Pike’s western explorations - Business in United States of America
The Events: Two military expeditions commissioned to explore and locate the sources of the Mississippi and the Arkansas Rivers, evaluate the natural resources of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory for the United States, and report on the current state of settlement and the fur trade
Dates: August 9, 1805-April 30, 1806; July 15, 1806-July 1, 1807
Place: Upper Mississippi River, southern Great Plains, eastern Rocky Mountains
Significance: Pike’s journals provided detailed and colorful descriptions of the resources of the upper Mississippi Valley and the southern Great Plains, with data on their distribution and possibilities for future commercial exploitation. His reports on numerous major river systems were used in the planning of the network of antebellum steamboat lines that were in operation well into the nineteenth century.
On June 24, 1805, General James Wilkinson, one of the two commissioners appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to govern the Louisiana Territory and commander in chief of the western army, wrote to Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike, who was then commanding the military post at Kaskaskia. Pike was ordered to come to St. Louis and prepare an expedition that would follow the Mississippi to its northernmost source. At this time, much of the Louisiana Territory remained unknown and unexplored by Americans; most of those who had traveled the area were British or French fur traders. The goals of the survey were to gather information on all Native American groups along the river, with an eye toward the military threat they might present; to report on the influence of British or French fur traders in the area; and to collect astronomical and scientific data that would allow the U.S. government to establish the northernmost boundaries of the territory and to assess the soils and natural resources of the region, the usability of its rivers, and the best places to create new forts and trading posts.
The successful completion of the first expedition prompted Wilkinson to commission a second one on June 24, 1806, with the dual objectives of establishing diplomatic relations with several Native American nations and mapping the courses of the Arkansas and Red Rivers. Pike’s company was the first American group to traverse the middle plains, and his notes on the diet of Native Americans revealed what crops were already adapted to the region and reported on the immense herds of buffalo later used as a staple meat source on the transcontinental journey. The ascent of the Arkansas began on October 28, 1806, and on November 15, the expedition first sighted the mountain that bears Pike’s name as well as the front range of the Rocky Mountains, which the group regarded as a natural frontier between the Louisiana Territory and Mexico. The expedition was taken into custody by Mexican authorities and brought to Santa Fe, from where the group made their return to U.S. territory.
The information gathered by the Pike expeditions represented the first eyewitness account of the physical nature of much of the newly acquired territory. This information was essential for the expansion of existing trading networks and ultimately the flow of business enterprises into these untapped regions. Pike’s treaty purchase, for $200, of 100,000 acres of land near the Falls of St. Anthony from the Sioux nation laid the foundation for the eventual founding and settlement of Minneapolis and St. Paul and the development of Minnesota.
Hart, Stephen Harding, and Archer Butler Hulbert, eds. The Southwestern Journals of Zebulon Pike, 1806- 1807. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.
Hollon, W. Eugene. The Lost Pathfinder: Zebulon Montgomery Pike. 1949. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.
Hutchins, John M. Lieutenant Zebulon Pike Climbs His First Peak: The U.S. Army Expedition to the Sources of the Mississippi, 1805-1806. Lakewood, Colo.: Avrooman-Apfelwald Press, 2006.
See also: Cumberland Road; Fur trapping and trading; Lewis and Clark expedition; Louisiana Purchase; Mississippi and Missouri Rivers; Pony Express; Wilderness Road.