Saturday, April 20, 2024


Revisiting Zebulon Pike's expedition to Minnesota

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Zebulon Pike was a 26-year old Army lieutenant when he made his way up the Mississippi River to Minnesota. His 1805-1806 exploration of the region is a valuable piece of history for some, but seen as a failure by others. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society )
This winter marks the 200th anniversary of Zebulon Pike's expedition up the Mississippi River and into Minnesota. Pike set out to explore the river's course and meet with Indian tribes and trappers. The trip was considered a failure by many because Pike wasn't able to find the source of the Mississippi. But some historians say Pike deserves more respect, and are working to reawaken interest in the expedition. Native American's also welcome discussion of Pike, but want people to remember that there are two sides to the story.

Collegeville, Minn. — As a boy, Doug Birk was fascinated by Zebulon Pike. Growing up on a family resort near Brainerd, Birk found it easy to get wrapped up in Pike's adventurous tales.

"He went headfirst in everything he did. He went headfirst into his expedition. He put everything he had into it. I think he came away with a lot of good things. There are dozens of stories one could tell about him," Birk said.

Birk remembers reading of grueling snowshoe hikes that left Pike's moccasins filled with blood. He was riveted by tales of tense meetings with trappers, or close calls with animals in the Minnesota wilderness.

That boyhood fascination turned into a career for Birk, who is now an archeologist based in the Twin Cities. He's spent years researching Pike.

But if you've never heard of Lt. Zebulon Pike or his journey into Minnesota, you're not alone. The fact that Pike failed one of his major goals hasn't helped his image over the years. He incorrectly identified the Mississippi's source as Leech Lake instead of Lake Itasca.

Doug Birk thinks Zebulon Pike's accomplishments have been unfairly overlooked, and the man deserves more respect -- especially for his observations of the weather, the wilderness and life in Minnesota 200 years ago.

"If you really immerse yourself into that material, and you look at it as something other than a bunch of men walking across the countryside, and figure out what they did and what they becomes extremely important," Birk said.

Birk is currently working to identify many of Pike's unknown campsites along the Mississippi. He expects to write a book in a few years. For now, he encourages Minnesotans to take another look at this piece of history that sits in their backyard.

For Rick Dehkes, the story of Zebulon Pike is just outside his back door. When Dehkes was looking for riverside property a few years ago, his real estate agent brought him to a piece of land south of Little Falls.

When they walked around the house to get a veiw of the river, Dehkes spotted a huge mound of concrete and stones. It turns out that in 1805, Pike and about 20 of his men built the first military fort in Minnesota near this spot. In the early 1900s, local residents salvaged stones from the ruins, and used them to build a monument in Pike's honor.

Dehkes bought the property, and in essence became the monument's official caretaker. And since he didn't know about Pike before inheriting this piece of history, he had to study up.

"Every once in a while people come knocking on the door, from all over the world. That's where I started to learn more about the monument and the history of it. Basically because a lot of people will come and ask you about it," Dehkes said.

And while Lt. Zebulon Pike may be remembered as a gutsy explorer, he's also a controversial figure as well.

Bruce White is a St. Paul-based historian who's studied Pike's time in Minnesota, and his dealings with the state's Indian tribes.

"Pike was viewed as an explorer, somebody who asserted American control," White said. "There are different points of view about that. I think Indian people have a different point of view about what Pike really accomplished in the region."

White points to an 1805 treaty Pike signed with the Dakota people as a shady moment in dealmaking.

"He did it on his own. And some of the problems with the treaty have to do with that he really wasn't authorized to do it," White said.

The details of the treaty process are sketchy. But historians say Pike offered a few Dakota leaders a couple hundred dollars in trinkets and whiskey. In return, the Dakota gave the U.S. the right to use much of what is now St. Paul and Minneapolis as a military reservation.

That's how the land for Ft. Snelling was acquired. The treaty promised the Dakota $200,000 for use of the land. But several years later Congress dropped that figure, and paid the Dakota just $2,000. Today the people of the Mendota-Mdewakanton Dakota tribe say they're ready to reclaim the rights given to them by the 1805 treaty.

Jim Anderson, the historian for the Mdewakanton tribe, stands in a parking lot at Ft. Snelling State Park near the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. According to legend, this is where the Dakota people were put on earth. It's also where the 1805 treaty was signed.

Anderson doesn't pay a fee to get into the park, as others are required. He carries a copy of the treaty and points to a passage that gives him the right to be here.

"The United States promises on their part to permit the Sioux to pass, repass, hunt or make other uses of said districts as they have formally done," the treaty reads.

For Anderson, that means more than just free admission to a state park. Several Mdwaketon have already tried some traditional gill-net fishing here, without problems from park officials. They say they're ready to see how far they can go in asserting their hunting and fishing rights.

Anderson hopes to hunt for deer in the river bottoms soon, and use the meat to feed his community. He also envisions using this area to train younger Mdewakanton how to hunt, fish and live off the land.

"The land is still capable of keeping the animals going, and they're what kept us going. We're looking to utilize this land to learn our skills again," Anderson said.

Anderson doesn't have a problwem with people marking the 200th anniversary of Zebulon Pike's visit to Minnesota. But he wants everyone to remember that his people were here long before Pike, and they're still here.