Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1240
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.
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 had their first grizzly bear sighting. In June, the party crossed the Missouri and discovered that two large rivers met. They had to decide which river was the Missouri. They chose the south fork and followed the river to the Great Falls. At this point, the men had to carry their canoes overland. They had reached the foot of the Rocky Mountains and wanted to meet the Shoshoni. After several days, the men came across a Shoshoni party. Their leader was Cameahwait, who was Sacagawea’s brother. They traded for horses with the Shoshoni and hired an Indian guide, Old Toby, to take them across the mountains.
Once across the mountains, the men traveled down the Columbia toward the Pacific. They discovered that rapids and falls broke up the Columbia for almost a fifty-mile stretch. The men shot the rapids while the important supplies were carried by hand. They continued onward to the Pacific.
The party built Fort Clatsop as their winter camp. By this time, the party had very little goods left to trade. When the Clatsops would not sell them a canoe that they needed, Lewis told his men to steal it. In March 1806, the men turned eastward on their way home.
The men headed east up the Columbia, which was hard going. They decided to go overland instead and purchased horses from the Nez Percé. Lewis also hoped to persuade them to send some guides and diplomats with them back east. The Nez Percé, however, said it was too early to cross the mountains, but the Corps was determined to do so. They headed out but soon discovered it was impossible to keep to the trail, which was hidden under feet of snow. They realized the difficulty of their undertaking but luckily came across two young Indians crossing the mountains and quickly engaged them as guides. Thus they reached the other side of the Continental Divide safely.
Lewis and Clark parted company briefly in July. Lewis wanted to explore the northern river that had met the Missouri, the Maria. He hoped that it would extend far northward, giving the United States more land. He took a small party of men. After several days out, they got into a fight with some Blackfeet Indians and shot two. However, Lewis and his men escaped unharmed. They met up with Clark at the Point of Reunion in present-day North Dakota, and the entire party continued on to Fort Mandan. Then they headed down the Missouri. They met trading boats, which gave them the first news of the country they had heard since their departure. They arrived in St. Louis on September 22, 1806. Lewis immediately sat down to write a report to Jefferson telling him of their discoveries.
After the Expedition
Lewis went to Washington in January and after that on to Philadelphia. He made plans to publish his journals. Jefferson also appointed him the governor of the Louisiana Territory. Lewis, however, did little work, either on the journals or as the governor. He did not arrive in St. Louis until March 1808, at which point he was already experiencing bouts of depression and drinking heavily. In St. Louis, he attempted to set up a fur trade business with his friends and invested money in land speculation. He also spent money outfitting an expedition to return a Mandan chief to his homeland; however, the government decided not to reimburse him for these expenses. Lewis undertook a journey to Washington but died, apparently a suicide, on October 11, 1809.
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