The Early Explorers

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This is the first excerpt in a series about the early explorers of the western United States of America; or the lands west of the Mississippi River

Excerpts from the Book: The Pathbreakers from River to Ocean by Grace Raymond Hebard – published 1913

Zebulon PikeZebulon Pike

August 9, 1805, Captain Lewis was pausing on the Continental Divide, near the headwaters of the Jefferson, preparing to cross to the Pacific slope.  On this exact date another indomitable explorer whose name will always be inseparably linked with those of Lewis and Clark started from St. Louis by the way of the Mississippi, wishing to locate the headwaters of that river, and to ascertain the extent and value of the newly acquired territory embraced in the Louisiana Purchase.

President Jefferson was anxious to justify his purchase of this wilderness, so he sent Zebulon Pike up the Mississippi as he had sent Lewis and Clark up the Missouri.  Pike was put in command of the expedition by General Wilkinson, with orders to explore and make a report upon the Mississippi to its source, to make peace with warring Indians, particularly the Ojibways and the Sioux, to select desirable sites for military posts, and to ascertain to what extent the British fur traders were still occupying our territory recently purchased from Napoleon.
Map of Early Explorers
This country into which Pike was now to travel had been explored by Jonathan Carver in 1766-68, when he was hunting for the headwaters of the Mississippi.  He had fully described that country to the north and northwest of the head of Lake Superior.  The French were familiar with stories similar to the ones he told about the Indian tribes living to the west in the “Shining Mountains” where gold was in such abundance that the most common utensils were made from it.  These exciting tales spurred Carver more than once to try to cross the continent, but always without success.

Without particular incident or accident, Pike with his twenty men navigated as far north on the “Father of Waters” as Little Falls, Minnesota.  Here he left some of his men in a stockade which they had built, and pushed up overland to the mouth of Turtle River into the regions explored by Jonathan Carver in 1766-68.  This was as far as Pike attempted to advance.  He found British fur men in the country and protested to them, saying that they were now in the country owned by the United States.

Pike returned to St. Louis in April, 1806.  From here, with twenty soldiers, he started on his second expedition in July of this year, going westward into Louisiana Territory. New Spain, or Mexico, was jealous of the possessions the United States had acquired, and was ready to contest every mile that our government might attempt to claim.  We must remember that the exact boundary lines of the Louisiana Purchase were not defined.  When an Emperor deeds a territory to a nation fixing its limits by the wave of his hand the boundary lines are liable to be uncertain.  This second journey of Pike’s had for its main object the discovery of the course of the Arkansas River and the location of its headwaters.  This and the Rio Grande were feit to be determining streams in settling any boundary between the United States and Spain.  Jefferson felt that we must have some definite knowledge of that southwest region in case of dispute with Spain and he sent Pike to get this knowledge.

Pike went farther and learned more than any one had hoped or even wished.  His purpose was to go up the Arkansas until he came to the mountains and then to go south to the Red River, returning home on that stream.  After traveling many days, weeks in reality, Pike discovered, November 15, 1806, a mountain, which looked to the naked eye like a small blue cloud.  A half-hour’s travel brought him in full view of the peak which now bears his name.  His party with one accord “gave three cheers to the Mexican Mountains,” which shows clearly that they did not know where they really were.  Confident that the lofty peak could be St Anthony Falls Viewed By Pikereached in a few hours they pushed on, shivering, cold and poorly clad.  By this time Pike and his men were without shoes, using skins to cover their feet.  Their thin summer clothing was worn to rags.  After marching for twenty-five miles they found themselves at evening apparently no nearer the mountain than they had been at sunrise.  Pike attempted to climb the peak but was obliged to abandon the attempt, declaring that it would be impossible for man ever to reach the top.  Not only has man reached the top but a train daily takes scores of human beings to its summit. Pike’s Peak will ever be nature’s monument to this bold explorer.

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