A virtual journey in the footsteps of Zebulon Pike
By Jared Orsi
Somewhere in the middle of the Great Plains in November 1806, the explorer Zebulon Pike worried that the lateness of the season jeopardized the completion of his expedition. A contemporary of Lewis and Clark, Pike commanded a US military party that was exploring the southwestern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase. With cottonwoods turning gold and the nights chilling, Pike resolved to “spare no pains” to accomplish the national objects of his voyage.
Two centuries later, in an era that fetishizes military sacrifice while veterans’ services and other public programs languish for want of funding, the anniversary of a soldier who vowed to spare no pains for his country invites meditation on the relationship between citizen, nation, and the military. Pike’s hypothetical pains quickly turned into literal bodily suffering, as he led his men into the Rocky Mountains on the morning of winter’s first blizzard. For eight weeks they wandered, lost among the passes, enduring cold, fatigue, and hunger.
The misery climaxed on 22 January, when Privates John Sparks and Thomas Dougherty developed frostbite so badly they could no longer walk. Pike had to leave them behind to save the party. Still unable to travel in February when a rescue party returned for them, the hobbled soldiers sent Pike the toe bones that by then had separated from their gangrenous feet, begging him “by all that was sacred not to leave them to die.”
“Ah! Little did they know my heart,” Pike wrote in his journal. He vowed to stop at nothing in order to return them to “the bosom of a grateful country.” Sparing no pains now included body parts. Pike’s response expressed a covenant that he believed bound people and nation. Citizens owed their country sacrifice; their country owed them gratitude.
Pike read widely in the popular advice literature of the day, which championed the rights of individuals to personal fulfillment. Liberating as it was though, individualism threatened to undermine deference, family, religion, and other constraints that had traditionally claimed to compel a citizens good behavior. Pike and others, therefore, tempered it with republicanism—the duty to forsake selfish interests for the good of others, especially the nation. “Be always ready to die for your country,” a young Pike scribbled in the margins of one of his favorite advice tracts. He spent most of his life trying to reconcile his willingness to die for his country with his desire to find individual personal fulfillment in life, and to win the social rewards he believed that merited.
Congress did not compensate the explorers for lost toes or other sacrifices. Other matters preoccupied the representatives. Britain was attacking American ships and impressing sailors, raising a national dilemma akin to Pike’s personal one: would Pike’s self-absorbed generation collectively sacrifice to defend the nation? War promised to remedy the nation’s diplomatic and cultural challenges. An external foe could unite self-interested individuals, who would sacrifice to defeat that very enemy. Pike, for one, itched to prove “that the sons are able to maintain the Independence handed down to us by our Fathers.”
After the Senate declared war in June 1812, he headed for the front lines, declaring, “You will hear of my Fame of my death.” He died in April 1813 at the Battle of York, one of the war’s few significant American victories. Newspapers and admiring biographers eulogized this ultimate sacrifice. The embattled James Madison administration—which had failed to beat its enemy on the battlefield—used figures like Pike to recast the war as being not about extracting concessions from Britain but about proving Americans were honorable.
As a result, for the next decade, Pike was the brightest star in the galaxy of American military martyrs. His glory far exceeded that of Meriwether Lewis, who killed himself while mired in debt and political scandal. Pike had won in death the status he had coveted in life.
Although Pike chose to sacrifice in the army, his world did not consider the military the only venue for doing so. In fact, contemporaries understood the American Revolution predominantly as a war in which civilians rose up to defeat a common enemy and then returned to their farms, leaving Europeans to their vice of standing armies. Pike fancied himself as a “Citizen Soldier.”
Today is different. Soldiers have become a specialized class, who sacrifice so that other citizens don’t have to. The nation celebrates them, making it easier to send them into harm’s way while asking little of the others. But the public is largely unwilling to fully support them before, during, or after their time of service.
Pike’s life, however, indicates the roots of this tragedy lie deep in history, in a never-fully-resolved paradox of American nationalism that celebrates both individualism and obligation to the community. The separation of soldiers and civilians originated during Pike’s life, at a moment when the republic narrowed from glorifying citizen sacrifice to lauding only soldier sacrifice. The anniversary of a citizen soldier sparing no pains recalls a path not taken but which remains an open option—a more genuine and widely shouldered commitment to the nation that would extoll citizen service rather than fetishize of the sacrifice of a few.
Jared Orsi is the author of Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike. He is Associate Professor of History at Colorado State University. He is the author of the prizing-winning Hazardous Metropolis: Flooding and Urban Ecology in Los Angeles.