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Unknown Pleasures: A Peek at the Elusive Zebulon Pike

A plaque commemorating explorer and Trenton native (perhaps) Zebulon Pike on the grounds of the Old Barracks. Photo: Lauren Otis.
A plaque commemorating explorer and Trenton native (perhaps) Zebulon Pike on the grounds of the Old Barracks. Photo: Lauren Otis.

 

On the grounds of the Old Barracks in downtown Trenton stands an old faded blue plaque that almost no one pays attention to. It reads: “Brig. Gen. Zebulon Pike, explorer, born near here, 1779. Captured York, Canada, 1813, but killed in attack. Pike’s Peak named for him.”

I have never been to Pike’s Peak, but I have to say, Pike has always piqued (no pun intended, well maybe a little) my curiosity. I love his little-used Old Testament given name. Who was this seemingly forgotten native son of Trenton who went on to a life of adventure in the larger world but has now largely vanished into the mists of time?

One of the first things I encountered in a bit of superficial online digging was some insistent Wikipedia entries that swore Zebulon Montgomery Pike was not even born in Trenton. Wikipedia’s notoriously inaccurate right? What about that sign at the Old Barracks? Don’t always believe what you read (more on this later).

It turns out that in his short life, Pike traveled throughout the American West’s then uncharted far reaches. He traveled to the headwaters of the Mississippi River in 1805, then crossed the Great Plains to the Rockies and explored what was to become Colorado. Pike’s military expedition climbed numerous peaks in the region but never climbed the one that was to bear his name, turned back by cold and heavy snows in 1806.

The Pike Expedition was stopped by Spanish soldiers and Pike was arrested, and ultimately released. In 1810 he published a popular account of his adventures. Pike met his end during the War of 1812, in the Battle of York, in Toronto, on April 27, 1813.

Despite an apparently distinguished life of patriotic service, military combat and exploration in the uncharted wilds of North America, history has not treated Pike well. He is far overshadowed by his exploring contemporaries Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. His patriotism has even been called into question because of his association with Gen. James Wilkinson and Aaron Burr, who were both apparently scheming treasonously at the time.

A battling, adventurous fellow, tilting to windmills and occasionally crossing the line to the dark side? Sounds like a native Trentonian to me. So what of this birthplace question?

Nearly all contemporary references and histories state that Pike was born in Lamberton, New Jersey, to a American Revolutionary soldier also named Zebulon and his wife Isabella. Lamberton subsequently became absorbed into Trenton, so Pike was born in what is now Trenton.

But way back in a 1919, in a research paper published in the Somerset County Historical Quarterly, author William J. Backes laid out a convincing case that Pike’s mother traveled back to her native Somerset County when she was pregnant with little Zeb, and gave birth to him in a town also known as Lamberton at the time. A Wikipedia entry for Lamberton, New Jersey (subsequently Trenton) has a link to the Google books facsimile of the original paper.

So what is the truth? I contacted Jared Orsi, an associate professor of history at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and the author of a 2014 biography of Pike entitled: “Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike.”

“I don’t think the evidence exists to be absolutely certain,” Orsi emailed me back, “but I have found the 1919 Backes article you refer to (which suggests Pike was born in Somerset County, not Trenton) to be persuasive. Old as it is, Backes’s research is very careful (I’ve checked some of his sources), and to my knowledge, no one since then has attempted the kind of systematic primary-source research he undertook.”

Orsi wrote me that his own genealogical research supports the non-Trenton birthplace scenario. His research suggests Isabella Pike was from Somerset County, and returned there from Pennsylvania (where she had relocated with her husband) before young Zebulon’s birth to be near her family and/or her husband, who “was a soldier in Washington’s continental army, which was wintering near Middlebrook, Somerset County, N.J.”

“In contrast, there is no known reason for her to have gone to Trenton,” writes Orsi. “So I lean, with Backes, toward the Somerset County/non-Trenton location.”

At a remarkable time in this country’s early history, Zebulon Pike lived a brief but remarkable life. A life well worth getting reacquainted with. Did it begin in Trenton? For now I will choose to believe so, at least for as long as that old marker at the Old Barracks stands.

– Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike, by Jared Orsi, Oxford University Press, New York, 2014.

Written by
Lauren Otis

Lauren Otis is an artist and writer living in Trenton. He is founder and director of Art All Day and co-founder of Trenton Community Supported Art. Follow Lauren on Twitter @OtisAlchemist. Check out his website at www.alchemicalprojects.com.

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Written by Lauren Otis