Colorado Legends: Zebulon Pike

The Man Who Discovered America’s Mountain

Long before Zebulon Pike discovered Pikes Peak, between the mid 17th and 18th centuries, a number of Spanish explorers entered the area.

The U.S. acquired Colorado territory with the negotiation of the Louisiana Purchase from the Spanish.   President Jefferson sent explorers Louis and Clark to check out his recent purchase. They traveled all the way to the Pacific Northwest.

Jefferson then sent Lt. Zebulon Pike to find the source of the Mississippi River.  In 1806, he sent Pike with a company of soldiers to examine where the Arkansas and Red Rivers branched.

It was the first expedition to actually map the land that would become the state of Colorado.  Pike was to study the natural history, geography and topography of the areas he visited.

He was to collect rocks and botanical samples, and when he reached the Arkansas River, split his group up and one group was to follow the river and the other to find the source.

He made numerous journal entries, the most famous follows:

Saturday, 15th November…At two o’clock in the afternoon, I thought I could distinguish a mountain to our right, which appeared like a small blue cloud; viewed it with my spy glass, and was still more confirmed in my conjecture, yet only communicated it to Doctor Robinson…but in half an hour it appeared in full view before us.  When our small party arrived on the hill, they with one accord gave three cheers to the Mexican mountains.”


Unfortunately, Pike never was able to climb his peak even though he tried on numerous occasions.  So he gave up. He proceeded to travel around what is now the San Luis Valley during a cold and blustery winter.

The U.S. owned the territory but some areas were still under Spanish rule.  This area was one of them. He was arrested by Spanish troops and sent to New Mexico and then on to Chihuahua in Mexico for questioning. In 1807, he was finally released and sent back to the United States.

Pike, as an explorer, didn’t farewell.  He failed to find the source of the Arkansas and Red rivers and had allowed himself to be captured by enemy soldiers. He also earned the unfortunate nickname, “the Lost Pathfinder”, but his explorations were not a complete failure. When he returned to the U.S. he took valuable information with him about the geographical and natural resources of Colorado.

His journal and papers were taken from him but he proceeded to publish a record of what he had seen in his “Arkansaw Journal”.  It was popular reading in Europe and the U.S. at the time.

Zebulon Pike was promoted to General, and during the War of 1812, he led a successful charge on York, now Toronto Canada.   Unfortunately, he was killed during the war and never again saw the mountain that bears his name.

Because of the War of 1812, the government didn’t have any immediate need to follow up on Pike’s discoveries. However, in 1820, Major Stephen H. Long set out to find more information.

But that is another story.