The long-snouted fish swam through the murky river, nosing around in crannies and crevices. Exploring. This pike shared a name with another Mississippi River explorer, Lt. Zebulon M. Pike. While the aquatic pike preferred to explore below the water’s surface, the human Pike cared more for the above-ground view.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase from France. The Louisiana Purchase encompassed land between the Mississippi River in the east and the Rocky Mountains in the west. Jefferson needed brave people to investigate this huge tract of land. He chose Lewis and Clark to explore the western regions. Jefferson put General James Wilkinson in charge of selecting a military man to explore the Mississippi River north of St. Louis, Missouri. Wilkinson chose Lt. Zebulon Montgomery Pike.

On August 9, 1805, Pike and his men set off from St. Louis. Pike had several goals to accomplish during his journey. He was to locate the source of the Mississippi River, look for potential military post sites, carry the American flag through the region informing everyone there that it now belonged to the United States, and find out how the British fur traders were engaged. As if these goals weren’t enough for the long, dangerous trip, Pike was also charged with making peace between the Ojibwe and Dakota Indians.

In addition, the military party would have to hunt continually in order to keep themselves fed during the excursion. There would be no quick trips to the convenience store to pick up a pound of burger. Other than nomadic Indian tribes and fur traders, Minnesota at that time was beyond civilization. It was a tall order, akin to asking for the world on a platter, but Pike accepted the challenge.

By mid-October, Pike and his crew reached Morrison County, Minnesota. Bad weather forced the men to build a fort near the mouth of the Swan River. The party hunted a variety of animals during their two-month stay at the fort. Pike’s journal records the animals they saw or killed in Morrison County. These included deer, beaver, wolves, mink, geese, ducks, bear, porcupine, elk, buffalo, black fox, silver fox, prairie hens, and raccoons.

Using the fort as a base, Pike led mini-expeditions around the county, south of what is now Little Falls. He explored the Platte River region, as well as areas along the west side of the Mississippi.

Events conspired against Pike. There were times that his men got lost or were ill. Twice his ammunition fell into the river. Once, upon drying out the ammunition, some of it blew up. Frostbite was a regular visitor as moccasins wore out. Canoes were broken or sunk and had to be rebuilt. The men were constantly afraid of being attacked by Indians. These fears were unwarranted, as their interactions with the native people were peaceful.

The native weather, however, was another story. Pike and his men experienced snowstorms and November rain with lightning and thunder. The unpredictable temperatures caused the Mississippi River to freeze and thaw in cycles that made travel difficult. If the river was open, the men could travel by canoe. If it was iced over, they could use sleds. The men struggled to determine when the ice was safe, and frequently ended up wet when they were wrong.

On December 17, 1805, Pike and some of his men left the Swan River fort to continue upriver. Between that date and February 28, 1806, they traveled to the Leech Lake area and met with Ojibwe leaders. They were not successful in discovering the source of the Mississippi River. On March 1, they headed back downriver and reached the fort by March 5. Upon arrival, Pike discovered that one of his sergeants had given away and sold all the stockpiled meat and whiskey. Pike demoted the man. A month was spent at the fort. The expedition left on April 7 and reached St. Louis by April 30, 1806.

While Pike’s expedition was not particularly successful in terms of the goals set, his journal provides details of a time in Minnesota history that has little documentation. Pike wrote faithfully in his journal, recording the events that are summarized in this article. The journal was published shortly after his expedition. It makes no mention of the underwater pike, or any other fish, busy exploring the river bottom while he explored the surface.

By Mary Warner
Copyright 2004, Morrison County Historical Society

2 Replies to “Pike’s Explorations”

  1. Hunted in Google for some information about Zebulon M. Pike because I finally got to looking at the 2 volume Elliott Coues edition (reprint by Ross & Haines 1965) and found it deadly dull reading, BUT read enough to see if Google could furnish more. It did, and yours was the best I found. Not only was it the usual great writing, but it provided a number of details I might not have gotten to in trying to read it (with all its footnotes). I see there is a more recent book of explorations available which include something about Pike’s expeditions. I guess I can understand why his roles are pretty much downplayed in most American history books – maybe just his connection with Wilkinson! Anyway, I won’t feel obligated to read both the Coues volumes since there are so many other books that are more readable.

    1. Hi, Marilynn – I’m glad you like our Pike information. I remember reading through the Coues’ edition of Pike’s journals, but I didn’t read both books. I just concentrated on the Morrison County and Minnesota portions. The footnotes were really important in leading me to other sources, like Nathan Richardson, and for helping to pinpoint locations that had become obscured over time. I used to hate reading footnotes, but since becoming a historian, sometimes I read them first. 🙂

      – Mary Warner

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