November 12, 2012

Cantonment commander died in U.S. service


---- — Most locals here are interested in history here are aware of Zebulon Pike because of his involvement in the Battle of Plattsburgh. Right? Wrong.

In the summer of 2001, I was in St. Louis, Mo., doing research for a book on members of my extended family when I came across information that a Lt. Zebulon Pike had met Joseph Robidoux at Portage des Sioux and took the occasion to give Robidoux a letter to bring back to St. Louis. 

Robidoux’s grandfather had migrated from Montreal to St. Louis, Louisiana Territory, in the mid 1700s.


Pike was familiar to me because of Pike’s Cantonment here in Plattsburgh, so I had to know more.

Born in Lamberton, N.J., on Jan. 5, 1779, he was named for his father, who was an officer in the Continental Army under Gen. George Washington.

The younger Pike entered the Army as a cadet. 

In 1799, he became an ensign and then a first lieutenant. By 1805, he was serving in St. Louis under the command of Gen. James Wilkerson. 

Per Wilkerson’s orders, Pike left St. Louis on August 20, 1805, with 20 men to explore the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Pike’s party traveled more than 2,000 miles by boat and by foot to Leech Lake, Minn., which Pike thought was the source of the river. Unknown to him, he was within 60 miles of the actual source, Lake Itasca. En route, he purchased land from the Sioux for the site of Fort Snelling, which became Minneapolis.


After Pike’s return to St. Louis, Wilkinson tasked him to explore the southern border of the Louisiana Purchase and the Arkansas and Red rivers. Pike left on April 20, 1806, with a party of 22 men. They tried to climb a mountain peak in Colorado but were not successful. All the same, it became known as Pike’s Peak. Pike and his men then traveled to the Rio Grande, where they were taken captive by the Mexicans and held for almost a year before being released in 1807. 

In 1811, Pike, now a lieutenant colonel, was with the 4th Infantry Regiment at the Battle of Tippecanoe. By 1812, he was a colonel and in charge of the troops in Plattsburgh. He was credited with establishing Pike’s Cantonment during the winter of 1812-1813, where than 200 men died from exposure and disease.


Pike was promoted to general on March 12, 1813, and left Plattsburgh with his men in the same month on snowshoes for Sackets Harbor. Several of the men froze to death during the trek. 

At Sackets Harbor, Pike oversaw the hasty reconstruction of a fort and the construction of a cantonment that were subsequently named for him.

He was in command of the regular infantry at the Battle of York in Toronto, Ontario, on April 27, 1813. Pike and his men were victorious and captured the town and dockyard. 

After the victory, a British soldier set fire to the ammunition magazine. Thirty-five men were killed, and another 200 were wounded by the explosion. 

Pike, who had his back to the magazine, was hit by a boulder that crushed his spine and died later that day.


Because of his rank, Pike’s body was placed in a cask of whiskey to be transported to Sackets Harbor, where he was buried in a iron casket in May 1813. The cemetery is now known as Sackets Harbor Military Cemetery. Also there are Fort Pike and Pike’s Cantonment, adjacent to each other on the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Park.

Pike, who died four months before the Battle of Plattsburgh, had one child, Clarissa, who married the son of the ninth U.S. president, William Henry Harrison.

Pike did not make it to the source of the Mississippi River and failed to climb to the peak of the mountain named after him. But he was a true American hero who gave his life for his country. He spent his life fighting to preserve these United States.

Clyde M. Rabideau Sr., who lives in Plattsburgh, is a historian/genealogist who has collected and published collections of statistics from Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties; written books about members of his extended family; and published a three-volume set of the headstone inscriptions from all the cemeteries in Clinton County.