Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike

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Publisher’s Weekly

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Citizen Explorer CoverOrsi, an assistant professor of history at Colorado State University and author of a book about urban ecology in Los Angeles (Hazardous Metropolis), turns his hand to a study of an explorer whose name is attached to a well-known peak in the Rockies but who is otherwise forgotten. Orsi paints Zeb Pike as an exemplary member of a family seeking independence, stretching from ancestor John Pike, who came to the New World in 1635, to James Shepherd Pike, who gained prominence as an author and journalist from the 1840s onward. Orsi focuses on Pike’s journeys up the Mississippi River and west along the Arkansas River in the years 1805–1807, which resulted in his eventual captivity in New Spain. In Orsi’s treatment, Pike comes across as a stalwart but somewhat inept figure, and his quick rise to brigadier general and heroic death in the war of 1812 figure prominently in the narrative. Strangely, Orsi (Hazardous Metropolis) introduces “energetics” as an explanation of some of Pike’s actions, going so far as to imply that this modern concept was a direct motivation for Pike—as when he writes that Pike visited native tribes “to ensure that the nation’s energy system would subsume the natives’.” Elsewhere, he repeatedly squashes rumors and accusations of Pike’s collusion with or duping by either his superior, James Wilkinson, or Aaron Burr, in vague plots involving the Spanish colonies. Orsi ventures off the beaten track of Pike’s life but this is a useful update of an underappreciated explorer.

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