Zebulon Pike: An American hero who made 'America the beautiful'

On April 27, 1813, a legendary American explorer died in a successful attempt to take the city of York, which today is called Toronto.

The 34 year old Lt. Col. Zebulon M. Pike was killed by the shrapnel from an explosion in the Battle of York, which took place in the War of 1812 against the British. America had lost a most able soldier and one of the chief explorers of the newly acquired land from the Louisiana Purchase.


While Lewis and Clark have been given most of the attention by posterity for their daring voyage across America through the Northwest Territory, Zebulon Pike led an almost equally important voyage through the southwest part of the Louisiana Purchase between the years 1805 and 1807.

Although there has been controversy over whether or not Pike was sent out into the wilderness by the traitorous Gen. James Wilkinson and Aaron Burr to secure territory for their own Southwest empire, he has mostly been cleared of these charges by the people of his time and historians.

Unlike with the Lewis and Clark expedition, President Thomas Jefferson never authorized Pike’s expedition, but Jefferson did eventually get the Sage of Monticello’s approval.

Gen. Henry Dearborn said in a testimonial about Pike, “his services were held in high esteem by the President.”

Along the way, in what is Colorado today, Pike discovered one of the largest mountains in the United States, Pike’s Peak.

Katherine Lee Bates wrote the famous song, “America the Beautiful” in 1893 from atop Pike’s Peak. She was so captivated by the incredible beauty that she witnessed from the top of the mountain, which has a clear view of the Great Plains, that she was inspired to write the lyrics to a poem originally called “Pike’s Peak.” The poem eventually became known as the words of America the Beautiful.


Bates may have never had the chance to write America the Beautiful if it was not for the daring journey of Zebulon Pike and the discoveries that he made.

Pike also commented on the beauty of the region around Pike’s Peak in his journal, “The unbounded prairie was overhung with clouds, which appeared like an ocean in a storm; wave piled on wave and foaming, whilst the sky was perfectly clear where we were.”

The story of Pike’s life does not just end with the close of his famous journey; he would go on to fight in the famous Battle of Tippecanoe against the legendary Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, and again in America’s “Second War of Independence,” the War of 1812.

American land forces struggled mightily throughout the conflict against the British, but Pike was a part of one of the few major victories at the Battle of York.

Pike fought brilliantly in the battle, but was killed when the British blew up their fort. Pike was too close to the explosion and was killed by flying debris. In the years just after his death, Pike was memorialized throughout the United States. Many towns and localities were named after him, including Pike’s Peak.


The United States would look very different today without the service and sacrifice of Zebulon Pike, and might have never been “America the Beautiful.”

Join the conversation as a VIP Member