Aren’t you tired of reading about COVID-19? I am too, so let’s take a break and focus on regional news from 200 years ago.
Who was the first person to climb Pikes Peak? That’s unknown and unknowable. Given the great peak’s visibility, accessibility and seductive appeal, the first climber likely summited many millennia before the first recorded ascent, that of Edwin James on July 15, 1820. He was a member of Major Stephen Long’s expedition, dispatched by the United States government to explore the land then called “The Great American Desert,” the vast lands that stretched across the Great Plains to the base of the Rocky Mountains.
Long’s expedition was undermanned and underfunded. It began as a thousand-strong military/scientific effort that quickly fizzled out, was defunded by Congress and eventually reconstituted as a 20-person scientific exploration.
Long was instructed to go “by land to the source of the River Platte and thence by way of the Arkansas and Red Rivers to the Mississippi.” Leaving Pittsburgh on March 31, 1820, the depleted little group headed west. On June 6, they reached Engineer Cantonment (a few miles from present-day Omaha) where the remnants of the larger expedition were stationed.
While there, they sought the advice of an Otoe tribe who advised them to turn around and head back to Pittsburgh.
“They affected to laugh at our temerity,” wrote James in his account of the expedition, “in attempting what they said we would never be able to accomplish.” Another member of the expedition, Captain John Bell, wrote that they would either “be destroyed by the Indians of the mountains or perish for lack of provisions and water on the prairie.”
Nevertheless, Long and his men headed west on June 6, 1820.
“The traveler journeys for weeks in succession over a dreary and monotonous plain…” wrote James. “In these boundless oceans of grass, his sensations are not unlike those of the mariner, who beholds around him only the expanse of the sky and the waste of waters.”
Toward the end of June, clouds appeared on the western horizon — or so Long and his men believed. They soon realized that the clouds were “the snowy and shining summits of the Rocky Mountains.”
As the expedition drew closer to the mountains on June 30, expedition artist Samuel Seymour made a quick watercolor sketch of the mountain that still bears Major Long’s name. Turning south, they soon sighted the “Great Peak” that Zebulon Pike saw in November of 1806. After failing to reach its summit Pike declared, “No human being could have ascended to its pinnacle.”
That didn’t bother the intrepid James, who set out with two other expedition members from the “Boiling Spring” in present-day Manitou to climb the mountain on July 13.
“We carried with us,” James noted, “each a small blanket, ten or twelve pounds of bison meat, three gills of parched cornmeal and a small kettle.” Does that seem reckless and improvident, scarcely what you’d expect of seasoned adventurers? That’s easily explained — James was 22, and his companions were 21. They were brave and a little foolhardy, but they nevertheless summited on July 15. It was a tougher climb than they anticipated, but their success led to many scientific discoveries.
At 22, James was already an eminent botanist and geologist. Such precocity was not unusual at a time when the average life expectancy was around 40 years old. During the ascent, James discovered and named multiple plant species, including the Colorado Columbine. He also observed that the loose rock of the summit “rests upon a bed of ice which is of great thickness and may be as permanent and as old as the rocks with which it occurs.”
Recognizing his achievement, Long named the mountain after James, the first documented person to summit a North American fourteener. James wrote the official 1822 account of the expedition (read it in Colorado historian Maxine Benson’s profusely illustrated 1988 book From Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains), served as an Army surgeon, translated the New Testament into the Ojibwe language, bought a farm in Iowa and maintained a station on the Underground Railway. The name James Peak didn’t stick. Long after his death in 1861, a Front Range thirteener was named after him as a kind of consolation prize.
Yet as the 200th anniversary of his ascent approaches, here’s a suggestion: Let’s put a bronze plaque on the new Pikes Peak Summit House honoring James and his buddies. After 200 years, it’s about time…