The Author's Presentation of Lewis and his Cross-Continent Expedition

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1882

Contemporaries of Lewis and Clark were captivated by the cross-continent expedition, delighting in news of its successes and yearning to learn more about the adventure. Before the expedition’s return, Lewis was able to send only one report to President Jefferson. Book publishers in Washington, New York, London, and Natchez, Louisiana,...

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Contemporaries of Lewis and Clark were captivated by the cross-continent expedition, delighting in news of its successes and yearning to learn more about the adventure. Before the expedition’s return, Lewis was able to send only one report to President Jefferson. Book publishers in Washington, New York, London, and Natchez, Louisiana, quickly readied this 1805 report concerning American Indian tribes, along with Clark’s map. When the Corps of Discovery returned the following year, its members were celebrated wherever they went. Along the route to Washington, ‘‘in every town and village the residents insisted on some sort of dinner and ball to honor him [Lewis].’’ Upon the expedition’s arrival in the nation’s capital, one spectator observed, ‘‘Never did a similar event excite more joy.’’

Despite this enthusiasm, Lewis and his exploits eventually faded from the American imagination. He never prepared his journals for publication before his early death, and within decades, it seemed this one-time hero was in danger of being forgotten. In 1891, when respected historian Henry Adams completed his multi-volume study of the Jefferson administration, Lewis scarcely rated a mention. Then in 1904, Reuben Gold Thwaites published an eight-volume edition of the expedition’s journals, renewing interest in the adventure. In the twentieth century, several different editions of journals and letters have been published, and with Undaunted Courage, Ambrose significantly added to the body of Lewis and Clark work. His lengthy exploration of the expedition relates the drama of the adventure and what it meant for the United States. More interestingly for some readers, however, is Ambrose’s personal involvement with the figures that populate his book. Ambrose is a staunch fan of Lewis, writing in his introduction that his family’s experiences following the Lewis and Clark trail have ‘‘brought us together so many times in so many places that we cannot measure or express what it has meant.’’

The subtitle of Undaunted Courage, ‘‘Meriwether Lewis Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West,’’ indicates the underpinning of the author’s true interests; in a very real sense, the actual expedition takes a backseat to the determined personalities of Lewis and Jefferson. Ambrose’s admiration for Lewis and his accomplishments fairly bursts off his well-documented pages. Ambrose credits Lewis with contributing greatly to American expansionism, reminding readers that ‘‘everyone who has ever paddled a canoe on the Missouri, or the Columbia, does so in the wake of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.’’ He asserts that ‘‘the journals of Lewis and Clark provided the introduction to and serve as the model for all subsequent writing on the American West.’’ Lewis was not only ‘‘a great company commander,’’ he was also ‘‘the greatest of all American explorers, and in the top rank of world explorers.’’ Further, Lewis was a budding scientist who did himself a grave disservice by not preparing his journal for publication as he did not receive credit for numerous scientific, geographical, zoological, and botanical discoveries. ‘‘Lewis had cheated himself out of a rank not far below Darwin as a naturalist,’’ Ambrose concludes.

Before heaping such praise, however, Ambrose provides a multitude of evidence supporting his great respect for Lewis. Lewis was a seasoned, hearty outdoorsman. It was reported that as a boy Lewis hunted barefoot in the snow and saved his family from an Indian attack. Jefferson once explained why he chose Lewis to lead the expedition: the younger man possessed the ‘‘firmness of constitution & character, prudence, habits adapted to the woods, and a familiarity with the Indian manners and character, requisite for this undertaking.’’ Another quality Lewis had in abundance was his ability to react quickly to danger. One incident that Ambrose relates in some detail is how he saved Private Windsor from tumbling down a ninety-foot precipice. Placing his trust in Lewis and following his commander’s instructions, Windsor was able to pull himself to safety.

As a leader, Lewis was also remarkable. He insisted on sharing command with Clark. Even after the Secretary of War withheld the latter’s captaincy, Lewis wrote to Clark, ‘‘I think it will be the best to let none of our party or any other persons know anything about the grade.’’ Indeed, the members of the Corps of Discovery never discovered the difference in their leaders’ ranks. Both Lewis and Clark were equal captains, each with his strengths and particular responsibilities.

