December 13, 1997


1804, '05 and '06 were big years in the exploration of the American West. Ken Burns and Stephen E. Ambrose recently took us along with Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the Corps of Discovery as they struggled across the continent, exploring, mapping and cataloging for President Thomas Jefferson.

General James Wilkinson was no Jefferson. If you told the man he was so crooked he could hide behind a corkscrew, he'd probably take it as a compliment. He plotted with Aaron Burr to establish a new empire in the Spanish-held territory to the southwest of the United States. Like Jefferson, Wilkinson also needed information to fuel expansionist plans. He picked a young army officer under his command, Zebulon Pike.

Wilkinson was operating without the full knowledge of his government. Pike was undoubtedly kept in the dark about the real purpose of his expedition; he was told only to locate the source of the Mississippi River. He set out from St. Louis on August 9, 1805, fifteen months after Lewis and Clark's departure. His first assignment was to scout lead-mining activity in French territory, near today's Dubuque, Iowa. Pike carried out that assignment, and headed further north, wintering over near Little Falls, Minnesota. Canadian traders saved his party from freezing to death and were repaid by his orders to vacate the region. It was about this time that Lewis and Clark started back from the Pacific. Pike returned to St. Louis and was sent off on another mission, this time into Spanish territory. His expedition followed the Arkansas River, reaching the southern end of the Rocky Mountains, in today's state of Colorado, toward the middle of November, 1806. The Corps of Discovery meanwhile had arrived back in St. Louis two months earlier.
On the fifteenth of the month, the party spotted a distant mountain, towering above other nearby peaks. Pike determined to ascend to its summit. He and his men were not the first to be deceived by distances in the western mountains. They struggled on for three days, often in waist-deep snow, got quite lost, and ended up climbing the wrong mountain.

The peak they never reached would eventually bear Pike's Name, even though he got no nearer than twelve miles. They trudged on, only to be captured by Spanish troops and taken to Santa Fe, then further south, to Chihuahua, Mexico. Finally allowed to leave Spanish territory, they were returned to the United States with an armed escort.

Pike's published reports would be the catalyst that soon sent U. S. traders to the Southwest - the beginning of the end for Spanish and Mexican sovereignty. Pike would die a brigadier general, at the assault on York, Canada, now Toronto, in 1813. That same war would finally expose James Wilkinson's incompetence. His duplicity would become known.


For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor.

©1997 David Minor / Eagles Byte