Undaunted Courage

When Thomas Jefferson employed the young soldier Meriwether Lewis as his live-in secretary in 1801, he soon recognized in him the man to lead an expedition into the Louisiana Territory, which Jefferson would soon purchase from France, and beyond to the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific coast. Jefferson’s ambitions were multiple: scientific knowledge of an almost completely unknown region, control of rich trade routes, and political ascendancy. To add to Lewis’ experience of the frontier and leadership ability, Jefferson supervised his acquisition of the educational background needed to recognize and record important scientific data.

In two years, Lewis was ready. Strongly impressed by Jefferson with the need to build and maintain working relationships with the various Indian tribes he would encounter, Lewis was given the authority to draft the best men he could find to carry out the expedition. He insisted on William Clark, with whom he had previously served, as co-commander, and between Pittsburgh, where he started down the Ohio River, and a camp above St. Louis, he found the other men he needed. At the Mandan Indian villages in what later became North Dakota, Lewis also took on a French-Canadian man with his Shoshone wife Sacagawea and infant son. She turned out to be a valuable asset in dealing with western Indians.

In addition to re-creating brilliantly the struggles and perils of the expedition, Ambrose examines critically Lewis’ enigmatic character; his achievements both as military leader and careful recorder of lands, inhabitants and life forms largely unknown to the educated world of his day; and his disappointing post-expeditionary career culminating in his tragic death at thirty-five.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. March 3, 1996, XIV, p. 1.

The Christian Science Monitor. April 3, 1996, p. 15.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 7, 1996, p. 3.

The New York Review of Books. XLIII, April 4, 1996, p. 18.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, March 10, 1996, p. 9.

Newsweek. CXXVII, February 19, 1996, p. 70.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, December 4, 1995, p. 46.

The Wall Street Journal. January 30, 1996, p. A16.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, February 11, 1996, p. 3.

Wild West. IX, December, 1996, p. 74.