Though Lewis and Clark were firmly in command, they did pay attention to the will of their men. An important decision arose when the Missouri River split into two branches. The ‘‘whole of my party to a man...were fully persuaded that this river [the northern fork] was the Missouri,’’ but Lewis and Clark believed they needed to follow the southern fork. Though the men declared that they were prepared to ‘‘cheerfully’’ follow their leaders, Lewis and Clark worked to devise a sort of compromise. One small party would be sent along the banks of the northern fork to better resolve the issue. This party confirmed Lewis and Clark’s decision. At other times, Lewis allowed the men to play a more active role in decision-making. When a location to build the Pacific Coast winter camp needed to be selected, Lewis and Clark put the vote to the party, including York and Sacagawea. ‘‘This was the first vote ever held in the Pacific Northwest,’’ writes Ambrose. ‘‘It was the first time in American history that a black slave had voted, the first time a woman had voted.’’

Although Ambrose admires Lewis, he does not attempt to cover up certain of Lewis’ very real faults. For example, he was a ‘‘lousy politician,’’ one whose few decisions were ruled by nepotism and a drive for personal wealth. Jefferson’s appointment of him as the governor of the Louisiana Territory was a ‘‘frightful misjudgment.’’ Lewis also demonstrated a grave lapse in judgment in the decision to split up the party on the return trip. Ambrose characterizes Lewis’ side trip up the Marias with only a handful of men as ‘‘a big mistake from the start,’’ one that risked the lives of the men and the safe return of the entire party—and the overall success of the expedition. Ambrose also points out that Lewis ‘‘had a short temper and too often acted upon it,’’ for instance, beating Indians or talking about burning their villages.

One telling event took place when the Corps readied to leave Fort Clatsop. They needed another canoe for the return journey but were unable to obtain one because the Indians’ asking price was too high. Lewis decided that ‘‘we will take one of them [a canoe] in lieu of the six elk which they stole from us in the winter.’’ However, the Clatsops had already paid for the stolen elk with food. Ambrose agrees with historian James Ronda’s characterization of this incident as ‘‘a particularly sordid tale of deception and friendship betrayed...at worst criminal and at best a terrible lapse of judgment.’’ In this instance, Lewis had compromised his ‘‘essential honesty.’’ However, Ambrose also justifies, to some extent, Lewis’ actions. In the case of the stolen canoe, Ambrose muses that ‘‘Lewis felt he had no choice. Perhaps he was right....Giving a rifle to a native [as payment for the canoe] would have involved a violation of an absolute rule—just as stealing a canoe did. Lewis chose to steal.’’ For further rationalization, Ambrose looks to Jefferson’s writings for explanation of Lewis’ overall treatment of and attitude toward Indians: ‘‘It would be a prodigy indeed who could grow up to be a slave master and keep his humanity.’’

Ambrose’s personal admiration for Lewis does not cause him to overlook the unique talents of other members of the party. Readers learn, for instance, of Sacagawea’s important contributions not only as an interpreter between the Corps and the Shoshoni but as a collector of wild edible roots. Private John Shields is singled out for his ingenious and valuable skill in repairing the party’s guns. George Drouillard’s skills with sign language among the Indians are noted.

Ambrose shows how William Clark particularly lent his special skills to the success of the expedition. Clark was a better land surveyor and waterman than Lewis and possessed mapmaking skills. Ambrose characterizes the map that Clark drew of the United States west of the Mississippi as a ‘‘masterpiece of the cartographer’s art’’ and ‘‘an invaluable contribution to the world’s knowledge.’’ Ambrose acknowledges that it is Clark, not Lewis, who maintains the journals throughout much of the journey. Clark also achieves special status among the Nez Percé as a medicine man, from their point of view, able to cure seemingly devastating maladies, such as paralysis. Clark’s medical practice was particularly crucial to the success of the mission because the Indians paid doctor fees in much-needed food.
Ambrose reserves more praise for another of his personal heroes, Thomas Jefferson. Ambrose glowingly likens life on the Virginia plantation after the American Revolution—the life that Jefferson led on Monticello—to life in ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy. ‘‘The political talk,’’ he writes, ‘‘about the nature of man and the role of government, has not been surpassed at any time or any place since, and at its best the talk could stand to be compared to the level in ancient Athens.’’ Jefferson was widely respected by his contemporaries. ‘‘Most guests found [him] to be the most delightful companion they ever met.’’ The young Lewis had great luck in becoming Jefferson’s personal secretary, which offered him the president’s daily company. ‘‘No American has ever surpassed Jefferson, and fewer than a handful have ever equaled him, as friend, teacher, guide, model, leader, companion.’’ While serving under the president, Lewis added a great deal to his much-lacking formal education. Lewis learned more about science, philosophy, literature, and history. Most importantly, he learned how to write more cohesively. Because of this improved skill, the journals he later wrote on the expedition ‘‘constitute a priceless gift to the American people, all thanks, apparently, to lessons learned from Mr. Jefferson.’’

