Filed Under Exploration

The Debate Over Zebulon Pike's Remains

Zebulon Pike, legendary American general and adventurer, was one of the predominant explorers of the American West. Although he discovered Pike’s Peak, he never reached its summit. To help Pike finally summit the mountain that bears his name, the people of Colorado Springs have petitioned to have his remains moved to the top of Pikes Peak, but will the people of Sacketts Harbor, the location of his death, part with his body?

General Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779-1813) was an American Army officer and explorer. His  expedition to the Louisiana Territory and subsequent books detailing his journey catapulted him into the national spotlight. His tragic death during the War of 1812 cemented his position in American memory.

After his famous 1806 expedition, on which he attempted to climb Pikes Peak, Pike continued to rise up the ranks of the U.S. Army and, by the War of 1812, had reached the rank of Brigadier-general. As a general, Pike led the 1813 assault on York, the capital of Upper Canada on Lake Ontario. After successfully overrunning several enemy batteries, Pike and his men were awaiting the British surrender when  a huge explosion suddenly ripped through the air. The retreating force had ignited the fort’s powder magazine, which exploded and launched rocks, timber, and debris in every direction. A large piece of debris struck General Pike, ripped a hole through his back, and left him mortally wounded. After urging his soldiers forward, Pike was carried back to the Madison, an American ship, upon which he died with the captured British flag supporting his head. 

For many years, Pike’s remains were kept at Sacketts Harbor in Canada, the site of his death. In 1948, the mayor of Colorado Springs and the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce petitioned to have Pike’s remains moved to the top of Pikes Peak. While the mountain bears his name, he never reached the top due to harsh weather and a lack of supplies. The Mayor’s hope was to move his body to the top of the mountain where residents of Colorado Springs would build a monument to commemorate his achievements and discovery of the mountain, which would bring millions of dollars to the city through tourism. Despite the approval of Pike’s descendants and the excitement expressed by Colorado newspapers and the Colorado Congressional delegation,  the decision rested in the hands of the Sacketts Harbor mayor and city council.

This decision has been complicated by the controversy over which remains in the Sacketts Harbor Cemetery actually belong to Pike. After his death at the Battle of York, Pike’s body was transported back to Sacketts Harbor in a barrel of whiskey to preserve it until he could be buried. In 1909, the cemetery in which he was buried changed location and experts were only able to positively identify four of the 130 bodies found; Pike’s was not one of them. They assumed Pike's body occupied a metal casket submerged in whiskey, but when they moved the lid of the casket, it cracked and exposed the remains to the open air, disintegrating them.

Regardless of the debate over whether or not the remains ever belonged to Pike, the Mayor of Sacketts Harbor, Carl Jackson, vehemently refused the petitions of the Coloradans. He said, "General Pike's been buried here for more than a century, and we mean to keep him here."  It seems Pike may never reach the top of the famous American peak that bears his name.


Lieutenant Zebulon Pike
Lieutenant Zebulon Pike Source: Gue, Benjamin F. "Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike - History of Iowa." 1903. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Pike's Peak in Colorado
Pike's Peak in Colorado Source: Aravis. "Pike's Peak4." March 1, 2010. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Zebulon Pike's Grave
Zebulon Pike's Grave Source: "The boy's story of Zebulon M. Pike; (1911)." 1911. Via Wikimedia Commons.;_(1911)_(14598387087).jpg
A Closer Look at Pike's Peak
A Closer Look at Pike's Peak Source: Shankbone, David. "Pikes Peak by David Shankbone." March 2008. Via Wikimedia Commons.



Ethan Dunham, Brigham Young University , “The Debate Over Zebulon Pike's Remains,” Intermountain Histories, accessed July 22, 2024,