“…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.
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?)
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.
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