Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Weatherwise 63:1 (January-February 2010), pp. 26-33; doi: 10.1080/00431670903459377


Copyright © 2010 Taylor & Francis Ltd. Used by permission.


Zebulon Pike is known in history books as one of America’s heroes—a great explorer whose adventures in the American West rivaled the Lewis and Clark Expedition and who became the namesake for Colorado’s Pike’s Peak. But what if the history books got it wrong, and Pike was actually not the hero everyone thinks he is? What if he was actually a spy carrying out a secret mission, or a scoundrel interested in overthrowing the American government and helping to carve a new empire out of the North American Southwest? Evidence from Pike’s famed expedition in 1806-1807 points to the possibility that his directives in exploring the wilderness in America might have had less than patriotic motives. Surprisingly, this mystery might best be solved not by the investigative techniques of detectives or historians, but instead through the diligent field and historical work of climatologists. By comparing exactly what Pike wrote about the climate and weather of the Great Plains during his famous expedition to Colorado with what he wrote in his official report after the expedition, it might be possible to glean whether Pike should be regarded as a hero—or as a traitor—to the United States of America.