Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779-1813) was a soldier who is best known as an early explorer of the Louisiana Territory. In the late summer of 1805, General James Wilkinson, the governor of the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, sent Pike on the first of two expeditions; a mission to find the source of the Mississippi River. Although Pike did not find the source of the river, he did hold significant talks with various tribes in the regions he passed through. President Thomas Jefferson discussed these meetings and their results in an 1808 message to the Senate.[1]

Podcast: Those Other Western Expeditions

Everyone knows the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But it wasn't the first expedition to explore the American West that Jefferson promoted or devised. And it wasn't the last.

On his second expedition, Pike was charged with exploring the regions around the Arkansas and Red rivers. After a trek across the Great Plains and through the Rocky Mountains, Pike was captured by Spanish forces after crossing into the territory of New Spain. Pike and his party were subsequently escorted by the Spanish through New Spain and back across the border. While in New Spain, Pike purchased two grizzly bear cubs and had them shipped to Thomas Jefferson in Washington, D.C. In an exchange of letters in late 1807, Jefferson thanked Pike for the two cubs, but soon deemed them “too dangerous and troublesome ... to keep,”[2] and they were consequently given to the Peale museum in Philadelphia where they were killed, mounted, and placed on display. Pike spent the winter of 1807-08 in Washington, dining twice at the President's House, and described by Jefferson's friend Margaret Bayard Smith as "one of the most agreeable young men who visited here."[3]

General Wilkinson’s reasons for sending Pike on his second expedition have been linked to the Aaron Burr conspiracy. However, according to Timothy Kibby, a confidant of Wilkinson, Wilkinson claimed that “Lt Pike himself was as yet ignorant of the nature of his journey.”[4] In the years following his second expedition, Pike continued his career as a soldier in addition to publishing a book detailing his accounts and findings on the two western treks in 1810, four years before Lewis and Clark’s contemporary account. Pike was killed at the Battle of York in 1813 at the age of thirty-four.


Pike to Jefferson, October 29, 1807. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.

Jefferson to Pike, November 6, 1807. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.

Pike to Jefferson, February 3, 1808. Privately owned. Transcription available at Founders Online.

- Kevin Hivick, 1/31/11/revised by David Thorson, 1/5/2024

Further Sources


  1. ^ Jefferson to the Senate of the United States, March 29, 1808, in Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America (Washington: Printed by order of the Senate of the United States, 1828- ), 2:76-77. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  2. ^ Jefferson to Anne Cary Randolph, November 1, 1807, in Family Letters, 313. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  3. ^ Smith, First Forty Years53.
  4. ^ Statement and Affidavit of Timothy Kibby, July 6, 1807, in Territorial Papers of the United States, ed. Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1949), 14:133-36.