Pike, Albert (1809–1891)

By: Thomas W. Cutrer

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: May 1, 1995

Albert Pike, lawyer, soldier, and author, and one of the most remarkable figures in American history, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 29, 1809, the son of Benjamin and Sarah (Andrews) Pike. He attended school at Newburyport, the town to which his parents moved while he was still a boy, and at an academy in Framingham, Massachusetts. Through most of the years 1824 through 1831 Pike taught at schools in Gloucester, Fairhaven, and Newburyport, while pursuing private study and writing poetry in his spare time. His self-acquired knowledge of the classics was prodigious, and he acquired a working knowledge of Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and French. In addition to a strong literary bent, he possessed unbounded physical energy and great determination. More than six feet tall and large of frame, with hair that reached his shoulders and a beard that reached near his waist, Pike also presented an impressive appearance.

When the restraints of New England life became too irksome for his adventurous spirit, he set out, in March 1831, for the West. Reaching Independence, Missouri, with little money and less of a plan for his future, Pike joined a party of traders and hunters bound for New Mexico. On the trail his horse broke away, leaving him to walk the remaining 500 miles to Taos. His party was caught, as well, in a ferocious snowstorm that caused a layover of five days and froze many of the horses. After reaching Taos at last, Pike accompanied another expedition to Santa Fe, but left that "city of mud" in 1832 for a trapping venture on the Llano Estacado of West Texas. He found the beaver population negligible, however, and traversed the Caprock, crossed Oklahoma, and finally arrived at Fort Smith, Arkansas, having traveled 1,300 miles, 650 on foot, and experienced many hardships and exciting adventures.

While serving as associate editor of the Little Rock, Arkansas, Advocate in 1833, Pike wrote in travel narrative, short story, and verse of his recent adventures. These vivid memoirs, tales, and poems, which first appeared serially in the Advocate were published by Light and Horton of Boston in 1834 as Prose Sketches and Poems Written in the Western Country. Pike's narrative is said to be the first book ever printed dealing with the region between Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Certainly Pike was New Mexico's first Anglo-American poet as well as its first short story-writer in English and was among the first to describe in print the Mexican borderlands.

On October 10, 1834, Pike married Mary Ann Hamilton, and her dowry enabled him to purchase an interest in the Advocate. The following year he became its sole owner and editor. In 1837, however, he sold the newspaper, having been licensed to practice law. Within a few years he was regarded as one of the most capable attorneys in the Southwest and became the first reporter of the Arkansas Supreme Court. He wrote "Maxims of the Roman Law and Some of the Ancient French Law, as Expounded and Applied in Doctrine and Jurisprudence," which, although unpublished, greatly enhanced his reputation as a student of the law. As a staunch Whig and later a Know-Nothing, he championed many internal-improvement causes against the Democratic majority in Arkansas.

During the Mexican War Pike commanded a troop of volunteer cavalry in Archibald Yell's regiment and performed quite credibly at the battle of Buena Vista in February 1847. His Civil War record, however, was not so handsome. Although opposed to both slavery and secession, he cast his lot with the Confederacy and during the first year of the war greatly assisted Gen. Ben McCulloch in formulating alliances with the civilized tribes of the Indian Territory. He was commissioned a brigadier general on November 22, 1861, and led a brigade of Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees at the battle of Elkhorn Tavern (Pea Ridge), Arkansas, in March 1862. There the Indian troops performed disgracefully, taking scalps and then routing in the face of federal artillery. Criticism of Pike and his command caused him to offer his resignation on July 12, 1862, but it was not accepted until November 5. His response to continued criticism led a fellow officer in the department to the conviction that Pike was "either insane or untrue to the South," and on November 3, 1862, he was arrested and was briefly placed under confinement in Warren, Texas. The end of the war saw him an associate justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

With his property confiscated and viewed with suspicion both in the North and the South, Pike became something of a wanderer. He first moved to New York in 1865 but feared arrest for inciting the Indians to revolt and so fled to Canada. When Andrew Johnson issued him a pardon on August 30, 1865, however, Pike returned to Arkansas but was charged with treason. After vindicating himself against these charges, Pike moved first to Memphis, where he practiced law and edited the Memphis Appeal, and then to Washington, D.C., where he continued his practice and edited the Patriot. Pike died in the house of the Scottish Rite Temple in Washington, D.C., on April 2, 1891. Although he had instructed that his body be cremated and his ashes strewn around the roots of two acacia trees in front of the home of the Supreme Council, he was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington. Of his six children, only three survived him, one son having been killed in Confederate service.

Pike is perhaps best known for his work as a Freemason. For many years he was engaged in rewriting the rituals of the society, and "Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry" (unpublished) remains one of the standard works on the subject. He also spent much time reading and translating eastern writings. Pike's reputation as a poet was considerable, and his contribution to Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine caused its editor to place him "in the highest order of his country's poets." His works include Hymns to the Gods and Other Poems (1872), Gen. Albert Pike's Poems (1900), and Lyrics and Love Songs (1916). In 1859 Harvard awarded Pike an honorary master of arts degree. Although his reputation as a poet has suffered over the years, his "Dixie" maintains a lusty vigor that makes it perhaps the best of the many versions of the famous Southern anthem. The narrative of his travels remains one of the most important descriptions of early New Mexico and far West Texas.

Albert Pike (MS, Library of the Supreme Council, Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Southern Jurisdiction, Washington). David Donoghue, "Explorations of Albert Pike in Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 39 (October 1935).
  • Exploration
  • Explorers (American)
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Literature
  • Memoirs, Diaries, Letters, and Travel
  • Poets
  • Peoples
  • Native American
Time Periods:
  • Civil War

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Thomas W. Cutrer, “Pike, Albert,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/pike-albert.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995

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