Undaunted Courage Summary
by Stephen E. Ambrose

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Undaunted Courage Summary

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Lewis’ Early Life
The first five chapters of Undaunted Courage detail Lewis’ life before undertaking the expedition. Lewis was born to a distinguished Virginia plantation family in 1774. As a boy, Lewis spent several years living in a Georgia frontier colony. After his return from Georgia at the age of thirteen, he was given several years of formal education so that he would be prepared to manage the estate he had inherited from his father. However, he only spent a few years on the Virginia plantation; instead, he volunteered for the Virginia militia in 1794. He spent the next six years in the military, and his service required him to travel throughout much of the American frontier. However, in 1801, President Jefferson—a longtime acquaintance of the Lewis family—asked Lewis to serve as his personal secretary and aide. Captain Lewis quickly gave up his military commission and moved to the president’s residence in Washington.

Planning the Expedition
Jefferson had long been interested in sending an expedition to explore the west. When Jefferson learned that the British were planning to engage in the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest, he was galvanized into action. In 1802, Jefferson chose Lewis to command an expedition to the Pacific. Lewis had three main goals: find an all-water route to the Pacific Ocean; tell the Indians they had a new leader and bring them into the American trading network; and explore the northern tributaries of the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers, which would determine the northern extent of the boundary of the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson was also keenly interested in scientific inquiry.

In preparation for the journey, Lewis studied geography, botany, mineralogy, astronomy, and ethnology with leading American scientists. He also made decisions on what and how many supplies to bring, what presents to give the Indians, and how many men to employ in the company. He oversaw the construction of a boat that would take the company up the Mississippi River. Lewis also decided he needed a co-commander, and he chose Clark, whom he had met in the military. Although Clark’s official rank was never promoted beyond that of lieutenant, which dismayed Lewis greatly, the two men shared command. While preparations were being made, the Louisiana Purchase was also completed, giving the United States ownership of much of the land over which the men would travel.

Up the Missouri
On August 31, 1803, Lewis set forth down the Ohio River. He met with Clark in Clarksville, Indian Territory, where they enlisted men in their Corps of Discovery. The party then sailed upriver to Wood River, where they set up winter camp. Clark oversaw the preparations for the trip while Lewis took charge of purchasing supplies in St. Louis.

On May 22, 1804, the Corps of Discovery, made up of almost fifty men, was finally on its way. It consisted of a large keelboat and two smaller boats. The boats traveled more than 640 miles upriver before encountering a single Indian. On August 2, a party of Oto arrived at the expedition’s camp. Lewis told them about Jefferson, their new Great Father, and gave them gifts. On August 20, the expedition suffered its only fatality when Sgt. Charles Floyd died of a ruptured appendix. In September, the Corps met a large party of Sioux and visited the Sioux village.

In October, the group approached the Mandan villages in present-day North Dakota. The friendly Mandans were at the center of Northern Plains’ trade. The men built Fort Mandan, where they spent the winter. They also met a French-Canadian trader, Charbonneau, and his wife, Sacagawea, who joined the Corps as translators. A small group of men sailed back down the Missouri to bring back information about the expedition thus far.

Westward Bound
On April 7, 1805, the expedition was ready to move west. Eight days later, the expedition passed the farthest point upstream on the Missouri known by Lewis to have been reached by white men. The men hunted buffalo and...

(The entire section is 1,240 words.)