On November 27, 1806, a young Army Captain named Zebulon Montgomery Pike and three companions shivered atop a mountain southeast of today’s Pikes Peak. Pike finally could see that deep snow and the daunting scale of the mountain he dubbed “Grand Peak” would turn him back. In his journal he admired, “the sublimity of the prospects below,” and admitted defeat.
The summit of the Grand Peak is covered with snow now appeared at a distance of 15 to 16 miles from us, and as high again as what we had ascended. I believe no human being could have ascended to its pinical [sic].
This poignant moment guaranteed Pike’s place in history as one of the first Americans to explore the West. His 1810 report and map described the “Grand between the young captain and the prominent Rocky Mountain peak he failed to climb.
Eventually, Pike’s “Grand Peak” became “Pikes Peak.” Few men have been so honored for mountains they did not climb. (Botanist Edwin James made the first recorded ascent in 1820 as a member of Major Stephen H. Long’s expedition.” Yet Pike’s arduous explorations in the Colorado Rockies in 1806 – 1807 deserve remembering.
Given his historical fame, Captain Pike’s early life seems quite ordinary. Born in New Jersey in 1779, Pike enlisted in the U.S. Army at age twenty. His first, mundane assignments sent him as a lieutenant to lonely posts along the Ohio River. To further his education, he toted books, including military texts, on his travels and read them by campfire light.
While serving in Indian Territory, Lt. Pike Became a protégé of General James Wilkinson, who commanded the United States Army. After President Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana from the French in 1803, Wilkinson sent Pike to reconnoiter the upper Mississippi. Pike returned as a seasoned soldier with valuable information on a little-known area of the country.
In 1806 Wilkinson directed Pike to explore the Arkansas River’s headwaters, turn south, and descend the Red River to its mouth. Pike was promoted to Captain during his journey, as he entered present day Colorado.
Wilkinson harbored secret designs. In his travels, Pike would trespass on Spanish territory and might have an opportunity to gauge Spanish military strength at Santa Fe-useful information to an invading army.
As Pike and his men ascended the Arkansas River in mid-November, 1806, he first sighted his namesake mountain as “a small blue cloud from near the present site of Las Animas, Colorado. He estimated the blue mountain to be one day’s march away, but the clarity of the high plains deceived him. It took him two days to reach the base. Two days of climbing plus a miserable night on a small mountain revealed the true difficulties of scaling the “Grand Peak.”
Following this encounter, the young captain and his men reached the upper Arkansas and gazed in wonder upon Royal Gorge. Pike crossed Medano Pass into the San Luis Valley and built a breastwork on the Conejos River, southeast of what is now Alamosa, Colorado.
The Conejos flowed into the upper Rio Grande, which indeed was Spanish territory. Spanish soldiers soon arrested the Americans and took them to Santa FE and then to Chihuahua. Pike and his men were detained, questioned for several months, and eventually escorted back to U.S. territory. The young captain then made his way to Washington D.C., where he completed his journals in 1807. The story of his explorations was received with great interest by the U.S. Government and a curious American public.
Though his expedition returned with mixed results, Pike’s report, published in 1810, sparked interest in the region southwest of the burgeoning United States. Be believed, wrongly that all western rivers issued from a single source, and he remarked upon the desert-like conditions on the high plains.
Pike later won promotion to colonel, then general, before being killed in 1813 during the War of 1812. The name of America’s most famous mountain today ensures that his efforts a s young explorer will not be forgotten. Among the rare artifacts at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum related to early exploration of the West is Zebulon Pike’s original commission as a lieutenant Colonel, signed by President James Madison.