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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

PIKE'S PIQUE

I have been searching for the right word to describe Zebulon Pike, and I keep coming back to “Shlub”. It is Yiddish word meaning a foolish, stupid or inferior person. But at least he was handsome. He stood “…5'8" tall, with a ruddy complexion, blue eyes and light hair…(was) a crack shot…(with) great physical endurance …” He was also a teetotaler who one biographer kindly described as “an efficient but unremarkable career officer” while another put it more succinctly; “…a puffed-up little popinjay...”. As proof of Zeb’s shlub-dom I submit his first voyage of discovery in 1805 when he was ordered to find the source of the Mississippi River.The 27 year old lieutenant set out on August 9, 1805 from Fort Belle Fontaine, on the south bank of the Missouri River, four miles upstream from its joining with the mighty Mississippi. He was accompanied by what he called a “Dam'd set of Rascels,” 20 soldiers manning a 70 foot keelboat. He included on his voyage no doctor, no interpreter and no one qualified to map the voyage, including Pike himself. Because of the low water level, Pike’s men spent as much time dragging their boat over sand bars as they did laboriously poling it northward. Two days of exhausting work brought them to the mouth of Illinois River, near present day Grafton, all of twenty miles from their starting point.The Mississippi river has been winding and looping here for 145 million years, following a weakness in the crust now called the New Madrid Fault line. But north of the Illinois river the big river has been more influenced by ice.
A mere 130,000 years ago the “Wisconsin Ice Sheet” covered most of modern Indiana under a lake. When that ice collapsed the lake drained catastrophically. Called the Kankakee Flood it carved a valley so deep that when a similar glacier blocked the big river 13,000 years ago the Mississippi itself chose this channel, exiting its old course at Rock Island, Illinois, some 200 miles above St. Louis.Another 150 miles above Rock Island, Pike found a perfect place for a fort, a 500 foot tall bluff (locally called Pike’s Peak) across the river from Prairie du Chien, a trading post at the mouth of the Wisconsin River. No fort was ever built there but it was here that Pike finally agreed the 70 foot keel boat monstrosity was too much trouble and shifted his men to two barges, easier to handle in the low water.At the mouth of the Minnesota River (655 miles from his starting point), on September 23rd, 1805, Pike took advantage of a gathering of Sioux Indians for a little land grab. He promised to pay them less than a dollar an acre for land on which the government would eventually build a fort, which would eventually become the city of Minneapolis.
But when Congress finally paid up for their new “Fort Snelling”, in 1808, the price had been summarily reduced by 90%. And even that was actually paid to the French and British traders who had been feeding the Sioux rot gut whiskey on credit during the intervening three years. Commenting on the friendly welcome Pike received from the Sioux and the treaty Pike duped them into signing, a modern Sioux observed, “They gave him the keys (to the city), but they didn't expect him to think he owned the city”. I would say that seventy years later General Custer got the revised bill for this deal.The next morning Pike arose to discover his personal flag was missing. He threw a fit. He had a soldier stripped to the waist and flogged for losing it. The Sioux were so disturbed by this display of pique that they dispatched two men downstream who found the flag floating in the river and returned it to the intrepid if insecure explorer.Fifty miles further to the north Pike reached the 60 foot high St. Anthony Falls, where the river passed from the hard surface dolomites to the softer sandstone bedrock. It took three days for his men to drag their barges around the falls, and it occurred to Pike (finally) that the local Ojibwe Indian canoes’ were lighter and more maneuverable than his barges. But instead of asking for help, Pike instructed his men in hollowing out a large log. Loaded with supplies, including most of their black powder, the huge canoe was slid into the river…and immediately sank. Pike ordered all the wet powder rescued and stacked on a rack over a fire, to dry out. The resulting explosion burned down his own tent and most of his personal clothing, supplies and notes. He barely saved his trunk.Back into the river again, with the current lessoning and the channel narrowing every day, four of Pike’s men came close to physical collapse. Sergeant Henry Kennerman, ““one of the stoutest men I ever knew,” according to Pike, began to vomit blood. Zeb wrote the men were, “…killing themselves to obey my orders.” With snow already falling, on October 16, 1805, Pike ordered the men to build a blockhouse. While they worked, he hunted, supplying them with fresh meat.With Sgt. Kennerman in charge of the ill men left behind at the blockhouse, Pike led a small detachment overland, on snowshoes and pulling sleds, both borrowed from local British traders. They followed the river as best they could. On December 10th they reached the little falls of the Mississippi, and on the last day of the 1805 they camped near the mouth of the Pine River. On the night of January 4th Pike suffered another black powder explosion. (Where was storing his powder, in the smoking tent?)
Finally, on February 12th , 1806, “…exhausted and worn out by cold, hunger and exposure” Pike reached Red Cedar Lake (later renamed Cass Lake). Here, I suspect out of sheer desperation, Pike wrote, “This may be called the upper source of the Mississippi River.”Pike may have called it that, but it wasn’t. Twenty- six years later, in 1832, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft followed an Anishinaabe Indian guide (another approach Pike never tried) to a small lake that he named Itasca, and which he declared was the actual source of the great river, and that is what most tourist today accept. But that isn’t the actual source either.
The actual source of the “father of waters” is Little Elk Lake (below), 9 miles further upstream. Little Elk Lake drains into Elk Lake, which drains into Lake Itasca. Ninety days after a drop of rain falls on Little Elk Lake, it flows into the Gulf of Mexico.Pike was not very concerned with details like that. What concerned him was that when he got back to the blockhouse he found that Sgt. Kennerman had recovered. The Sargeant was feeling so well, in fact, that he had eaten or bartered away the entire companies’ supply of meat and Pike’s personal trunk as well, which had survived two explosions and at least one dumping in the river. No explanation for his actions was offered by the now Private Kennerman. But Pike lost no time in returning to civilization.He arrived back in Fort Belle Fontaine on April 30th , 1806. Ordered to find the source of the Mississippi, Lt. Pike had failed. In fact he had failed to locate a single stream, river or lake which had not been previously mapped. And yet the “Lost Pathfiner” was immediately dispatched to explore the southwestern edges of the Louisiana Purchase, during which he probably spotted a mile high peak named after him, and during which the long suffering Private Kennerman deserted, never to be seen again.Ever a self promoter, Pike rose to the level of Brigadier General during the War of 1812. And he played a crucial but little known role in that war. It was general Zebulon Pike who led the assault on the capital of Upper Canada, the city of York, (since renamed Toronto), on April 17, 1813. When a British mine exploded prematurely, killing 42 British and 52 American soldiers, Pike was hit in the back by a falling rock, which killed him. In retribution his soldiers burned the Parliamentary Buildings in York. And it was that act of vandalism which the British repaid by the burning Washington, D.C. on August 24, 1814.I would call that quite an impressive funeral pyre for a schlub.
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2 comments:

  1. Does anyone know when the blockhouse or fort were built at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi river ?
    Who could have built it and does the name of Gilbert or Mason mean anything?

    Please contact us at amburg@gtec.com.

    Thank you,
    Grafton Historical Society

    ReplyDelete
  2. Was the first shot in the War of 1812 fired from the Fort at Grafton, IL? If not, can anyone tell me where?

    Please contact me at amburg@gtec.com

    Thank you,

    Grafton Historical Society

    ReplyDelete

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