“Undaunted Courage,” by Stephen E. Ambrose

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on April 2, 2014

Until recently, this is what I knew about the Lewis and Clark Expedition:

  1. Thomas Jefferson bought the “Louisiana Purchase” from France in 1803.
  2. He sent Lewis and Clark to explore it
  3. They explored all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
  4. They got important help from a young Indian woman named Sacajawea
  5. Lewis took a dog named Seaman. (I am mortified to admit that I learned this in a Third Grade class, for which I was a substitute teacher, just last semester.)
  6. They returned.

That’s it. Maybe you know a lot more, but I didn’t. However, my brother-in-law sent me a book, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, by the distinguished historian Stephen E. Ambrose. Now I am full of facts, and also full of wonder at how they ever did it. It is a mesmerizing story.

The Louisiana Purchase comprised 828,000 square miles, which more than doubled the size of the United States in one stroke. It included all or part of now 15 states (and parts of two provinces of Canada): Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Mexico, Texas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Louisiana, including New Orleans.

The map below shows the land included in the purchase, in green.


Jefferson was visionary in seeing the United States spread across the entire continent. He knew it was necessary to thwart the ambitions of European nations, especially England.

As you can see from the map, the Louisiana Purchase did not include Idaho, Oregon nor Washington. Nevertheless, Jefferson ordered the Expedition to explore all the way to the Pacific. He wanted to find a waterway across the continent. He also hoped the river watersheds in the west would flow into Canada so he could claim some of it, but this was not the case.

Jefferson made the purchase in a constitutionally shaky manner. In fact, for years, Jefferson was vilified by John Quincy Adams, who opposed the purchase, and the expense of the expedition, around which Jefferson also skated the edges of legality, for Congressional appropriation. (This is evidence of what I have long thought, that though John Quincy Adams was perhaps the most prepared to be president in history, he was a mediocre one because he lacked vision.)

Proof that Jefferson was that far ahead of others in his thinking is that he had selected the man to explore the Louisiana Territory before its purchase: Meriwether Lewis. Jefferson knew Lewis as a neighbor in Virginia, and knew his abilities as a military officer. He also knew of his flaws – bouts of depression and excessive drinking – which he had seen Lewis able to control, as well as the gaps in Lewis’ education, which it would be necessary to fill before the expedition.

So, Jefferson brought Lewis into his home at Monticello as a secretary and student, in 1801. He also sent Lewis on trips to Philadelphia for conferences with scholars in the sciences that would be needed on the expedition. Can you imagine what it must have been like to have an in-home, one-on-one tutorial with Thomas Jefferson? Talk about an education!

Lewis selected Clark, whom he knew from the military. Lewis trusted Clark completely, and recognized in him skills complimentary to his own. He designated Clark to be his co-captain, and they worked together as such throughout the expedition.

The nucleus of the expedition party launched from Pittsburgh in June, 1803. They had an easy time of it floating down the Ohio River to where it meets the Mississippi, in what is now Southeastern Missouri. Thereafter, the work became harder, because they had to travel upstream, against the flow of the Mississippi.

They stopped for the winter at St. Louis, where the Mississippi confluences with the Missouri River. They took on more provisions, and additional men from the military garrison. While there, Lewis, as a Virginia gentleman and an officer, hob-knobbed with the elites of St. Louis, many of whose names are still attached to places and things in St. Louis, which I remember from when I grew up there.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition left St. Louis in the spring of 1804, with a compliment of 30 men; Clark’s loyal and reliable slave, York; and his black Labrador, Seaman.

From there on, they would have a tough slog, rowing upstream against the strong flow of the Missouri until they reached the Continental Divide, wherever that was.

On the first leg of their journey, they lost a man – Sargent Charles Floyd – who died of a burst appendix. Inconceivably, Floyd was the only member lost on the Expedition. Lewis got everyone else back safely. Floyd is buried beside the Missouri River, on the border of what are now Iowa and Nebraska.

Below is an incomplete list of the kinds of events the Expedition experienced, and the details of which are explained in the book.

