Zebulon Pike and the Pike's Peak Expedition
In his forward to the printed edition of Zebulon Pike's journals and letters Donald Jackson aptly stated that "Nothing...Zebulon Montgomery Pike ever tried to do was easy, and most of his luck was bad,” This may be true to some extent, but he never stopped trying, and for this reason the Sun Mountain Sitting Big was named Pike's Peak.
Pike was originally from New Jersey and followed in his father's footsteps, joining the U.S. Army when he was twenty, serving under James Wilkinson Commander of the U.S. Army and a secret double-agent for Spain.
Wilkinson provided Pike with an important assignment. In 1805 Pike led an expedition to explore the upper Mississippi while Lewis and Clark were exploring west of the Missouri. Unfortunately, Pike incorrectly identified the river's source and made few friends with the local tribes, but he did return with important geographical information according to Bob Moore's "Zebulon Pike: Hard-Luck Explorer."
The following year Wilkinson sent Pike and his men on a dubious assignment that eventually led them to what is now Southern Colorado. This is when Pike's story truly captures my attention.
For years I made a two day drive from Texas to Colorado then back again to visit my grandchildren. I lived in Colorado most of my life, but spent a few years in the Texas Hill country, which I loved, but every time, without exception, that I drove close enough to view the mountains on these many drives--sometimes six times a year--to visit my family and saw the Colorado Rocky Mountains once again I cried like a child who hasn't seen her mother since childhood. If I made the drive through Eastern Texas, into Northern New Mexico, across Raton Pass and into Southern Colorado. Then I stopped by the side of the road to stare up at Pikes Peak, mesmerized by her magnificent beauty.
"America the Beautiful"
I am not the first woman to be overwhelmed by the great beauty of this mountain. In 1893, 33 year old Katherine Lee Bates, a professor at Wellesley College (she also taught university level English, so I feel a connection with her, as well), traveled by train to Colorado Springs. She was scheduled to teach summer school at Colorado College, but fell in love with Sun Mountain Sitting Big.
Sitting on the mountain top, words, descriptions, and rhymes began to flow in the mind of Katherine Bates, and when she returned to her room at the famous Antlers Hotel she sat at her desk and wrote her most famous work. The mountain inspired Bates to write a poem that includes references to the wheat fields of Kansas, references I think of every time I pass these fields on my travels, as well. Pikes Peak brought "For purple mountain's majesties" to the page. The poem was combined with the music of Samuel A. Ward in 1910 and became "America the Beautiful."
This song, and "The Star Spangled Banner," will always be my favorites songs. I taught them to my children and grandchildren, explaining each reference in great detail, and believe they are two of the most important songs Americans should know by heart and hopefully feel deep within their souls when they hear the words.