The First Documented Climb to the Summit of Pikes Peak
(And My Ancestor!)
I am separated from my uncle, Edwin James, by four generations. The significance of this ancestral connection is that I am uniquely positioned to bring Edwin’s contribution to American history to light with a rich family history and access to family members who can provide important details. The year 2020 will mark the bicentennial of his historic climb of Pikes Peak in July of 1820. I have begun work to bring Edwin’s story to life through photographic exhibits, illustrations, music, and a book that will all culminate in July 2020, exactly 200 years after he gained the summit of Pikes Peak. Thus an explorer/uncle and a distant photographer/nephew are now connected in time by two centuries.
Dr. Edwin James (1797 – 1861) was a significant, yet obscure, historical figure in American history. Edwin was an explorer, botanist, scientist, author, and doctor from New England in the late 18th century. As an explorer and botanist, Edwin joined the Major Stephen Long Expedition of 1820 to discover the source of the Platte River and scientifically assess the land. During the expedition, Edwin collected almost 700 plant species, 140 of which proved to be new to science.
As an author, Edwin wrote the official two-volume report of the expedition. His descriptions of the wilderness and Native Indians were used extensively by James Fenimore Cooper in his book The Prairie. The maps produced in the Official Account were used by trappers and mountain men in the Rocky Mountains. Edwin also translated the New Testament into the native Ojibwa language in 1833.
Iu Otoshki-Kikindiuin au Tebeniminung Gaie Bemajiinung Jesus Christ: ima Ojibue Inueuining Giizhitong” means “The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ: Translated into the Language of the Ojibwa Indians.” You can imagine the challenge that must have faced Edwin. But why did Edwin undertake such a challenge? At the time, the belief within the Federal government was that if you could destroy the language, then you could erase the Indian culture. In those days, for an Indian to speak his native language was considered a federal crime. Edwin was opposed to such a policy and therefore wanted to preserve the Ojibwa language.
Later in life, Edwin became an Abolitionist and used his homestead along the Mississippi River in Burlington, Iowa as a safe house for wayward slaves on the Underground Railroad.
However, Edwin’s most notable achievement was the first successful documented ascent of 14,114 foot Pikes Peak. James, along with two other men, ascended and successfully gained the summit of Pikes late in the afternoon of July 14, 1820. His climb represented the first 14,000 foot mountain climbed by an American in the continental United States.