  1. At times, the expedition ate well, where game was plentiful; other times, it had to live on roots and grasses, where it was not.
  2. On occasion, the expedition smoked pipes with friendly Indians; on others, there were skirmishes, with gunfire.
  3. At times, and at lower elevations, the weather was pleasant; at other times and elevations, there were blizzards and extremely harsh conditions.
  4. Sometimes, they attacked grizzly bears for food; sometimes grizzlies attacked them, presumably for the same reason.
  5. Sometimes, members of the party got lost; all those times, they were found.
  6. The expedition experienced a lot of illness from its hardships; it also experienced STDs from its dalliances with Indian maidens.
  7. The expedition ran out of whiskey; it also ran out of blue beads, the item of trade most prized by the Indians.
  8. The expedition spent three winters on their travels, two in comfortable quarters: one in St. Louis (1803), and one with the friendly Mandan Indian Tribe in what is now North Dakota (1804); and one in miserable quarters, alone on the west coast (1805).
  9. On many occasions, the expedition might have lost members, and once or twice might have been lost entirely, but on each occasion, through great leadership, and sometimes dumb luck, it came through.
  10. Lewis was shot in the butt by friendly fire, and was incapacitated a couple of weeks. Clark lost time on duty from badly injured feet, from traveling on rough ground. (Often, as the expedition moved up and down rivers, some members walked, to hunt and explore.)
  11. Sometimes travel on the rivers was tranquil; other times, the water was so rough, or non-existent, that difficult portage was required.
  12. Sometimes, their watercraft remained upright and water tight; sometimes, not so much.

From the point where the expedition stepped off from the Mandan Indian village (this is where they recruited Sacajawea), no American had ever gone. Lewis identified many new species of flora and fauna. Clark and he named all the rivers and other landmarks they saw. Some of the names have endured, e.g., the Madison and Gallatin Rivers; others have not.

All of these adventures, individually, make great reading. Collectively, they make an amazing, even miraculous, story of adventure, and success against impossible odds, in an utterly unknown world.

Perhaps among the most surprising, and least known events regarding the expedition occurred after its return. They were certainly surprising and absolutely unknown to me.

Among the most important instructions Jefferson gave Lewis was to find and map a navigable waterway from the Missouri to the West Coast, via the Columbia River. There is no such waterway, the Expedition discovered. Un-truncated travel across the continent would have to await the building of the transcontinental railroads almost a half century later (see my review of Richard White’s terrific history: Railroaded: The Transcontinentals, and the Making of America, posted on this blog February 12, 2012).

Lewis despaired of having to tell Jefferson this, but Jefferson took the information calmly. It was what it was, and he understood that this was a possibility.

What Jefferson didn’t take calmly was that, after all Lewis’ journaling on the expedition, and despite Jefferson’s pleading and cajoling, Lewis never got around to publishing his journals. The journals weren’t published until after Lewis’ death, with the result that the names Lewis gave to many of his discoveries – both places and species – did not endure. The only animal species that still bears his name is the Lewis’ Woodpecker ((Melanerpes lewis).

After Lewis’ spectacular success with the expedition, the rest of his life was a failure. This should not surprise us. Many men who are good at one thing may not be good at others. Also, history contains men for whom, after achieving something spectacular, particularly if it is a genuine first, find the rest of their lives mundane, and lose interest in it (see Alexander the Great).

As part of his rewards for leading the expedition, Lewis was appointed Governor of St. Louis Territory. He proved to be a terrible politician and an indifferent servant of the people. Better Jefferson had kept him in Washington to publish his journals.

Finally: (spoiler alert) Lewis committed suicide while returning from St. Louis back home to Virginia. How could I not have known that? How could someone that famous in American history kill himself and I not have read about it? I know that Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr. Why did I not know this, and all the circumstances?

Finally, perhaps most interesting in understanding the American spirit that drove us westward across the continent: even as the Expedition was cruising back down the Missouri toward St. Louis, they encountered settlers rowing upriver. Manifest Destiny did not wait for Lewis’ report to Jefferson, to begin settling farther west.

Read this book. You will be richer and wiser for it, and you may avoid embarrassment at faculty smokers.


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