike was to escort these Osages, including two influential chiefs, to their homes, thus securing the good-will of the tribe and placing him in a position to arrange treaties. However, his primary mission was to explore and document the southern part of the poorly-known Louisiana Purchase.
Pike took his men along the Missouri River until they reached the villages of their ransomed Osage companions on September 1. After a short visit, a few of the Osages agreed to guide the expedition to a Pawnee village on the Republican River. Here Pike was warned that the hostile Spanish had learned that he and his men were in the area, and had been in the village searching for them not too long ago. The expedition and their native guides, however, were not deterred and proceeded on their mission, even though it incidentally meant following the Spanish trail. They arrived at what is known as the Great Bend of the Arkansas River sometime in October. About this time, the Osages were sent home, and six of the men were sent to carry east the results of Pike’s explorations up to that point, so that if something happened to him and his band, the expedition would not have been in vain. Pike and the rest of the men proceeded to follow the course of the Arkansas southwest, unavoidably following the Spanish at the same time. By mid-November, the explorers had crossed the western edge of present-day Kansas and were pushing on, despite the fact that they were not exactly equipped to spend a winter in the mountains.
It was while following the Spanish trail through the Rockies that Pike encountered Pike’s Peak. Although this mountain was undoubtedly known to both the Indians and the Spanish well before November 15, 1806, when Pike first saw the peak, you will find that history books say he discovered it. After an unsuccessful attempt to scale the peak, Pike spent the remainder of the winter wandering through the Rocky Mountains on the verge of starvation. He and his men were captured by the Spanish on February 26, 1807, while traveling south along the Rio Grande. They were taken first to Santa Fe, and then to Chihuahua for questioning. Pike and most of his party were eventually released, but a few of the men stayed in Mexican prisons for years.
The Pike Expedition Controversy
Much debate has centered around the Pike Expedition of 1806 and 1807. Its avowed purposes were fairly straightforward – to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas River, to discover the source of the Red River, and to escort the aforementioned Osages to their homes. Many historians, however, suspect that there was an ulterior motive at play. General James Wilkinson, the governor of the Louisiana Purchase and the originator of the Pike expedition, was involved in a conspiracy with Aaron Burr to set up an empire in the West comprised of both American and Spanish territories. Some have speculated that the real purpose for the expedition was to scope out the area in view and gain some much-needed intelligence. A few even go so far as to suggest that Pike wanted to be captured so that he could get a good look at Spanish territory.
The Pike Expedition Legacy
The other results of the expedition are less controversial. For example, Pike roughly followed the route of the future commercially-important Santa Fe Trail. Also, he bestowed on the Great Plains the epithet of “The Great American Desert,” which discouraged settlement for many years. And then, of course, we must not forget Pike’s Peak.
Just as he decided that western Kansas was uninhabitable, Pike also declared that “Great Peak,” as he called it, was unclimbable. In both cases he was incorrect. Botanist Edwin James ascended all 14,110 feet of the mountain (Pike guessed 18,000 feet) in 1820, and since then, people have been making their way to the top on a regular basis. Both a highway and a cog railway scale the “insurmountable” summit. While not the highest mountain in Colorado, Pike’s Peak is certainly by far the best-known, and it is high enough to command views both spectacular and inspirational. “We must match the greatness of our country with the goodness of personal Godly living,” Katherine Lee Bates realized while under the influence of the stunning scenery; and she decided to share that purpose with the rest of the nation. The result? “America the Beautiful.”
Zebulon Montgomery Pike
Basic information at EnchantedLearning.com. Their map of his travels would work well for a notebooking page.
Pike’s Crisis in Colorado
Pike National Historic Trail Association site includes an account of the sighting of what became known as Pike’s Peak.
Zebulon Pike: Hard-Luck Explorer
More detailed information from the Pike National Historic Trail Association.
Expeditions of Zebulon M. Pike
Map showing his travels.
Zebulon Pike’s Notebook of Maps
Map from the National Archive of the southwest region of the Louisiana Purchase.
Pike’s Peak, CO
A Google Map satellite view.
Pike’s Peak Timeline
Zeb Pike, Boy Traveler by Augusta Stevenson
By one of the better writers in the the Childhood of Famous Americans series.
Lost with Lieutenant Pike by Edwin Sabin
Public domain work by a popular children’s author. Fictional account based on the facts told from a young boy’s point of view. Part of the American Trail Blazers series.
The Great Pike’s Peak Rush by Edwin L. Sabin
Account of the Colorado Gold Rush in the 1850s by a popular children’s author. Free and in the public domain.
Printables & Notebooking Pages
Map of Colorado
Old map at PBS.org showing Pike’s Peak. Nice for notebook.
Pike’s Peak Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.
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