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Who is Edwin James? Part 1

The first post, dated August 26, provided a little background for a new photographic project centered on my ancestor, Edwin James, the first documented person to have ascended Pikes Peak.  In 2020, the bicentennial of Edwin’s climb, I will mount an exhibition of photographs from the Pikes Peak area and attempt to follow his route to the summit based on the historical account.

So, who is Edwin James?   Edwin has a fascinating, yet obscure history.  In the family tree, he is my uncle four generations removed.  Thus Edwin was born in 1797, the last of thirteen children.  My direct line branches off at Edwin’s brother, Nathaniel James (1772 – 1844), making Edwin a distant uncle.  My thanks go to Douglas James who has provided an abundance of information and family history.

Edwin was a true Renaissance man in every sense of the word.  He was a doctor, surgeon, botanist, prolific writer, explorer, and abolitionist.  Oh, and one more thing:  Edwin was the first documented ascent to the summit of Pikes Peak on July 14, 1820.  Major Stephen Long, for whom Longs Peak is named, noted:

“Dr. James, having accomplished this difficult task, I have thought proper to call the Peak after his name… Pike has indeed given us notice that there is such a Peak, but only saw it at a distance.”

On maps produced at the conclusion of the Long Expedition, Pikes was officially designated as James Peak.  However, after a period of years, with some cartographers identifying the mountain as ‘Pikes’ and others calling it ‘James’, it was finally agreed to let it rest as Pikes Peak.

longs-map-1822-highlightedThe details of the Long Expedition are well documented and it was Edwin who wrote the official two-volume report.  However, a controversy over the report erupted when both Edwin and Long concluded that the Rocky Mountain West was a desert wasteland.  James quoted Long in the official report:  “In regard to this extensive section of the country, I do not hesitate in giving the opinion, that it is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people dependent on agriculture for their subsistence.”  Indeed, maps of the area called it the Great American Desert.  For an expanding nation, his description didn’t sit well politically and, in fact, delayed settlement in the West for several decades.


In the recent movie The Revenant, the main character was a trapper in the Rocky Mountain wilderness of 1822 named Hugh Glass who was mauled by a bear and left for dead.  It is worth noting that Glass and other mountain men of the time used the maps of the West that were produced by James and Long following the Expedition.


View of James Peak in the rain, Samuel Seymore, Expedition Illustrator