Zebulon Pike's Mysterious Western Expeditions

Pike's Mysterious Motives Remain Puzzling to This Day

The memoirs of Zebulon Pike. MPI / Getty Images

The soldier and explorer Zebulon Pike is remembered for two expeditions he led to explore territory acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.

It is often assumed he climbed Pike's Peak, the Colorado mountain named for him. He did not reach the peak's summit, though he did explore in its vicinity on one of his expeditions.

In some ways, Pike's western voyages are second only to Lewis and Clark. Yet his efforts have always been overshadowed by nagging questions about the motivations for his journeys. What was he trying to accomplish by trekking around in the previously unexplored West?

Was he a spy? Did he have secret orders to provoke a war with Spain? Was he simply an adventurous Army officer seeking adventure while filling in the map? Or was he actually intent on trying to expand the limits of his nation's boundaries?

Mission to Explore Western Territories

Zebulon Pike was born in New Jersey on January 5, 1779, the son of an officer in the U.S. Army. When he was a teenager Zebulon Pike entered the army as a cadet, and when he was 20 years old he was given an officer's commission as a lieutenant.

Pike was posted at several outposts on the western frontier. And in 1805 the commander of the U.S. Army, General James Wilkinson, gave Pike the assignment of traveling northward up the Mississippi River from St. Louis to find the river's source.

It would later be revealed that General Wilkinson harbored dubious loyalties. Wilkinson was commanding the U.S. Army. Yet he was also secretly receiving payments from Spain, which at the time had vast holdings along the southwest frontier.

The first expedition on which Wilkinson dispatched Pike, to find the source of the Mississippi River in 1805, may have had an ulterior motive. It is suspected that Wilkinson may have been hoping to provoke a conflict with Britain, which at the time controlled Canada.

Pike's First Western Expedition

Pike, leading a party of 20 soldiers, left St. Louis in August 1805. He traveled into present-day Minnesota, spending a winter among the Sioux. Pike arranged a treaty with the Sioux and mapped much of the region.

When winter arrived, he pressed forward with a few men and determined that Lake Leech was the source of the great river. He was wrong, Lake Itasca is the actual source of the Mississippi. There were suspicions that Wilkinson didn't really care what the real source of the river was, as his real interest was to sent a probe northward to see how the British would react.

After Pike returned to St. Louis in 1806, General Wilkinson had another assignment for him.

Pike's Second Western Expedition

The second expedition led by Zebulon Pike remains puzzling after more than two centuries. Pike was sent westward, again by General Wilkinson, and the purpose of the expedition remains mysterious.

The ostensible reason Wilkinson sent Pike into the West was to explore the sources of the Red River and the Arkansas River. And, as the United States had recently acquired the Louisiana Purchase from France, Pike was apparently supposed to explore and report on the lands in the southwestern portion of the purchase.

Pike began his mission by acquiring supplies in St. Louis, and word of his upcoming expedition leaked out. A detachment of Spanish troops was assigned to shadow Pike as he moved westward, and perhaps even stop him from traveling.

After leaving St. Louis on July 15, 1806, with Spanish cavalry apparently shadowing him from a distance, Pike traveled to the area of present-day Pueblo, Colorado. He tried and failed to climb the mountain that would later be named for him, Pike's Peak.

Zebulon Pike Headed for Spanish Territory

Pike, after exploring in the mountains, turned southward and led his men toward Spanish territory. A detachment of Spanish troops found Pike and his men living in a crude fort they had built of cottonwood trees on the banks of the Rio Grande.

When challenged by the Spanish soldiers, Pike explained that he believed he was camping along the Red River, within territory belonging to the United States. The Spanish assured him he was on the Rio Grande. Pike lowered the American flag flying over the fort.

At that point, the Spanish "invited" Pike to accompany them to Mexico, and Pike and his men were escorted to Santa Fe. Pike was questioned by the Spanish. He stuck to his story that he believed he had been exploring within American territory.

Pike was treated well by the Spanish, who transported him and his men onward to Chihuahua and eventually released them to return to the United States. In the summer of 1807, the Spanish escorted him to Louisiana, where he was released, safely back on American soil.

Zebulon Pike Returned to American Under a Cloud of Suspicion

By the time Zebulon Pike returned to the United States, things had changed dramatically. An alleged plot devised by Aaron Burr to seize American territory and set up a separate nation in the Southwest had been uncovered. Burr, the former vice-president, and killer of Alexander Hamilton had been charged with treason. Also implicated in the alleged plot was General James Wilkinson, the man who had sent Zebulon Pike on his expeditions.

To the public and many in the government, it appeared that Pike may have played some shadowy role in the Burr conspiracy. Was Pike really a spy for Wilkinson and Burr? Was he trying to provoke the Spanish in some way? Or was he secretly cooperating with the Spanish in some plot against his own country?

Instead of returning as a heroic explorer, Pike was forced to clear his name.

After he proclaimed his innocence, government officials concluded that Pike had acted loyally. He resumed his military career and even wrote a book based on his explorations.

As for Aaron Burr, he was charged with treason but acquitted at a trail at which General Wilkinson testified.

Zebulon Pike Became a War Hero

Zebulon Pike was promoted to major in 1808. With the outbreak of the War of 1812, Pike was promoted to general.

General Zebulon Pike commanded American troops attacking York (now Toronto), Canada in the spring of 1813. Pike was leading the assault on the heavily defended town and the withdrawing British blew up a powder magazine during their retreat.

Pike was struck by a piece of stone which broke his back. He was carried to an American ship, where he died on April 27, 1813. His troops had succeeded in capturing the town, and a captured British flag was placed under his head just before he died.

The Legacy of Zebulon Pike

Considering his heroic actions in the War of 1812, Zebulon Pike was remembered as a military hero. And in the 1850s settlers and prospectors in Colorado began calling the mountain he encountered Pike's Peak, a name which stuck.

Yet the questions about his expeditions still remain. There are numerous theories about why Pike was sent into the West, and whether his explorations were really missions of espionage.

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McNamara, Robert. "Zebulon Pike's Mysterious Western Expeditions." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/zebulon-pike-led-two-expeditions-1773817. McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 27). Zebulon Pike's Mysterious Western Expeditions. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/zebulon-pike-led-two-expeditions-1773817 McNamara, Robert. "Zebulon Pike's Mysterious Western Expeditions." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/zebulon-pike-led-two-expeditions-1773817 (accessed June 7, 2023).