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Zebulon Pike

Zebulon PikeZebulon Montgomery Pike (January 5, 1779 – April 27, 1813) was an American officer and explorer who, if not for the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark exploration, would probably be one of the most famous men of the 19th century.  Pike led a remarkable life, which included his two expeditions of exploration into the West and becoming a war hero in the battle of York (Toronto) where he lost his life commanding American forces.

Pike’s father was a military officer, so young Zebulon was exposed to several frontier outposts. He followed in his father’s footsteps and joined his father’s regiment as a cadet at the age of 15. He became a lieutenant in 1802.

Pike’s military career led to him being stationed at many different posts, including Fort Bellefontaine near St. Louis, where Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory, General James Wilkinson had his headquarters. In 1805 Wilkinson ordered Pike to find the source of the Mississippi River. This was Pike’s first expedition, and he traveled upriver into the Northern Territory. The object of the expedition was to select sites for military posts, to meet with the different Indian tribes, and to discover what he could about the British traders operating in American territory. 

The success of Pike’s expedition led General Wilkinson to choose him for a much more challenging one in 1806. The goals of this expedition were to restore freed captives to the Osage Nation, to affect peace between the Osage and the Kansa, to establish relations with the Comanches, and to acquire knowledge of the Southwestern boundary with Spain.

This “Southwestern Expedition” took Pike and his small party from what is now southeastern Kansas to just north of the Kansas-Nebraska border near Burr Oak, Kansas. They then traveled south back into Kansas to the Arkansas River, then west into present Colorado.

Spain denied the validity of the Louisiana Purchase between France and the United States and they continued to claim the plains. The Spanish sent a 600-man army to the plains to impress the Indian nations. This army arrived at a large Kitkahahki Pawnee village on the Republican River (which was thought to be near Republic, Kansas; the Pawnee Indian Museum State Historic Site) but was actually just north of the Kansas-Nebraska border near Guide Rock. They soon departed but two weeks later Pike and his small detachment arrived, not impressing the Pawnees in the least. Pike convinced the Pawnees to lower the Spanish flag and raise the American flag, possibly the first time the United States flag flew west of the Missouri River. After a tense stay Pike’s party journeyed into Colorado where he tried to climb a mountain (later named Pike’s Peak) but was arrested and detained by the Spanish. Pike was released six months later but his papers were kept.

Pike became famous after he and his troops won the battle of York over the British in the War of 1812. Pike was killed in the battle and became an American military hero. His legacy was later overshadowed by Lewis and Clark. Today he is known mostly for Pike’s Peak, the mountain he tried and failed to climb.    

Entry: Pike, Zebulon

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2011

Date Modified: April 2019

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.