Bicentennial is Dec. 14

The restless pathfinder for whom Pike County is named was more interested in paddling by it than stopping for very long.

But there’s no doubt Zebulon Montgomery Pike left a lasting imprint locally and nationally. And his journey is still shadowed with intrigue.

As the county observes its bicentennial on Dec. 14, a spotlight is again cast upon the man who led the first American military expedition of the Upper Mississippi River and was a contemporary of Lewis and Clark.

The New Jersey native’s story reads like an adventure novel. He was born Jan. 5, 1779, the son of a Continental Army infantry captain during the American Revolution. Biographer Elliot Coues said that as a boy, Pike had a “resolute spirit” and ‘combative energies.” His formal education was meager, but he was highly intelligent and a quick learner.

Pike put his best qualities to use when joining the army as a cadet at age 15, stationed with his father’s regiment in Indiana.

“He was agreeable in manner, even polished, but reserved in conversation, unless on some topic in which he was specially interested,” wrote biographer Mary Gay Humphreys. “He was a strict disciplinarian, and his rapid decision in emergencies frequently forestalled what otherwise would have resulted in the more tedious process of a court-martial.”

In 1799, Pike was commissioned an officer and two years later married Clarissa Harlow Brown, the daughter of another Revolutionary War captain. As with her five-foot-eight-inch husband, she was tall for the times and was described as a dignified lady who kept a diary in French.

Pike served dutifully, but uneventfully, at several frontier outposts until he was assigned to St. Louis in 1805. There, he met Gen. James Wilkinson, the controversial first governor of the recently-acquired Louisiana Territory that included land which would become Missouri. Wilkinson was accused of having treasonous ties to a European monarch and being more interested in riches and glory than in pioneering advancement. He was described by historian Robert Leckie as “a general who never won a battle or lost a court-martial.”

Eager to prove himself, Pike ignored Wilkinson’s troubles and gladly accepted the general’s offer to command an Upper Mississippi excursion. Though he ranked above Pike, Wilkinson called himself “your obedient servant” in signing orders for a “speedy, safe and pleasant tour.”

Two of the three wishes would be met.

Into the wilderness

Many had ventured into the untamed territory, but few of them were Americans.

Explorers had traversed the Mississippi for at least the previous 130 years, and yet little was known about the peoples, resources and geography of what was then considered the Northwest.

The British were using outposts in Canada to boost influence in the region. American politicians didn’t want them taking over newly-gained territory.

Though they were military officers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery was a publicly-financed operation endorsed by President Thomas Jefferson. Pike’s quest did not get as much attention or as much public funding, but it would prove very valuable.

Wilkinson mandated that Pike make treaties with the Native Americans, describe natural elements, scout possible locations for forts and find the source of the Mississippi. He also was assigned to map boundaries of the territory and bring back intelligence on any subversive British schemes.

“Despite the multiplicity of these instructions, he was able to do more than was required with his skeleton force,” according to an article in the October 1943 edition of Missouri Historical Review.

Pike, a sergeant, two corporals and 17 privates left St. Louis at 4 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 9, 1805. They carried $2,000 worth of supplies – about $41,000 today – but their first mistake was not taking a guide, a doctor or anyone who understood Indian dialects. Luckily, they would come across friendly helpers.

A 70-foot-long keelboat proved to be their second blunder. The men often had to lower the sails and row hard as they pushed against the current. Sand bars in the untamed river meant they had to sometimes get out and carry the boat until a suitable channel could be found.

The expedition reached what would become Pike County on Wednesday, Aug. 14, camping on Crider Island between Clarksville and Louisiana. Pike lamented in his journal that it “Rained all day,” but was pleased that his men netted “1,375 small fish” to supplement their provisions.

Rain fell again the next morning and because of “the continued series of wet weather, the men were quite galled and sore,” Pike wrote. Maps made by the explorers noted the “handsome rocky cliffs” in the area.

The group passed Noix Creek at Louisiana and proceeded to the nearby confluence of the Salt River, which also was called the Oahahah. Pike said he did “not recollect having seen (the waterway) on any chart,” but others had documented it. Pike called it “a considerable stream.”

The expedition passed Ashburn and likely camped near what is now the line between Pike and Ralls counties. The rain had stopped, but the boat got stuck on a log. Because the obstruction could only be accessed by diving beneath the surface, the crew spent several hours cutting it loose.

There is proof they stayed at what is now Keokuk, Iowa, and Nauvoo, Ill., encamping at the home of William Ewing, a government agent who was assigned to teach agriculture to the Sac tribe.

By Sept. 23, the party had reached the Minnesota River and signed a treaty to buy land from the Sioux. Pike agreed to pay $200 – a little over $4,000 today – for 100,000 acres. But since he wasn’t authorized to spend government money, the Sioux ended up with no cash and 60 gallons of whiskey.

The expedition wintered north of present-day Minneapolis and started back for St. Louis in spring 1806. On the way, the men killed almost 300 pigeons 10 miles north of the Salt River.

“The most fervid imagination cannot conceive their numbers,” Pike said of the thousands of birds he saw. “Their noise in the wood was like the continued roaring of the wind, and the ground may be said to have been absolutely covered with their excrement.”

The party also met Sac tribesmen who wanted to trade pigeons for liquor, but Pike declined. They tied up the keelboat at the mouth of the Salt just north of Louisiana to eat supper on April 28, but “so violent a gale and thunderstorm” arrived around midnight that they were forced to camp onshore.

It was still pouring the next morning. Anxious to get home, the men rowed for four hours in the rain until stopping briefly for breakfast. After spending the night in Portage de Sioux, they made it to St. Louis at noon on April 30.

