A controversy has erupted over one of the most famous corpses from the War of 1812.
U.S. General Zebulon Pike (a man with the coolest name ever) was killed when retreating British and Canadian troops intentionally blew up a munitions depot during the American capture of York (present-day Toronto) in April 1813.
His remains were taken by ship across Lake Ontario and buried at a military cemetery in Sackets Harbor, N.Y.
But a subsequent re-burial and lingering confusion over the exact location of the general’s grave has prompted Pike family descendants — including math professor David Pike from Newfoundland’s Memorial University — to seek the exhumation of some bones to conduct DNA testing.
Pointing to an inconclusive analysis by a U.S. army archeologist in 2003, members of the Pike Family Association want to identify the true resting place of their namesake war hero and carry out a landmark genealogy project tracing the dead general’s genetic links to modern-day Pikes around the world.
In an open letter sent last month to the citizens of Sackets Harbor, PFA vice-president Stu Pike urged approval of the exhumation request to kick-start a tourism bonanza for the town and help launch a proposed PBS documentary about the family’s quest to positively identify General Pike’s remains.
“We believe there will be significant cultural, historical and economic upsides to the village, including national exposure and increased tourism from the film,” Pike’s letter stated.
But Sackets Harbor Mayor Eric Constance has expressed resistance to the plan, saying townsfolk question the appropriateness of digging up such an important war hero, one commemorated in the naming of the 19th-century navy corvette USS General Pike and Louisiana’s Fort Pike.
“The mood is just let the general rest in peace. There has to be overwhelming reasons . . . to move forward with this project,” he told a New York television station. “Conceivably, there’s more to it than just trying to understand their ancestry. Conceivably, there’s some money factors involved here. We don’t know that, but it makes you wonder.”
David Pike, who has led a Pike family DNA genealogy project since 2004, says a number of clan members have obtained their genetic profiles and that “thanks to some good genealogical records, we know that Zebulon belongs to this family, which means that we know in advance what the genetic profile of his Y-chromosome ought to look like.”
He added: “We have a basis for comparison if we’re lucky enough to be able to get an exhumation done for the purpose of trying to identify him.”
Stu Pike says the family is sending an “ambassador” — PFA president Roy Pike — to visit Sackets Harbor this summer to try to persuade residents that the archeology project will be done responsibly and be a boon for the village.
New Jersey-born Zebulon Pike was already a celebrated U.S. explorer before the War of 1812 and helped map the American southwest. He is immortalized in Colorado, where one of the state’s most picturesque Rocky Mountain tourist attractions is called Pike’s Peak.
Just 35 at the time of the attack on York, Pike had written to his father that he dreamt of personally turning the tide of the war. Even if he died trying — like Gen. James Wolfe at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 — Pike told his father he would gladly embrace such a fate: “May my fall be like Wolfe’s — to sleep in the arms of victory.”
And Pike did die, according to legend, with his head resting on a captured Union Jack — assured of victory in his final hour at York, but suffering mortal wounds from flying chunks of the exploded gunpowder storehouse.
The heroic death of the young general caused waves of grief in the U.S. A fanciful engraving depicting Pike’s demise in Canada — amid strewn rubble from the magazine’s destruction — became a popular, patriotism-boosting image in 19th-century America.
From The Vancouver Sun