Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

PIKE, ZEBULON (1779-1813)

"Portrait of Zebulon Pike, about 1810"

Zebulon Montgomery Pike, army officer and explorer, substantially added to early-nineteenth-century knowledge of the Central and Southern Plains. He is remembered mainly for his description of the region as a "Great Sandy Desert" and for Pikes Peak, the Colorado mountain that bears his name.

Son of an army officer, he was born at Lamberton (today Lamington), New Jersey, on January 5, 1779. In 1794 young Pike became a cadet, and five years later he was commissioned as a second lieutenant of the infantry. In 1805, while serving in Illinois, he led a small party up the Mississippi River to locate its source and to select sites for future army posts. The next spring he received orders to lead a party across the Central Plains to find the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red Rivers. The expedition, including twenty-one soldiers, an interpreter, and a civilian doctor, rode west out of St. Louis on July 15, 1806. They crossed Kansas to the Rocky Mountains and into Spanish territory. There, severe winter threatened their survival, forcing them to surrender to the Spanish. They were taken south to Chihuahua, Mexico, but in 1807 President Thomas Jefferson secured their release. Early in the War of 1812, Pike was promoted to brigadier general. He died on April 27, 1813, in an explosion of a British powder magazine during the capture of York (Toronto), Ontario.

See also IMAGES AND ICONS: Great American Desert.

Roger L. Nichols University of Arizona

Hollon, W. Eugene. The Lost Pathfinder: Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949.

Jackson, Donald, ed. Journals of Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

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