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Zebulon Pike

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The orders which young Lieutenant Zebulon Pike received on July 30th, 1805 must have seemed more like the tasks required in a fairy tale to marry the princess than a simple reconnaissance of the Upper Mississippi River. The lieutenant, whose previous experience was limited to the paymaster's office, was to lead a party of twenty soldiers up the Mississippi in a seventy-foot keelboat powered by a sail. His orders called for him to explore the entire river and locate its source.

Along the way, he was to ascend all navigable tributaries—some fifty of them—as far as he could, and collect any and all interesting plant, animal and mineral specimens. He was to negotiate peace treaties with all the many Indian tribes warring with each other, convince them to throw their support to the United States (the new owners since the Louisiana Purchase of 1804), select and buy sites for future American forts, and, while he was at it, convince several chiefs to return with him to St. Louis to negotiate treaties.

Pike barely knew how to operate the boat, but orders are orders, so he set out that August with a crew he described as "a damn set of rascals" on this first American military expedition up the Mississippi. Under the circumstances, the lieutenant performed amazingly well. By a combination of pushing, pulling, and sailing, he arrived at Leech Lake in central Minnesota on February 1st, 1806. Along the way, he and his men had lost most of their clothing, their tents, and their food. At Leech Lake, winter turned them back before reaching the source of the Mississippi.

Pike did carry out some of his orders. He did make treaties with warring Indians, he did visit most of their villages, including the Sauk and Meskwaki settlements around Rock Island, and he did convince the Indians to sell him a hundred thousand acres of land around St. Anthony's Falls for two hundred dollars—the future site of Minneapolis and St. Paul. And sites he selected did become forts in 1816. He returned to St. Louis at the end of April.

Lieutenant Pike did not do well enough to marry the princess, but he did get second prize: command of a much larger expedition to the Rocky Mountains, where he discovered a peak in Colorado which bears his name.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.