Pike’s Menagerie

There were no grocery stores in Morrison County at the time that Lt. Zebulon Montgomery Pike and his men traveled up the Mississippi River on their 1805-06 expedition. Heck, there wasn’t even a Morrison County. But there was plenty of wildlife, just what the men needed to survive their long and difficult journey.

Pike and his crew reached the Platte River in what is now Royalton, MN, on October 13, 1805. That day, they “killed one deer, one beaver, two minks, two geese, and one duck” and “discovered one buffalo sign” (pg. 102, Coues). Imagine! Buffalo, in large, wild herds, stampeding across this prairie bordering the northern woodlands. While today’s Minnesotans are accustomed to sighting white-tail deer and black bear, it is difficult to picture buffalo here outside of fences, the way lions and antelope roam Africa. And buffalo weren’t the only large animals. Elk also made their home in the Morrison County area in the early 1800s.

As Pike worked his way upriver, his journal tracks the various animals he saw and hunted. This accounting highlighted the perilous life and death situation he was in, as well as his general exploratory curiosity. Pike’s men depended upon their hunting skills in order to keep themselves fed. Within a few days of reaching what is now Morrison County, it was snowing. They could not forage for much in the way of vegetation. Meat it would have to be, along with the basic provisions they had managed to bring with them.

Perhaps the most crucial provision was ammunition. Twice in the time Pike spent in the Morrison County area, the ammunition was soaked by the river, once on October 27, and again on December 14. After the first ammo dunking, Pike notes, “At that time I was not able to ascertain the extent of the misfortune, the magnitude of which none can estimate, save only those in the same situation with ourselves, 1,500 miles from civilized society; and in danger of losing the very means of defense — nay, of existence” (pg. 109, Coues).

While they primarily subsisted on deer and plenty of small game, including ducks, geese, porcupines, black fox, prairie hens, raccoons, otter, and a bird he called a “pheasant”, Pike was more interested in taking big game. He wanted to shoot an elk. On November 2, he set out to do just this. He and a man called Miller followed a herd of about 150 elk and discovered “that it was no easy matter to kill one” (pg. 110, Coues). Pike wounded two elk that day, but they got away. He attributed his lack of success “to the smallness of our balls, and to our inexperience in following the track after wounding the game” (pg. 111, Coues).

The next day, Pike’s luck improved. He and Miller “saw immense droves of elk on both banks” of a lake. In his journal, Pike continues, “Two bucks, more curious than the others, came pretty close. I struck one behind the fore shoulder; he did not go more than 20 yards before he fell and died. This was the cause of much exultation, because it fulfilled my determination; and, as we had been two days and nights without victuals, it was very acceptable” (pg. 112, Coues).

Having killed an elk, Pike later decided to go after buffalo, but, once again owing to the inadequate size of his ammunition, he managed to wound a couple without taking them down.

For as much as Pike and his men depended upon the animals of the Morrison County area for their sustenance, Pike was a thoughtful hunter. On November 8, he had this to say: “Passed several deer and one elk, which I might probably have killed; but not knowing whether I should be able to secure the meat if I killed them, and bearing in mind that they were created for the use and not the sport of man, I did not fire at them” (Pg. 114, Coues). A good philosophy, if ever there was one.

By Mary Warner
Copyright 2005, Morrison County Historical SocietyM

All quotes in this article taken from The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike, Vol. 1, by Elliott Coues, published by Ross & Haines, Inc., Minneapolis, MN, 1965.

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