April 27

This Day in History

Old West

Apr 27, 1813:

Explorer Zebulon Pike dies

After surviving two dangerous exploratory expeditions into uncharted areas of the West, Zebulon Pike dies during a battle in the War of 1812.

By the time he became a general in 1812, Pike had already faced many perilous situations. He joined the army when he was 15, and eventually took various military posts on the American frontier. In 1805, General James Wilkinson ordered Pike to lead 20 soldiers on a reconnaissance of the upper Mississippi River. Expecting to return before the rivers froze, Pike and his small band departed up the Mississippi in a 70-foot keelboat in early August. Slow progress, however, meant Pike and his men spent a hard winter near present-day Little Falls, Minnesota, before returning the following spring.

Less than three months later, Wilkinson ordered Pike to head west again. This time, Pike and his men explored the headwaters of the Arkansas River, a route that took them into Colorado. There, Pike saw the towering peak that now bears his name, and he made an ill-advised attempt to climb it. Grossly underestimating the height of the mountain and dressed only in thin cotton uniforms, Pike and his men struggled with deep snow and sub-zero temperatures before finally abandoning the ascent.

During this second expedition, Pike also became lost and wandered into Spanish-controlled territory. A Spanish patrol arrested him and took him into custody. Although Pike had indisputably lost his way, he had also hoped the Spanish would capture him so he could see more of their territory. This risky strategy paid off. Failing to recognize they were providing Pike with a golden opportunity to spy on the territory, the Spanish obligingly moved their prisoner first to Santa Fe and then to Chihuahua, before finally releasing him near the U.S. boundary at Louisiana.

Impressed with his daring and his reputation as an efficient officer, the military promoted Pike to brigadier general during the War of 1812. Having survived two perilous journeys into the Far West, Pike was killed on this day in 1813 while leading an attack on British troops in Toronto. He was 34 years old.

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