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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


An understanding of the exploration of the American Southwest in the early nineteenth century is inextricably complicated by the roles played by Gen. James Wilkinson and his subordinate, Zebulon Pike. Maryland-born Wilkinson, a medical doctor and one-time protégé of Benedict Arnold, George Washington, Aaron Burr, and Thomas Jefferson, moved to Kentucky in the 1780s and became a leading voice for Kentucky's statehood. In 1787 he persuaded Esteban Rodriguez Miró, the governor of Spanish Louisiana and West Florida, that he would aid Spanish attempts to gain control of western Kentucky. Wilkinson allegedly became involved in Aaron Burr's attempt to create a separate and independent territory in the Mississippi Valley. Court-martialed in 1811 for his suspected collusion with the Spanish, Wilkinson, holding the rank of general, was acquitted. He so ineptly commanded American forces in the War of 1812 that another court-martial ended his military career.

Zebulon Pike's career was much less grand than that of Wilkinson. New Jersey–born Pike followed his father's career and became a solider. By 1799 Pike had served at a number of frontier forts and had obtained the rank of lieutenant. His first opportunities for military distinction came when he served under General Wilkinson. In 1805 Wilkinson commissioned Zebulon Pike to lead a small military expedition to find the headwaters of the Mississippi River and to acquire sites for U.S. military outposts.

Many of the objectives of this expedition were fulfilled. In 1806 Wilkinson ordered Pike and an ill prepared party of twenty-two to seek the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers, obtain the return of some Osage captives, make peace between the Osage and Kansas Indians, and establish a dialogue with the Comanche. Wilkinson's son, Lt. James Biddle Wilkinson, would accompany Pike on this expedition. Many scholars assume that there were also secret instructions given by Wilkinson to Pike as well as ordering him to carefully reconnoiter the strength of the Spanish presence along the borderlands of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, of which present Oklahoma was a part, and in northern New Mexico. Crossing the prairies and plains in July and August 1806, Pike and his twenty-three men returned the Osage captives to their tribe, met with the Pawnee at their villages on the Republican River in southern Nebraska, and followed the Arkansas River into Colorado.

By the end of December 1806 five privates under the command of young Lieutenant Wilkinson had formed a second exploring party. They set forth in a southeastward direction to explore the lower course of the Arkansas River. Crossing present Oklahoma, they reconnoitered, traveling in canoes down the Arkansas to its confluence with the Mississippi River in Arkansas. The Wilkinson party then returned up the Mississippi to St. Louis.

The balance of the expedition's forces under Pike explored the headwaters of the Arkansas River and sought the source of the Red River. In January of 1807 Pike led his men across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains into the San Luis Valley. Passing by the Great Sand Dunes, Pike's party discovered the upper reaches of the Rio Grande River. Spanish forces apprehended them near the end of February 1807, took them to Santa Fe, and then marched them 260 miles to Chihuahua, Mexico. The Spanish expelled Pike and his men in July of 1807.

Pike's account of his expedition was published in 1810. His work provided initial information about a region of the continent that was becoming of increasing interest to the expanding American nation. Pike's descriptions of the plains and grasslands west of the Mississippi River created a mental geographical barrier to later American settlement in these arid regions.

Phillip Drennon Thomas


W. Eugene Hollon, The Lost Pathfinder: Zebulon Montgomery Pike (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1949).

Milo Milton Quaife, ed., The Southwestern Expedition of Zebulon M. Pike (Chicago: Donnelley, 1925).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Phillip Drennon Thomas, “Pike-Wilkinson Expedition,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=PI007.

Published January 15, 2010

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