To me, the Lewis and Clark expedition stands alongside the travels of Marco Polo, the voyages of Christopher Columbus, and the Apollo 11 mission to the moon as one of the greatest explorations in history. Undaunted Courage is the late historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s masterfully told and compelling account of this two-year expedition to explore the heartland of America.
As Undaunted Courage opens, it is the year 1803. Thomas Jefferson is President of the United States. For over a year, he has envisioned the westward expansion of America. His dream becomes a reality when the United States purchases the Louisiana territory from France, thereby more than doubling the geographic size of the nation. Jefferson knows the new territory must be explored; even before the transaction is finalized, he forms a plan to send an expedition into the area.
The expedition will have many purposes: exploration, scientific observation, and, most importantly (in Jefferson’s mind), the discovery of a northwest water route to the Pacific Ocean and the opening of commerce with the native tribes indigenous to the area. Jefferson selects his twenty-nine year old private secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to lead the expedition.
Lewis turns out to be a superb choice. He has served in the U.S. Army as a private soldier and risen to the rank of Captain, partly through meritorious service and partly through his political connections with Jefferson. For his day, Lewis is very well educated. He has a natural gift for scientific observation, and is a reasonably skilled and experienced naturalist.
By early 1804, Congress has approved the expedition to go forward. Lewis begins recruiting the men he will lead, the foremost of who is Lieutenant William Clark, a personal friend, and the younger brother of famed Revolutionary War general George Rogers Clark. In April 1804, Lewis, Clark, and the 30 other men recruited for the “Corps of Discovery” meet in St. Louis to make final preparations for the journey up the Missouri River and to the Pacific coast. The expedition begins the following month.
The men travel in “pirogues” (a kind of barge), canoes, and on foot along the banks of the river. Lewis, instructed by Jefferson to keep a journal, enters daily measurements of latitude and longitude, as well has meticulous scientific observations on the multitude of plants and animals he sees, many of which have never been observed by western civilization. Along the way, the Corps of Discovery begins encountering many Great Plains native tribes, as well as French and British traders.
In October 1804, while the expedition is in winter quarters at the Mandan native villages, a Canadian trader named Charbonneau offers to travel with the explorers to the Pacific coast. One of his “wives” is the teen-aged Sacagawea, a Shoshone who would later prove vital to the expedition’s survival.
The expedition continues in March 1805. Through the spring and summer, it travels up the Missouri River to its headwaters. To Lewis’ disappointment, there is no connection between the Missouri River and the rivers leading to the Pacific; instead, the Corps of Discovery must endure a 16-mile portage along the Great Falls of the Missouri, and then, the most unexpected of all barriers . . . the Rocky Mountains.
By now, running low on food, they encounter more natives. One of the tribes they meet is led by Sacagawea’s brother. With the teenage native girl as a go-between, Lewis and Clark successfully negotiate the sale of the horses and foodstuffs they need to survive the trip over the mountains. In the late summer and early autumn of 1805, the Corps of Discovery crosses the Continental Divide and Bitterroot mountain range. They receive invaluable assistance from the Nez Perce’ natives living in the Rockies. Finally, in November 1805, after traveling down the Columbia River, they reach the Pacific coast, hastily build a fort they name Fort Clatsop, and encamp for the winter.
Early the following spring, the expedition, having endured a miserable winter, and chronically low on supplies, sets out on its return voyage. They retrace their steps up the Columbia River and across the Rocky Mountains, again being immeasurably assisted by the Nez Perce’ and Hidatsa native tribes. In July 1806, Lewis and Clark decide to divide the expedition and explore alternative east-west water routes. The explorers also hope to discover a river with headwaters above the 49th parallel, in order to expand U.S. territorial claims northward into Canada.
It is at this critical juncture that the expedition has its one and only hostile military engagement with natives. No member of the Corps of Discovery is injured, but two natives die in the brief skirmish. After nearly a month without success, the Corps of Discovery reunites. Finally, the expedition returns to St. Louis via the Missouri River, arriving in September 1806.
Lewis and Clark return as national heroes. Jefferson appoints Lewis as territorial governor of Louisiana, but Lewis is neither a good politician nor an effective administrator. He suffers from depression and alcoholism. In 1809, he dies at age 35, presumably by his own hand. He never organizes or publishes his and Clark’s journals. After Lewis’ suicide, Clark teams with editor Nicholas Biddle and completes a short, narrative version of the Lewis and Clark journals. Published in 1814, it contains none of the scientific data compiled during the expedition. Not until 1904 are the Journals of Lewis and Clark published in their entirety, with all of the explorers’ scientific observations included.
Relying extensively on the Journals of Lewis and Clark, Ambrose has put together a compelling, readable, and fast paced narrative that interweaves a fascinating biography of Meriwether Lewis with a spellbinding account of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Ambrose captures completely not only the key events of the Lewis and Clark expedition, but also the personalities of the key people.
Meriwether Lewis is a born naturalist with a keen eye for scientific observation. He’s also a gifted leader of men, ever conscious of his subordinates’ welfare, and always gaining from them loyalty that is complete and willingly given. William Clark, the “co-captain” (in reality the second in command), is a less gifted scientist, but equal to Lewis in leadership ability, and in many ways a more talented explorer and map maker.
Thomas Jefferson, perhaps America’s greatest genius of the Age of Enlightenment, is the man possessed with the vision to see that the voyage is undertaken. Sacagawea, the teenage Shoshone girl, kidnapped from her tribe, sold to Canadian traders, and the mother of a newborn son, is possessed with remarkable stoicism and diplomatic skills which become essential to the Corps of Discovery’s survival. In addition, Ambrose proves himself to be a first-rate nature writer himself, with his breathtaking descriptions of the flora, fauna, and physical beauty of the American Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Pacific Northwest.
Undaunted Courage is America’s great adventure story, told by one of this nation’s foremost contemporary historians and biographers. Read and enjoy!