Book Review: Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose

I bought this book because I wanted to read about exploration and adventure, and there is plenty of that in it. Lewis and Clark and their small team headed off into territory unknown to the citizens of the United States, the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, which almost doubled the size of the country. Almost the entire area was a blank spot on maps. As they moved from St. Louis up the Missouri River, across the Bitterroot Mountains, and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean and back, the expedition wrote journals, drew maps, encountered several Native American tribes, and cataloged and described new flora and fauna. They endured amazing hardships on their journey of almost two and a half years.

It all makes for exciting, compelling reading. However, after I had finished the book and had a chance to think about it, I realized that despite the thrilling story, the journey itself occurred under very strange circumstances. First of all, in the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson arranged for the purchase of all this land from France for the United States, entirely discounting the fact that the land was already occupied by indigenous peoples. Although the term Manifest Destiny had not yet been coined, Jefferson certainly believed in the concept; it was the old story of the “inevitable white man” overrunning everything and everyone in his path.

The book focuses on Meriwether Lewis from his early life as a southern slave-owning planter to his last years as the alcoholic governor of the Louisiana Territory. Lewis was a captain in the army during the journey, which was known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, and the men who accompanied him were army recruits as well, including William Clark, to whom Lewis insisted that the army also give the rank of captain. According to Ambrose, Lewis was a good leader, although he was a firm believer in white privilege.

There is a black man in the painting on the cover of my edition of the book. I wondered about that until I found out that Clark’s slave, an African American named York, accompanied the expedition. After they returned safely against all odds to civilization, York requested his freedom as a reward for his diligence and hard work, but Clark refused to grant it. Another person who was badly slighted and left bereft of reward at the expedition’s end was Sacagawea, a Native American Shoshone woman who was married to a French Canadian. She was invaluable as an interpreter and as a reassurance to the Native American tribes that the expedition encountered, but though her husband received a salary for his services, she received nothing. An interesting side-note: when Lewis and Clark called for a vote in November 1805 as to whether the group should winter on the north or south side of the Columbia River, both York and Sacagawea were allowed an equal vote. According to Ambrose, it was the first time in American history that an African American or a woman had ever voted.

Despite the dubious political motivations for the journey, Lewis and Clark returned with a treasure trove of knowledge about previously unknown lands. Unfortunately, Lewis fell into depression and excessive drinking and eventually he took his own life at the age of thirty-five. The incomparably valuable journals of the expedition were not published until years later. For a time the Lewis and Clark expedition was almost forgotten, but interest in their journey was revived in the early twentieth century with the publication of a new multi-volume edition of the journals.

All in all, despite the different perspective from which we view Lewis and Clark’s exploits in the twenty-first century, this is a fascinating and well-written account of persistence and courage against overwhelming odds.

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