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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Pike's Peek at Wisconsin

Today is the 199th anniversary of the moment that explorer Zebulon Pike (1779-1813) first set eyes on the Colorado mountain that gave his name immortality. Ten days later he climbed part way up it and left this glowing account (from our American Journeys online collection).

Only six months before, in the spring of 1806, Pike was here Wisconsin. He had been ordered in 1805 to explore the upper Mississippi River, where English fur traders from Canada were working illegally on American soil. Pike headed north on August 9, 1805, in a seventy-foot keelboat and on September 23 reached modern Minneapolis. After wintering further upriver he contacted the British traders, let them know that they weren't welcome, raised the American flag over their fort, and met with Dakota Indians; his expedition returned to St. Louis on April 30, 1806.

Pike kept a detailed diary of the trip that includes many accounts of Wisconsin locations and people. He described the unoccupied prairie where Lacrosse would rise, and where its name originated. He met with the Ho-Chunk (whom he calls "Puans") at Prairie du Chien. He visited Julien Dubuque, who had by that time been mining lead for 17 years, having obtained permission from the Sauk and Fox Indians at Prairie du Chien in 1788. During their interview Dubuque, however, proved he was no fool, and would not reveal any details about his monopoly to this upstart American officer.

Pike returned to St. Louis but remained only a few weeks before being sent to reconnoiter the Spanish borderlands. Ostensibly an exploring expedition, he was in fact a spy ordered to investigate the extent of Spanish incursion northward into "Louisiana." Pike left for the Southwest on July 15, 1806, with twenty-three men. They headed west up the Missouri River where, led by Osage guides, they reached a Pawnee village near the border of Kansas and Nebraska. From here they turned south to the Arkansas River, ultimately reaching present-day Pueblo, Colorado, on November 23, and the South Platte on December 12. They wintered near modern Alamosa, Colorado, until on February 26, 1807, they were captured by Spanish troops. The Spanish confiscated Pike’s notes and carried the party through Albuquerque and El Paso, and ultimately to Chihuahua, Mexico. There the authorities, not wanting to provoke an international incident, ordered Pike and the remnants of his expedition returned to U.S. soil. They traveled through San Antonio, Texas, to Natchitoches, Louisiana, where they arrived on July 1, 1807, before ultimately reaching home. Because of political tensions between the U.S, Spain, and England, no Americans would again explore the Southwest until 1820.

When he got back, Pike wrote up his accounts of these two expeditions. Because his papers on the second, more famous, one had been taken by Spanish authorities, he wrote it from memory without access to notes kept on the trail. The book was not a success; its Philadelphia publisher went bankrupt and Pike received no royalties. Foreign editions were more popular, with versions published in London in 1811, Paris in 1812, Amsterdam in 1812-13, Weimar in 1813, and Vienna in 1826.

Pike himself fared hardly better than his book. Promoted to major in 1808, he eagerly went to fight the British when the War of 1812 broke out. He was made first a colonel and then a general, and sent to Canada when the Americans attempted to seize the capital. While commanding an attack on York (modern Toronto), Pike was killed on April 27, 1813, when the enemy detonated hidden explosives under his advancing troops. This use of explosives against soldiers was considered outrageously barbaric, and when the Americans did capture York they burned it. The British responded in kind the following year when they got to Washington, D.C. To learn about Wisconsin's role in the War of 1812 and see original documents by participants, visit Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on November 15, 2005

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