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Zebulon M. Pike
Zebulon M. Pike (1779–1813)
Born (1779-01-05)January 5, 1779
Lamberton, New Jersey, U.S.
Died April 27, 1813(1813-04-27) (aged 34)
York, Ontario, Upper Canada
Nationality American
Occupation General, explorer
Spouse(s) Clarissa Harlow Brown
Children Clarissa Brown Pike

Zebulon Montgomery Pike (January 5, 1779 – April 27, 1813) was an American brigadier general and explorer for whom Pikes Peak in Colorado is named. As a United States Army captain in 1806–1807, he led the Pike Expedition to explore and document the southern portion of the Louisiana territory and to find the headwaters of the Red River, during which he recorded the discovery of what later was called Pikes Peak. Captured by the Spanish while wandering in present-day Colorado after his party got confused in its travels, Pike and his men were taken to Chihuahua, present-day Mexico and questioned by the governor. They were released later in 1807 at the border of Louisiana. In 1810 Pike published an account of his expeditions, a book so popular that it was translated into French, German and Dutch for publication in Europe. He later achieved the rank of brigadier general in the Army, serving during the War of 1812. He was killed during the Battle of York, which the United States won.


Pike was descended from John Pike, who immigrated from England as a child in 1635, and was a founder of Woodbridge, New Jersey in 1665. Later in his life, Zebulon Pike had a wife named Clarissa Harlow Brown and a child named Clarissa Brown Pike.[1]

Early life and education

Zebulon M. Pike was born during the Revolutionary War on January 5, 1779 near Lamberton (derived from the Indian pronunciation "Alamatunk"),[2][3] now called Lamington,[4] in Somerset county, New Jersey. Pike would follow in the footsteps of his father, also named Zebulon, who had begun his own career in the military service of the United States beginning in 1775, at the outset of the American Revolutionary War. To avoid confusion, son Zebulon Pike is referred to with the middle initial of M, while father Zebulon Pike is not.[citation needed]

The younger Pike grew to adulthood with his family at a series of Midwestern outposts — the frontier of the United States at the time — in Ohio and Illinois. In 1794 he joined his father's regiment as a cadet at the age of 15, earned a commission as ensign in 1799 and a first lieutenancy later that year.

Marriage and family

Zebulon M. Pike married Clarissa Harlow Brown in 1801. They had one child who survived to adulthood, a daughter. Clarissa Brown Pike married John Cleves Symmes Harrison, a son of President William Henry Harrison. Zebulon died without a son, so left no male descendants.


A Surname DNA project exists for male individuals with the Pike surname. A genetic study of DNA samples submitted show almost 20% of Pike surnames in this project show a genetic relationship to the same male line as Zebulon Pike. This paternal line descends from a male ancestor of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.[5]

Military career

He continued his military career, working on logistics and payroll, at a series of frontier posts, including Fort Bellefontaine near St. Louis. General James Wilkinson, appointed Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory and headquartered there, became his mentor. In 1805, Wilkinson ordered Pike to find the source of the Mississippi River and he traveled upriver into the northern territory. "Of Patriots and Traitors" by Joshua Gornitsky, as well as several other sources, state that General Wilkinson was a double agent for Spain. Wilkinson's double agency was not discovered for over one hundred years until the official records were released by Spain. Wilkinson had gained personal trade concessions. After Pike's first expedition, Pike was almost immediately ordered by Wilkinson to mount a second expedition in 1806 to explore and map the Red River, evaluate natural resources, and establish friendly relations with Native Americans. On this second expedition, he discovered the peak that was named after him. As Wilkinson planned, Pike was captured by the Spanish who controlled Mexico. As a prisoner in Mexico, Pike was treated well, invited to formal social dinners, but still not quite given the treatment of a visiting dignitary. Mexican authorities feared the spread of both democracy and a different religion that might undermine their monarchy. Eventually, Pike and his men were released. The Red River, which separated Oklahoma Territory from Texas, was next explored by the ill-fated Woolley expedition of 1815, when Colonel Woolley died, and only two sick men returned from the expedition, one of whom later died.

Pike Expedition

Soon after his return in 1806, Pike was ordered to lead an exploratory expedition of the southwestern part of the Louisiana Territory to find the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers. Beginning July 15, 1806, Pike led what is now known as the "Pike Expedition" to explore the southwest. General Wilkinson's son served as one of his lieutenants.

In early November 1806, Pike and his team recorded the sighting of and tried to climb to the summit of the peak that was named after him (Pikes Peak.) Unprepared for the conditions, they made it as far as Mt. Rosa to the southeast of Pikes Peak, and gave up the ascent in waist-deep snow. They had already gone almost two days without food. The expedition, for which he is most remembered, ended when Spanish authorities captured him and some of his party in northern New Mexico, now part of southern Colorado, on February 26, 1807. Having gotten confused in their search for the headwaters of the Red River, they had made a fort there for the winter.

Pike and his men were taken to Santa Fe, then to the capital of Chihuahua, where he was taken to the Commandant General Salcedo, who was governor of the state.[6] Salcedo housed Pike with Juan Pedro Walker, a cartographer, who also acted as an interpreter. Walker transcribed and translated Pike's confiscated documents, including his journal. During this time, Pike had access to various maps of the southwest and learned more of Mexican discontent with Spanish rule. The Spanish protested officially to the United States about Pike's expedition, but as the nations were not at war, the governor released the military men. The Spanish escorted Pike and most of his men to the north, releasing them at the Louisiana border on July 1, 1807. Some of his soldiers were held for years in Mexico.

