Zebulon M. Pike

The next exploration of the country which was to become Kansas was in 1806. In 1805 Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike was sent on a voyage of exploration and discovery up the Mississippi from St Louis by General James Wilkinson. From that voyage he returned on the 30th of April, 1806. General Wilkinson was Military Commandant of the Territory of Louisiana, and it was in his military capacity that he directed Lieutenant Pike to undertake the voyage up the Mississippi. Upon his return from the river expedition General Wilkinson, who was also Governor of the Territory of Louisiana, ordered Lieutenant Pike to explore Louisiana by the way of the Great Plains. That was also a military exploration. It was governmental only incidentally, and different from that of Lewis and Clark, which had been ordered by the President of the United States. General Wilkinson was implicated in the schemes of Aaron Burr, and he had been in the intrigues of the Spanish authorities against the United States. There is reason to believe that he hoped to forward his treasonable designs through the expeditions of Lieutenant Pike. Mr. Coues, the editor of the Journals of these explorations, was convinced that Pike was not altogether ignorant of the plans of General Wilkinson. But the evidence upon which he based that conclusion is not sufficient. Something more will have to be adduced before it can be certainly said that Lieutenant Pike had guilty knowledge of the machinations of his superior. Pike was a good soldier, and he met a glorious death in the service of his country.

The expedition of Lieutenant Pike over the Great Plains to the Spanish frontiers was of more immediate benefit to the country than that of Lewis and Clark. As an enterprise it was inferior, and in ultimate results it did not approach those flowing from the exploration to the Pacific. But accounts of it reached the people long before the publication of the Journals of Lewis and Clark, and immediate trade and settlement developed because of this information.

The instructions to Lieutenant Pike are comprised in two letters written to him by General Wilkinson. One was dated June 24, 1806, and the other July 12, 1806. As this is the most important early exploration of the country which became Kansas, these letters are set out here:

The expedition was composed of Lieutenant Pike, Commanding; Lieutenant James B. Wilkinson; three non-commissioned officers; sixteen private soldiers; and two civilians, one of whom, John H. Robinson, was the surgeon, and the other, A. F. Baronet Vasquez, was the interpreter. There were some Indians, and the official record runs: “Our party consisted of two lieutenants, one surgeon, one sergeant, two corporals, 16 privates and one interpreter. We had also under our charge chiefs of the Osage and Pawnees, who with a number of women and children, had been to Washington. These Indians had been redeemed from captivity among the Pottawatomies, and were now to be returned to their friends at the Osage towns. The whole number of Indians amounted to 51.”

The accounts of Pike’s expeditions were published in 1810. They were widely read, and they proved of great interest to the people, especially to those Americans who had settled west of the Mississippi. The possibilities of trade overland with Northern Mexico were there first revealed, and the development of those possibilities produced a commerce unique in American history. Lieutenant Pike’s name is forever linked with the Great West, and especially with Kansas and Colorado. And the mighty peak overlooking the Great Plains is the monument to his everlasting fame.

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