Today in History, November 15: 1806 –
US Army Lt. Zebulon Pike was a brilliant, self-taught explorer. On this date he was on his second expedition to the West, searching for the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red Rivers.
When he observed a mountain in the distance which he described as looking like a “small blue cloud”, he told the Expedition they could reach the mountain, scale it, and return to camp by dinner time.
Never having seen a “14er” before, he had grossly misjudged the distance. He and his team had to shelter from the cold in a cave for the night. When they did reach the base of the mountain which would one day hold Pike’s name, he declared it could not be climbed.
After the discovery Pike and his expedition became lost, wandering until captured by a troop of Spanish soldiers who took them to Santa Fe before releasing them. Pike took advantage of this misfortune by mapping this valuable area also.
Pike would be made a Brigadier General during the War of 1812 during which he would be killed.
Today in History, May 20: 1862 – President Lincoln signs the Homestead Act, which would give 160 acres of western lands to anyone that would farm it successfully for 5 years and build a residence upon it (often a sod building). The Act would encourage vastly expanded settlement of the west; bad news for Native Americans, good news for those newer Americans wanting to improve their lot in life. Congress had attempted to pass similar acts in 1852, 1854, and 1859, but each time the attempts were shot down by Southern Democrats who were afraid that if the west were populated by poor farmers and immigrants it would result in more “free” states, which would result in more votes against slavery. Once the Republican Lincoln was elected, and the Civil War began, the Southern Democrats were no longer part of the equation. As their states seceded from the Union, their obstructionist votes left Congress. The Republicans soon passed the Homestead Act and the settlement of the west began in earnest. By the end of the war 15,000 settlers (some of which were merely pawns for land speculators) had accepted their lands. Eventually 80 Million acres would be settled.