Complex character

Pike could be a refined gentleman or a brutish tyrant, unapologetically rude or impetuously brave.
From a 21st century view, he would likely be accused of treating his men poorly. Pike once abandoned two soldiers who had volunteered to look for his lost dogs. It took eight days for them to rejoin their comrades, and only then because help was supplied by an Indian chief and a Scottish trader. Despite the regimen, many of Pike’s men held him in high regard.

Even though a British host was cordial to Pike’s party for a week, the commander had a soldier shoot down the Union Jack and hoist the American flag as they were leaving. He ignored advice from a tribe known for its canoe-building skills and had his own outfit make a dugout. It sank with many of their provisions. He then foolishly ordered gunpowder to be dried over a fire. It exploded and burned a tent.

Perhaps most glaringly, Pike mistook Leech Lake as the source of the Mississippi. It is Lake Itasca.

On the plus side, none of Pike’s men died on the journey, although they often endured miserable conditions. Much of their luck can be attributed to the benevolence of Native Americans and fur traders they met.

“How he survived, I have no idea,” said Dr. John C. Anfinson, a former historian and cultural specialist with the National Park Service.

One other reason was Pike had more stamina than a bull. The teetotaler was an exceptional hunter, single-handedly bringing back enough game to feed all the men. He had a commander’s sense of duty, often fighting fatigue and cold to write in his journal while the men slept or walking ahead of the group and lighting fires so the men could warm themselves.

Despite his ties to Wilkinson, he definitely loved his country, as showcased by one encounter with Northwesterners.

“He warned them that they must stop distributing British medals among the Indians and spreading ideas hostile to the United States,” historian Robert L. Fisher wrote in 1936.

Pike showed intuition in acknowledging his negotiations with the Sioux were likely looked upon by the tribe as a “premeditated fraud” and that his actions “would render my life in danger should I ever return amongst them.” He wasn’t the peacemaker he had hoped to be, either, later learning efforts to keep longtime tribal enemies from fighting lasted until just after his party left for St. Louis.

Pike also had the modesty to admit he was no Lewis or Clark, noting he was more concerned about the “exigencies of the morrow” than cataloging animals and plants, and that his cobbled-together scientific tools were rudimentary at best.

The commander offered “a sufficient apology for the numerous errors, tautologies and egotisms which will appear,” especially the personal observations “that were never intended to be included in my official report” but were, anyway.
Regardless, there was little time for rest. On July 15, 1806, Pike left under Wilkinson’s orders to explore the Arkansas and Red rivers and the Southwest. It was on the trek that he “discovered” the Colorado peak that today bears his name.

Pike and his men wandered beyond the Louisiana Territory borders into what would become New Mexico and were captured by the Spanish. Most of the group was held for four months before being released, although some were never returned.


Pike became a hero and his account of his Mississippi River expedition was so popular that it was translated into several languages.

He had suggested the journal would “have little to strike the imagination,” but his beloved country benefitted greatly from the exploration and its insights.

While the author was accused by some of glossing over failures and being little more than a pawn for the nefarious Wilkinson, Americans ate up every word. And because it was published four years before the journals of Lewis and Clark, the book became required reading for anyone heading to the frontier.

“After the reports of Lewis and Clark’s expedition and Zebulon Pike’s return, attention was called to a country of possibilities known to only a few venturesome traders and voyageurs,” notes a story in the October 1914 Missouri Historical Review.

Pike’s diary of the 1806-1807 Southwest expedition would become almost a historical aftermath because Mexico held onto it until publication in 1908.

Shortly after returning from the Southwest, Pike was embroiled in the conspiracy controversy surrounding former Vice President Aaron Burr, who was accused of trying to set up an independent country across parts of the Louisiana Territory. Pike was cleared and Burr was acquitted.

“Pike’s years of public service and his sacrifice to the country furnished enough proof to reject (treason) claims,” author Mathew Lewis wrote in his 2012 book “Zebulon Pike, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West.”

Thirty years after his death, Wilkinson was exposed as a Spanish spy. President Theodore Roosevelt said “there is no more despicable character” in American history.

Pike was not outwardly affected by the scandal. He continued to advance in rank and died the way he had hoped – in battle.

It happened during the War of 1812 with the British. On April 27, 1813, Pike and his unit charged Fort York at Toronto and were struck by debris when the British blew up a cache of ammunition. As he took his last breath, Pike’s head fell upon a downed British flag – perhaps his final repudiation of English sovereignty. Three months later, William Clark was named governor of the Missouri Territory.

In 1818, the Territorial Legislature carved Pike County out of St. Charles County. As originally organized, it featured what would become nine full counties and parts of six others that at the time extended to the Iowa border and across most of Central Missouri.

The first steamboat to dock at St. Louis on Aug. 2, 1817, wasn’t the “Lewis and Clark.” It was the “Zebulon M. Pike.” Nine other states have Pike counties, and many communities, towns, parks and other landmarks carry the name.

Over the years, historians have debated whether Pike was an innocent explorer or a witting agent of espionage. Perhaps unfairly, critics have also accused him of falling short in meeting the venture’s goals. However, broad requests to disrupt English influence and court loyalty from Native Americans were certainly beyond his control. Besides, he followed his orders to the letter. Lewis offered high praise.

“Pike’s round-trip journey of several thousand miles had taken less than nine months,” he wrote. “He ascended the Mississippi to a point very near its source, warned the British to stop their illegal trading, parlayed with representatives of the Sac, Fox, Menominee and Sioux tribes, and negotiated the purchase of a site for a future fort.”

Lewis calls Pike “one of the most significant explorers in the early republic” even though “most Americans know little about him today.”

“It’s a big story,” Anfinson agreed. “It doesn’t have to be Lewis and Clark to be important.”