Meet the man who put the ‘Pike’ in ‘Pike County’

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Luke Brantley

Variety Editor

Troy is the county seat of Pike County, Alabama. While this may be common knowledge for many people in this area, what may not be as well-known is for whom Pike County is named.

Zebulon Pike was born on January 5, 1779, in a small town in New Jersey.

Pike wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the military. He got his wish in 1794.

Six years later, Pike married Clarissa Harlow Brown. They only had one child who survived to adulthood. They lost another four.

(Fun fact: Their surviving daughter went on to marry President William Henry Harrison’s son).

Pike was moved around from fort to fort across the Louisiana Territory.

In 1805, Pike was sent on his first expedition to explore this brand-new expansion to the young United States. His mission was to find the source of the Mississippi River, do some exploring and kick out some Canadian fur traders who were operating in the territory illegally.

The expedition went pretty well for Pike (even though he was wrong about the source of the Mississippi River).

Not long after that, he was sent back out on another expedition.

In the summer of 1806, Pike was sent to explore two more rivers: the Arkansas River and the Red River. He was also instructed to gather some information about nearby Spanish territory.

Pike did some exploring and then kept heading west. A few months into the expedition, Pike and his men noticed something on the horizon. As they got closer, they figured out it was a mountain range.

Pike set up an outpost and eventually decided he and his men were going to scale one of the mountains.

Pike and his men made it part of the way up, but they had to turn back due to severe winter conditions and a lack of food.

But his failure didn’t matter in the long run as that mountain is now known as Pike’s Peak, part of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

Pike went back to his original task of exploring one of the rivers when he and his men hit a snag in their plans: The Spanish.

While exploring the Red River, the expedition accidentally crossed into Spanish territory (back then that specific area was a part of New Mexico, now it’s part of Colorado.)

Pike and his men were captured and taken to Santa Fe and were later moved into Mexico.

While he was there, Pike learned about the political situation in Mexico, which at that point in history was still called New Spain. Pike learned that the people there were not happy with Spanish rule.

This information helped contribute to the surge of Americans immigrating to Texas a few decades later. Pike also had a good look at some Spanish maps of the area, and that information was later used to help create a trail to the West (the Santa Fe Trail).

All of the journals and other records Pike had kept about his expedition were taken by the Spanish, but Pike wrote down everything he remembered as soon as he was released and got back home.

The book he wrote about his adventures was published in 1810. It became famous and was even translated into several other languages. It was especially popular among those interested in exploring the American West.

Pike was still serving in the army when the War of 1812 broke out between the U.S. and Great Britain.

His final expedition came to an end in 1813 during the Battle of York (present-day Toronto.)

Pike led a successful attack against British and their allies, driving them back and forcing them to abandon their fortifications.

But as the British turned to run, they booby-trapped their ammunition magazine. As Pike and his men approached, the fleeing British lit the fuse.

The massive explosion sent deadly shrapnel flying in all directions, inflicting heavy American casualties. When the dust settled, Zebulon Pike was one of the fallen.

Pike’s expeditions and military service made him famous, although slightly less so than other legendary explorers like Lewis and Clark.

Aside from the famous mountain in Colorado, many other areas were named for Pike.

One such area was Pike County, Alabama, formed in 1821. There are several other Pike Counties in states across the country, as well as many landmarks, military forts and more.

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