IAGenWeb Project

 Iowa History

       An IAGenWeb Special Project







After the United States bought Louisiana they had to take care of it.  Forts had to be built and a government of some kind had to be started.  This became the work of the United States Army.  In the spring of 1805, Gen. James Wilkinson at St. Louis, who was in command of the United States Army in the West, decided to send someone up the Mississippi.  He chose Lieut. Zebulon M. Pike, a young man, for the task.


On July 30, 1805, Lieutenant Pike received orders to follow the Mississippi River to its beginning.  He was to make a record of the rivers, prairies, islands, mines, quarries, timber. Indian villages, and settlements along the way.  He was also ordered to keep a journal, to select new sites for forts, and to find ways of making peace with the Indians.

Pike, with twenty men, left St. Louis on August 9, 1805.  He and his party had one large boat and provisions for four months.  It would seem tat he did not realize how big a task he had before him.  He and his men had a hard time on their trip.  Their greatest trouble came from rainy weather and from not knowing the channel of the river.  They had great difficulty in getting their big boat up the stream.

Another mistake made by pike was that he did not take with him and Indian interpreter.  Because of this, he could not hold councils with that Indians and therefore had trouble in getting help from them.


Pike and his party got to the mouth of the Des Moines River, which is now the southeast corner of Iowa, on August 20.  Just above the mouth of the river are eleven miles of rapids.  This is where the famous Keokuk Dam is now located.  The young lieutenant and his party probably would not have been able to get over these rapids if they had not received help.  A Government Indian agent, William Ewing, who had been sent to the Sac tribe, came and helped them up the river.  Ewing had four Sac chiefs and fifteen braves with him.  Pike called this place  "The Des Moines River Rapids."

After crossing the rapids Pike and his party spent the night at Ewing's camp on the east of the Mississippi.  The next day they visited a large Sac village that was located on the west side of the river.  It was on the present site of the town of Montrose, Iowa.  There Pike held a council with the Indians at the Sac village.  He gave them presents of tobacco, knives, and Whiskey.  In his journal he wrote that this would be a good place for a trading post.


The night after the council with the Indians at Montrose, Pike and his men camped six months farther up the river, on the present site of fort Madison.  The first fort to be built on Iowa land was later put on this site.  Pike, however, did not himself mention the place or recommend it as a place for a fort.

The next day Pike reached the present site of Burlington.  He told about a place that is now Crapo Park in that city and described it as "a very handsome situation for a garrison."  He said it was a good place for a fort or a garrison because all travel on the river could be watched from there.

A few days after leaving the Burlington site the Party lost two of its hunting dogs.  Two of the men said they would go out and find the dogs.  The two men were lost for two days but finally came to an Indian village.  The chief of the Indian village gave them food and guides so that they could get back to Pike.

Pike and his men again had trouble in getting over some rapids in the river.  This time it was at the mouth of the Rock River, which flows into the Mississippi River from the Illinois side.  It was near this place that Lieutenant Pike met Chief Black Hawk.

Black Hawk was given some presents and an American flag.  Pike asked the chief to take down a British flag which he had.  Black Hawk refused to do that because he wanted to be friends with both the British and the Americans.  Black Hawk himself said, "He presented us an American flag which was hoisted.  He then requested us to pull down our British flags and give him our British medals promising to send us others on his return to St. Louis.  This we declined as we wished to have two 'fathers.'"


On Sunday, September 1, the Pike party arrived at Dubuque's settlement.  Pike said they were "saluted with a field piece (small cannon) and received every mark of attention."

Pike wanted to learn all about the lead mines.  Dubuque, however, was very careful as to what he did.  He did not know whether the Americans would let him keep the land which the Spaniards had given him.  Dubuque was polite but he would not answer questions or take him to the mines.  Pike called him "the evasive Mr. Dubuque" and learned very little from him.

At Dubuque Pike got an interpreter, a Frenchman by the name of Blondie.  This interpreter helped Pike greatly on the rest of his trip.  The young lieutenant now learned that the Indians lived in great fear  of the White men.  One chief told him that "the women and children were frightened at the very name of an American boat."


Pike reached Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, on September 4.  He recommended that the bluff in Iowa, across the river from Prairie Du Chien, be used for a fort.  He said  it was best place on the upper Mississippi for that purpose.  The bluff is now called "Pike's Hill."

At Prairie du Chien Oike left his big boat and got two smaller boats.  He then went on and soon passed beyond what is now Iowa.  Before leaving Iowa he held several important councils with different Indian Chiefs.  Near the mouth of the Upper Iowa River, the Sioux Chief, Wabashaw, put on a great medicine dance for the Pike.


Pike and his men spent the winter in Minnesota.  They had a hard time because their provisions ran low and they had much sickness.  On April 16 of the following year, Pike and his party again reached Iowa on their way home.  They arrived at St. Louis on April 30, 1806.  This trip did not end Pike's explorations.  He later led a famous party to the West and "Pike's Peak," in Colorado, is named in his honor.  He was killed in the War of 1812.

Lieutenant Pike made a very accurate report of his trip.  It was the first good account that had been written of the upper Mississippi region.  If the recommendations which he made for the location of forts and trading posts had been followed, much later trouble could have been avoided.

We can learn many things about early eastern Iowa from the reports of Lewis and Clark.


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