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Friday, October 30, 2009

PIKE'S PIQUE


I have been searching for the right word to describe Zebulon Pike, and I keep coming back to the word “Shlub”. It is Yiddish word meaning a foolish, stupid or inferior person. But at least he was handsome. He was, visually, a perfect hero. 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. And he couldn't.

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 (it was August, after all), Pike’s men spent as much time dragging their keelboat over sand bars as they laboriously poled  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.At this rate the could expect to reach the headwaters by November, 1905. The Mississippi river has been winding and looping through here for about 145 million years, following a weakness in the crust now called the New Madrid Fault. 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. I have the clay and sand left behind by that lake two feet under my back yard. When the ice damn collapsed the lake drained catastrophically. Called "The Kankakee Flood" it carved a valley so deep that when a similar glacier blocked the big river again 13,000 years ago, the Mississippi chose for itself the Kankakee channel, before rejoining 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. It was 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. Actually, no fort was ever built there, but everybody agreed it would have been a dandy spot for a fort. However, it was the spot where Lt. Pike finally agreed the 70 foot keel boat monstrosity was too much trouble. The expedition was finally shifted to two barges, which were easier to handle in the low water; easier being a relative term.

At the mouth of the Minnesota River (655 river miles from his starting point), on September 23rd, 1805, Lt. Pike took advantage of a gathering of the local 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. There is no record that the Sioux ever asked what a dollar was - or an acre. I think they signed the treaty because it seemed to make the shlub happy. Not that it mattered.

When Congress finally got arround to paying for their new “Fort Snelling” 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 two years. Commenting on the friendly welcome Lt. Pike received from the Sioux and the treaty he had duped them into signing, a modern Sioux has 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. Worse was to come.

The next morning Pike arose to discover his personal flag was missing. Being an intrepid explorer, he threw a hissy fit. Like a five year old in grocery store he stomped his feet and got very red in the face. Except this juvinile was an officer and a gentleman. So he had a soldier stripped to the waist and flogged for losing his flag. The Sioux were so disturbed by this display of pique that they dispatched two men downstream, where  they found the flag floating in the river. The precious toteem was returned to the brave if emotionally unstable explorer. And word went up and down the river that the Lt. was as crazy as a beaver with a toothache.

Fifty miles further to the north Pike reached the 60 foot high St. Anthony Falls, where the Mississippi River passed from the hard surface dolomites of the outer edges of the Canadian Shield to the softer sandstone bedrock. It took three days for his men to drag their bulky barges around the falls. And here 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 building their own canoe. He'd seen hundreds of them by this time. He knew how to build one. You just hollow out a large log, right?

Wrong. In making a canoe, size is everything, and smaller is better. Pike however, seems to have been over compensating, because his canoe was humongous. First they loaded all their supplies into the new leviathan, including all of their black powder. Then they slid their wooden Titanic into the river…and watched it immediately sink. Pike ordered all the wet powder kegs rescued and stacked over a fire, to dry out. The resulting explosion burned down his own tent, with most of his personal clothing, supplies and notes. Pike barely saved his trunk. You can imagine the faith his men now had in their commander, especially since he was forced to borrow clothing from them.

Back into the river again, this time in two smaller canoes. But progress was slowing. The channel was narrowing every day, winding and twisting. Four of Pike’s men were close to physical collapse. Sergeant Henry Kennerman, ““one of the stoutest men I ever knew,” according to Pike, began to vomit blood. Pike wrote that his men were, “…killing themselves to obey my orders.” My personal suspicion is that the young officer was misinterpeting the looks on his men's faces, and that Pike's sick call would have been a little shorter if his "Dam'd Rascels"  had any faith their "Lost Pathfinder" had the slightest idea where he actually was.

With snow already falling, on October 16, 1805, Pike ordered his men to pull into shore, where they built a blockhouse. While they worked, he hunted, supplying them with fresh meat. Sgt. Kennerman was left in charge of the men too sick to continue. Lt. Pike and a small detachment continued overland, wearing snowshoes and pulling sleds they had both borrowed from local British traders. It is important to point out at this point that Lt. Pike was not traveling into unknown territory. It was well known territory. The French had been through here beginning in the seventeenth century, and the English since the early eighteenth. Still, Lt. Pike persisted (like a typical man) in not asking for directions. He was like a ten year old exploring the neighbor's back yard.

Pike followed the river as best he could - without asking for help. On December 10th his tiny command reached the little falls of the Mississippi. 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.” Yea, right.

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 - asking the locals!) to a small lake which 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, 9 miles further upstream. Little Elk Lake drains into Elk Lake, which drains into Lake Itasca. Ninety days after a deer pees into Little Elk Lake, it flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

Pike was not very concerned with details like that. He was exhausted. What concerned him when he got back to the blockhouse was that 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 three dumpings in the river. The mafia never cleaned out a government expedition any more effectivly. Just a few weeks earlier Pike had thrashed a man for a lost flag. Now, he quietly sighed, reduced the sargeant to a private, and ordered his men back to their canoes.

He arrived back in Fort Belle Fontaine on April 30th , 1806, just in time to avoid the high water of the spring flood. Ordered to find the source of the Mississippi, Lt. Pike went looking during the time of year when there was less of a river to find. And he had failed. In fact he had failed to locate a single stream, river or lake which had not been previously mapped, including the ones which would later be connected to the Mississippi. 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. Only a government agency would have kept hiring this misguided direction impared shlub as a pathfinder.

Ever a self promoter, Pike rose to the level of Brigadier General during the War of 1812. And he played a crucial if 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 soldiers, among the 52 American victims was General Pike. 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. Wouldn't you?
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