Was Pike a Failure?

Poor Lt. Zebulon Pike. Like Rodney Dangerfield, the man gets no respect. When talking to school groups about explorers, inevitably they have heard all about Lewis & Clark, but any mention of Pike only elicits blank stares. For this to happen among Minnesota school children is a crying shame.

Unfortunately, we’ve also seen this disinterest in Pike on a state and national level. Where Lewis & Clark’s Voyage of Discovery got an Omni Theater movie, a Ken Burns documentary, several books, including one by Stephen Ambrose, and major exhibits in at least fourteen different states, the response to the 200th Anniversary of Pike’s Mississippi River expedition has been anemic.

I found proof of this lack of recognition when I googled the terms “Lewis and Clark exhibits” and “Zebulon Pike exhibits.” There were 648,000 hits for Lewis & Clark and a measly 990 for Pike, and many of those contained only a mention of Pike in relation to the Lewis & Clark expedition, as though he were no more than a footnote.

How did this happen? Why is it that Pike’s expeditions, both his Mississippi one and his southwesterly one, have received so little attention? He was basically doing the same thing Lewis & Clark were doing, exploring the Louisiana Purchase. Perhaps it was because he didn’t have a lovely Indian woman as a guide, or bring his loyal dog. The Lewis & Clark story holds more tension with the Shoshone Sacagawea, whose infant son traveled with the group. And who doesn’t love a dog? (Writers have produced books on both Sacagawea and the dog, Seaman. Sacagawea even has her own coin.)

Even without the woman, baby, and dog, Pike reported plenty of excitement on his Mississippi expedition. Minnesota was as wild as the western United States because it was the western United States. When Pike and his men traveled upriver, they left civilization as they knew it. There were no rest stops, hotels or convenience stores at which they could stop for supplies. A handful of fur trade outposts was all they could hope for. They had no idea how they would be received by the Native Americans. To top it all off, winter descended in October, and any Minnesotan who spends time outdoors will understand the implications of that.

By the time Pike reached the Morrison County area, his men were vomiting blood from the exertion of traveling. Starvation, frozen feet, fort and canoe building, wet ammunition, men temporarily separated from the expedition, confrontations with traders, meeting with Dakota and Ojibwe leaders, hunting big game – all were challenges Pike and his men faced. Surely there’s enough here for a documentary.

Unfortunately, many historians have chosen to spin the Pike story in a negative direction. They consider him to be a failure on several fronts. Some say he got lost. Lost? He was exploring; there is no being lost when in uncharted territory. Or, perhaps, exploring is about being lost everywhere. In any case, he made it back to Missouri by the end of the expedition, so he was hardly lost. Some historians feel he was too hard on his men and hold this against him. It was for the well-being of his men that he stopped to build a fort, rather than push on upriver in lousy winter conditions. Many think that he took advantage of the Dakota Indians when he arranged the treaty transferring land near St. Anthony Falls to the Americans for Fort Snelling. The 1805 Treaty is assuredly controversial, as are most Indian treaties, and the ramifications of it continue to be felt today. If we ignore the Pike story, however, we also lose an opportunity to learn about the Dakota’s side of things.

Perhaps, the biggest failure attributed to Pike was that he did not find the true source of the Mississippi River, one of the many difficult tasks assigned to him. When I asked Pike archaeologist and historian Douglas Birk about this, he said that explorers attempting to find the source of any river will follow the biggest channel when a waterway forks. In the middle of winter, the Leech Lake channel appeared dominant over the Mississippi River channel, so Pike naturally took this one and decided that Leech Lake was the source. He didn’t have the time and inclination to search every lake, bog and sinkhole to figure out the true origin of the river.

The question of the source was debated until 1887, when the Minnesota Historical Society passed a resolution naming Lake Itasca the true source. Geomorphologists have since put forth the theory that the Mississippi actually originates from Big Stone Lake on the western border of the state. According to Birk, this is a moot point. He favors the theory illustrated in Holling Clancy Holling’s book, “Minn of the Mississippi,” which shows a drop of water falling from a crow’s beak as the real source of the river.

For armchair historians quick to label Pike a failure, Birk has this advice: He’d like to have them strap on a pair of snowshoes and walk from Little Falls to Leech Lake in forty-below weather and see how they fare.

Pike accomplished everything he set out to do and left behind journals that describe the natural world in Minnesota at a time when there were few written accounts of the area. That’s big, worthy of attention. The fact that Pike was in Minnesota, with a fort right here in Morrison County is also big. State and local historians and teachers have an opportunity to show students a direct connection to major westward expansion, which will help make history exciting and memorable for young people. To be successful in this endeavor, historians must acknowledge and discuss Pike’s adventures, instead of ignoring or negating them.

For those organizations and sites hosting Pike events for the 200th anniversary, I applaud you. For those of you who’ve passed up the opportunity, I hope you rethink your stance in time for the 300th anniversary of Pike’s Mississippi River expedition.

By Mary Warner
Copyright 2005, Morrison County Historical Society

One Response to Was Pike a Failure?

  1. Susan in Florida

    My son had to do a time line for one person during this time in our American History study. He passed up figures like Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett, And Peter Cartwright the circuit riding preacher and choose Zebulon Pike. Boy were we glad he did. This man had a military career and was also an explorer. I agree with you in that he played a part in these explorations. Three cheers for Zebulon Pike of Pike’s Peak!!!

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