- Zebulon Pike, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West
Thomas Jefferson, Zebulon Pike, Expeditions, Facundo Melgares, Great Plains
In 1813, when Thomas Jefferson described Meriwether Lewis as “of courage undaunted,” he effectively buried Zebulon Pike, who had died a few months earlier. Jefferson’s canonization of Lewis and Clark stuck Pike with second fiddle (along with Thomas Freeman, William Duncan, George Hunter, and many others). A new volume, edited by Matthew L. Harris and Jay H. Buckley, offers several attempts at reassessing the historical significance of Pike’s journeys.
That is not easy: Pike’s career took a series of missteps. In his 1806 trek across the Great Plains, Pike was arrested by Spanish forces and told his captors he was lost—not a great legacy for an explorer. Worse, when he returned to the States, he found himself pegged with treason. Pike had accepted his explorer’s commission from the scurrilous James Wilkinson, the American general on the Spanish payroll who likely conspired with and then tattled on Aaron Burr. The explorer was cleared of charges in the murky Burr conspiracy, but Wilkinson’s bad behavior smeared Pike’s reputation: Congress refused to grant Pike funds to compensate him for his interrupted journey of discovery, and he died in the American assault on York in 1813.
This confused legacy does not dissipate in this collection of essays; the authors themselves seem puzzled over the exact nature of Pike’s contributions. Most of the seven essays agree that Pike exemplified certain cultural and political forces at work in Jeffersonian America, but Pike’s specific contributions are hazy. As James P. Ronda admits in his piece on Pike and empire, “Historians . . . have paid much attention to the origins of Pike’s second expedition and his various geographic bewilderments. [End Page 159] But in the larger story of empire in the West, these are sideshows” (75). Indeed, Pike’s insignificance becomes an unintentional theme in the volume. Jared Orsi’s environmental history of Pike summarizes the larger historiographical argument of how modern states control resources by standardization; Pike’s own role in this process, however, was “very small but telling” (156). Orsi’s case is that Pike ordered a group of Pawnees to swap their Spanish flag for an American one, then retreated in the face of opposition—not much of a moment in environmental history. Leo E. Olivia’s essay acknowledges the role of Facundo Melgares of New Spain in shaping Pike’s 1810 Account of the journeys, but “cannot determine” the extent of Melgares’s influence (179). That Account probably contributed to the construction of the Santa Fe Trail and the opening of U.S.–Mexican trade. Yet if Olivia is right, the credit goes to Melgares, not Pike—for Melgares not only shaped the Account, but also welcomed American traders in 1821, when he had become governor at Santa Fe. Pike comes in second yet again.
John Logan Allen finally solves Pike’s Salieri complex; in a short essay on Pike and American science, Allen argues that it is Pike’s mistakes that made him important. Pike’s 1810 Account included despairing descriptions of the Great Plains, and thus gave rise to the myth of the Great American Desert. More importantly, Pike’s publications insisted that all American rivers flowed from “the pyramidal height-of-land”—a single source from which flowed the Mississippi, Missouri, Arkansas, and Red Rivers. Pike’s mistakes went into William Clark’s later maps—which perpetuated the height-of-land myth for the next thirty years (94–96). Pike shaped western exploration because he was wrong.
The Pawnee and Osage Indians with whom Pike (unsuccessfully) dealt could have given the explorer better intelligence concerning geography. Though all the essays mention Pawnee and Osage relations with the United States, no essay is specifically devoted to Indian politics or culture, a curious omission. In part, the lacuna may be due to source limitations: Virtually every essay employs...