Zebulon Montgomery Pike


Zebulon Montgomery Pike (January 5, 1779 – April 27, 1813) was an American brigadier general and explorer for whom Pikes Peak in Colorado is named. As a United States Army captain in 1806–1807, he led the Pike Expedition to explore and document the southern portion of the Louisiana territory and to find the headwaters of the Red River, during which he recorded the discovery of what later was called Pikes Peak. Captured by the Spanish while wandering in present-day Colorado after his party got confused in its travels, Pike and his men were taken to Chihuahua, present-day Mexico and questioned by the governor. They were released later in 1807 at the border of Louisiana.

In 1810 Pike published an account of his expeditions, a book so popular that it was translated into French, German and Dutch for publication in Europe. He later achieved the rank of brigadier general in the Army, serving during the War of 1812. He was killed during the Battle of York, which the United States won.

Early and Family Life

Early life and education

Zebulon M. Pike was born during the Revolutionary War on January 5, 1779 near Lamberton (derived from the Indian pronunciation “Alamatunk”), now called Lamington, in Somerset county, New Jersey. Pike would follow in the footsteps of his father, also named Zebulon, who had begun his own career in the military service of the United States beginning in 1775, at the outset of the American Revolutionary War. To avoid confusion, son Zebulon Pike is referred to with the middle initial of M, while father Zebulon Pike is not.

The younger Pike grew to adulthood with his family at a series of Midwestern outposts —the United States’ frontier at the time — in Ohio and Illinois. In 1799 he joined his father’s regiment as a cadet at the age of 20, earned a commission as ensign in 1804 and a first lieutenancy later that year.


Pike was descended from John Pike, who immigrated from England as a child in 1635, and helped found Woodbridge, New Jersey in 1665. A Surname DNA project exists for male individuals with the Pike surname. A genetic study of submitted DNA samples shows almost 20% have a genetic relationship to the same male line as Zebulon M. Pike, though he left no male descendants. This paternal line descends from a male ancestor of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, possibly John Pike.

Marriage and family

Zebulon M. Pike married Clarissa Harlow Brown in 1801. They had one child who survived to adulthood, a daughter, Clarissa Brown Pike, who later married John Cleves Symmes Harrison, a son of President William Henry Harrison.

Military career

Pike’s military career included working on logistics and payroll at a series of frontier posts, including Fort Bellefontaine near St. Louis. General James Wilkinson, appointed Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory and headquartered there, became his mentor.

In 1805, Wilkinson ordered Pike to find the source of the Mississippi River, so Pike traveled into the northern Louisiana Territory, newly purchased from Spain. Over 100 years later, Spain released official records showing General Wilkinson received personal trade concessions and thus could be labeled a double agent for Spain at the time.

Pike Expedition

After Pike returned from this first expedition, General Wilkinson almost immediately ordered him to mount a second expedition, this time to explore, map and find the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers. This exploratory expedition into the southwestern part of the Louisiana Territory was also to evaluate natural resources, and establish friendly relations with Native Americans.

Thus, beginning July 15, 1806, Pike led what became known as the “Pike Expedition”. General Wilkinson’s son served as one of his lieutenants, although it now seems that Wilkinson planned that the Spanish who controlled Mexico would capture him and his men.

In early November 1806, Pike and his team sighted and tried to climb to the summit of the peak later named after him (Pikes Peak.) They made it as far as Mt. Rosa to the southeast of Pikes Peak, before giving up the ascent in waist-deep snow. They had already gone almost two days without food.

They then continued south searching for the Red River’s headwaters, and built a fort for shelter during the winter. However, they had crossed the border, whether through confusion or deliberation. Spanish authorities captured Pike and some of his party in northern New Mexico (now part of southern Colorado) on February 26, 1807.

Pike and his men were taken to Santa Fe, then to the capital of Chihuahua province, and presented to Commandant General Salcedo, who was governor of the state. Pike was treated well and invited to formal social dinners, but still not quite given the treatment of a visiting dignitary, and his men were kept prisoner. Salcedo housed Pike with Juan Pedro Walker, a cartographer, who also acted as an interpreter. Walker transcribed and translated Pike’s confiscated documents, including his journal. Mexican authorities also feared the spread of both democracy and Protestant Christian sects that might undermine their rule.

During this time, Pike had access to various maps of the southwest and learned about Mexican discontent with Spanish rule. Spain filed official protests with the United States about Pike’s expedition, but since the nations were not at war (and Spain was rebelling against Napoleon’s brother who was fighting England in the Peninsular War), Commandant Salcedo released the military men. The Spanish escorted Pike and most of his men north, releasing them at the Louisiana border on July 1, 1807. However, some of his soldiers were held for years in Mexico. The Red River, which later separated Oklahoma Territory from Texas, was next explored by the ill-fated Woolley expedition of 1815, named for the Colonel who died (and only two sick men returned, one of whom soon died).

War of 1812

Pike was promoted to captain during the southwestern expedition. In 1811, Lt. Col. Zebulon M. Pike with the 4th Infantry Regiment fought at the Battle of Tippecanoe. He was promoted to colonel in 1812. Pike’s military career also included serving as deputy quartermaster-general in New Orleans and inspector-general during the War of 1812.

Pike was promoted to brigadier general in 1813. Along with General Jacob Brown, Pike departed from the newly fortified rural military outpost of Sackets Harbor, on the New York shore of Lake Ontario, for what became his last military campaign. On this expedition, Pike commanded combat troops in the successful attack on York, (now Toronto) on April 27, 1813. Pike was killed by flying rocks and other debris when the withdrawing British garrison blew up its ammunition magazine as Pike’s troops approached Fort York. His body was brought by ship back to Sackets Harbor, where his remains were buried at the military cemetery.


The Spanish authorities confiscated Pike’s journals; they were not recovered by the United States from Mexico until the 1900s. He wrote an account from memory of his expeditions, which was published in 1810 as The expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike to Headwaters of the Mississippi River, through Louisiana Territory, and in New Spain, during the Years 1805-6-7. It was popular and later translated into French, German, and Dutch editions. His account became required reading for all American explorers who followed him in the 19th century.

His capture by the Spanish and travel through the Southwest gave Pike insight into the region. He described the politics in Chihuahua, which led to the Mexican independence movement. He also described trade conditions in the Spanish territories of New Mexico and Chihuahua, which contributed to development of the Santa Fe Trail.



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