Subsequent military duty

Pike was promoted to captain while on the southwestern expedition. In 1811, he was listed as Lt. Col. Zebulon M. Pike with the 4th Infantry Regiment at the Battle of Tippecanoe. He was promoted to colonel in 1812. He continued in the military, serving as deputy quartermaster-general in New Orleans and inspector-general during the War of 1812. Pike was promoted to brigadier general in 1813.[7] Along with General Jacob Brown, Pike departed from the newly fortified rural military outpost of Sackets Harbor, on the New York shore of Lake Ontario, for his last military campaign. On this expedition, Pike commanded combat troops in the successful attack on York, (now Toronto) on April 27, 1813. Pike was killed by flying rocks and other debris when the withdrawing British garrison blew up its ammunition magazine while Pike's troops approached Fort York. His body was brought by ship back to Sackets Harbor, where his remains were buried at the military cemetery.


The Spanish authorities confiscated Pike's journals and they were not recovered by the United States from Mexico until the 1900s. He wrote an account from memory of his expeditions, which was published in 1810 as The expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike to Headwaters of the Mississippi River, through Louisiana Territory, and in New Spain, during the Years 1805-6-7.[8] It was popular and later translated into French, German, and Dutch editions. His account became required reading for all American explorers who followed him in the 19th century. His capture by the Spanish and travel through the Southwest gave Pike insight into the region. He described the politics in Chihuahua, which led to the Mexican independence movement. He also described trade conditions in the Spanish territories of New Mexico and Chihuahua, which contributed to development of the Santa Fe Trail.[citation needed]


As Olsen (2006) shows, after his death in battle Pike's military accomplishments were widely celebrated in terms of mourning memorials, paintings, poems and songs, as well as biographies. He became the namesake for dozens of towns, counties, and ships. His memory faded after the Civil War, but recovered in 1906 at the centennial of his Southwest Expedition. His 20th century reputation focused on his exploration, and his name appeared often on natural features, such as parks, islands, lakes, and dams.[9]

Many places and two ships were named for the explorer:

  • Federal:
    • USS General Pike
    • Fort Pike
    • Pikes Peak
    • Pike National Forest
    • Liberty ship SS Zebulon Pike (appears in Episode 1 of Victory At Sea)
    • General Zebulon Pike Lock and Dam No. 11 in Dubuque, Iowa
  • State and local:
    • Pikesville, Maryland
    • Pike County
      • Alabama
      • Arkansas
      • Georgia and its county seat Zebulon
      • Illinois
      • Indiana
      • Kentucky
      • Mississippi
      • Missouri
      • Ohio
      • Pennsylvania
    • Pikes Peak (Iowa)
    • Piketon, Ohio
    • Pikeville, Kentucky
    • Pike Island in Fort Snelling State Park, Minnesota
    • Pike Creek Township in Morrison County, Minnesota
    • Pike Township, Marion County, Indiana
    • Pike Township, Stark County, Ohio
    • Pike Trail League, Kansas high school activities league
    • Pike Valley School District, Kansas School District, U.S.D. 426

See also

  • Pike Expedition
  • Pikes Peak
  • Pike's Purchase


  1. Jay H. Buckley and Matthew L. Harris, eds. Zebulon Pike, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012.
  2. Washington Irving, “Biographical Memoir of the Late Brigadier General Zebulon Montgomery Pike,” The Analectic Magazine Volume 4 (November, 1814): 380.
  3. Thomas Wilson,The Biography of the Principal American Military and Naval Heroes; Comprehending Details of Their Achievements During the Revolutionary and Late Wars (Vol. II). Second ed. (New-York: John Low, 1822), 9.
  4. William J. Backes,"General Zebulon M. Pike, Somerset-Born," Somerset County Historical Quarterly; Vol. 8, No. 4 (October, 1919): 241-251.
  5. Pike Surname DNA Project 2010-04-02. Retrieved on 2010-04-03.
  6. Buescher, John. "Trailing Lewis and Clark." Accessed 12 July 2011.
  7. Valkenburg, Samuel Van (1976). "Pike, Zebulon Montgomery". In William D. Halsey. Collier's Encyclopedia. 19. New York: Macmillan Educational Corporation. p. 46. 
  8. Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1965). Elliott Coues. ed. The expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike to headwaters of the Mississippi River, through Louisiana Territory, and in New Spain, during the years 1805-6-7. Ross & Haines. 1895. 
  9. Michael L. Olsen, "Zebulon Pike and American Popular Culture--or--Has Pike Peaked?," Kansas History, Spring 2006, Vol. 29 Issue 1, pp 48-59

Further reading

  • Matthew L. Harris and Jay H. Buckley, eds. Zebulon Pike, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (University of Oklahoma Press; 2012) 242 pages; essays by scholars
  • Hollon, W. Eugene (1949) The lost pathfinder, Zebulon Montgomery Pike Univ. of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911) Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.) Cambridge University Press 

External links

Military offices
Preceded by
Thomas H. Cushing
Adjutant Generals of the U. S. Army
March 12, 1813-April 27, 1813
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Alexander Smyth
Inspector General of the U. S. Army
March 12, 1813-April 27, 1813
Succeeded by

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