Zebulon Pike and the Great American Desert

While Lewis and Clark were crossing the plains and mountains of the American Northwest, an­other expedition was exploring those of the Southwest. The leader of the expedition was a young lieutenant in the American army named Zebulon M. Pike.

In November 1806, Pike and his men reached the Rocky Mountains near where the city of Pueblo, Colorado, now stands. The following spring Pike traveled further into the mountains, into lands that were then ruled by Spain. Eventually he was ar­rested by Spanish soldiers. Although the Spaniards treated him with courtesy, they took away his notes and papers and sent him back to the United States.

Pike is remembered today for two things. One is Pikes Peak, a high mountain in Colorado which he first sighted on November 15, 1806, and which is named after him. The other is for his opinion that the entire central region of North America between the Mississippi and the Rockies was little better than a desert and “incapable of cultivation.”

For years after Pike’s journey this area was described on maps as “The Great American Desert.” But both Pike and the mapmakers were wrong. By the 1870s improved seeds and better methods of cultivation were making it possible for farmers to turn these lands into one of the richest grain-growing areas in the w’orld.

Missouri, a town on the Mississippi River. From Independence they followed a twisting trail of about 2,000 miles across plains and mountains to the mouth of the Columbia River.

This overland route to the Pacific coast became known as the Oregon Trail. Ihe wheels of the wagons that traveled along it made deep ruts. These ruts can still be seen in dry areas of the American West today. But the Oregon Trail was never a single trail. It was more a collection of trails, all heading in the same general direction across western North America and meeting occasionally at river-crossing points and passes through the mountains.


Mmmiain-meti setting traps for beaver.

Settlers faced many dangers on the way to Oregon. Floods and blizzards, prairie fires and accidents, disease and starvation —all these took many lives.

One settler recorded in his diary a common sight along the trail: “At noon came upon a fresh grave with a note tied on a stick, informing us it was the grave ofjoel Fdembree, aged six years, killed by a wagon running over his body.”

But, in spite of the dangers, settlers continued to make the long journey. In 1843 “Oregon fever” came to many parts of the United States. People left their worn-out farms in the East, packed their possessions on wagons and set off for the West. “I have seen hard times, faced the dangers of disease and exposure and perils of all kinds,” wrote one, “but I do not care about them if they’ enable me to place myself and my family in comfortable circumstances [better conditions].”

American settlers soon outnumbered the British in Oregon. American newspapers and political leaders began to express an idea called “manifest destiny,” This was a claim that it was the clear (“manifest”) intention of fate {“destiny”) that the territory of the United States should stretch across North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Supporters of manifest destiny demanded that the United States should take the whole of Oregon, all the way north to the boundary with Alaska at latitude 54 degrees 40 minutes. They began using the slogan “Fifty four forty or fight” and threatened the British with war.

In 1844 James K. Polk was elected President of the United States. Polk believed strongly in manifest destiny. In the speech at the start of his presidency— his “inaugural” address —he said that the American claim “to the whole of Oregon is clear and unquestionable.” For a time war seemed possible.

But by the summer of 1846 the United States was already at war with Mexico. In June Polk agreed to divide Oregon with Britain in two almost equal sections. The dividing line was the 49th parallel of latitude, which already formed the boundary between the United States and Canada to the cast ot the Rocky Mountains.

The 1846 war with Mexico had grown out of events that had been taking place in Texas. Thousands of Americans had settled in Texas, but up to the 1830s it was ruled by Mexico. The Texas Americans, or Texans, came to dislike Mexican rule. In October 1835, they rebelled. Led by General Sam Houston, they defeated a much larger Mexican army in 1836 at the Battle of San Jacinto and made Texas an independent republic.

But most Texans did not want their independence to be permanent. They wanted their country to join the United States. Eventually the two countries reached an agreement about this and in 1845 Texas became part of the United States.

In April 1846, there was fighting between American and Mexican soldiers along the border between Texas and Mexico. President Polk saw an opportunity to take land from Mexico and he declared war. American soldiers invaded Mexico and defeated the Mexican army. By September 1847, they had occupied Mexico City, the country’s capital.

The Mexican-Amcrican War was ended by a peace treaty signed in February 1848. The treaty forced Mexico to hand over enormous stretches ofits territory to the United States. Today these lands form the American states of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado.

The annexation of these Mexican lands completed the “manifest destiny” of the United States. It now stretched across the North American continent from ocean to ocean. In little more than half a century it had grown from a small nation on the shores of the Atlantic into one of the largest countries in the world.

Updated: 18th July 2015 — 3:17 pm