In the last chapters, in case any reader missed it, Ambrose makes his opinion of Lewis clear: ‘‘If I was ever in a desperate situation—caught in a grass fire on the prairie, or sinking in a small boat in a big ocean, or the like—then I would want Meriwether Lewis for my leader,’’ writes Ambrose glowingly. However, Ambrose allows Jefferson to have the final word. Jefferson writes of Lewis:

Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction, careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order and discipline...honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as seen as if by ourselves, with all those qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body, for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him.

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Undaunted Courage, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

A Compassionate and Insightful Study of Lewis' Strengths and Weaknesses

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2062

When an aunt gave Stephen Ambrose a complete set of the journals of the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Ambrose read them and was ‘‘entranced.’’ The journals spurred him to begin twenty years of research, some of which involved books, and much of which involved retracing their journey--on foot, in a canoe, or on horses, with family and friends. Ambrose’s personal experience of the land and the journey shines through Undaunted Courage, making it a ‘‘splendid retelling’’ of the original explorers’ trek, according to a writer in Kirkus Reviews.

The book centers on the friendship between Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis, which was the catalyst for the trek; Lewis was Jefferson’s secretary and spent two years living in the White House. After completing the Louisiana Purchase and thus doubling the size of the United States overnight, Jefferson chose Lewis to explore the new territory and search for a navigable water route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, which most people at the time believed existed. Lewis in turn chose William Clark to be co-commander of the expedition, and they set out on the trek in 1803, with a group of ‘‘good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried men, accustomed to the woods,’’ including one black slave named York.

The trek would take twenty-eight months and would ultimately cover eight thousand miles.

Although, as a Publishers Weekly reviewer notes, the original journals kept by Lewis and Clark on the journey are one of the ‘‘treasures of American history,’’ Ambrose presents a more succinct and at times more vivid account, and also sets the journey in the context of events of that time and subsequent years. However, the real appeal of the book lies in its rich detail and often entertaining tone: Ambrose describes the plagues of mosquitoes, so thick that the men had to cover themselves with buffalo grease to repel them; tells about the rancid meat and filthy water they ate and drank; discusses the dysentery, boils, and fevers they suffered from; and details their daily schedule and the positions men were assigned to, such as night watch, whiskey rationer, or hunter. Whiskey rationing was, according to Ambrose, critical to the success of the venture; he quotes Frederick the Great on the key role of alcohol in military strategy, and then sums up by noting, in his typical vivid and entertaining style, ‘‘In other words, don’t run out of booze until there is no turning back.’’

In the Washington Post, Blaine Harden called the book ‘‘intelligently conceived and splendidly written,’’ and praised Ambrose’s ‘‘impressive insight’’ as a historian. He also commended the way Ambrose ‘‘neatly captures the primitiveness of Jefferson’s era, a time when no means of transport moved faster than a galloping horse.’’ As Ambrose notes, ‘‘No human being, no manufactured item, no bushel of wheat, no side of beef, no letter, no information, no idea, order, or instruction of any kind moved faster.’’ In the age of the internet and jet travel, most people can’t comprehend such painstaking slowness, or the roughness of the territory that had to be covered; Ambrose brings these all-encompassing limitations to life.

The expedition’s contacts with Native Americans were often friendly, often filled with mutual cultural misunderstanding, and only once violent. Ambrose accurately depicts the attitudes toward Indians held by whites of the time; some whites considered them ‘‘noble savages’’ who were pure at heart and who could be civilized and made into full citizens (unlike black Americans, who were believed to be fit only to be slaves). In addition, the men subscribed to President Jefferson’s Indian policy, which was that the goal of taking control of the Indians’ land could be accomplished in two ways: by fighting with them, or by trading with them, civilizing them, and then getting title to their land. The second choice was the cheapest and easiest.

Ambrose notes that Jefferson and Lewis both subscribed to odd notions about the Mandan tribe, believing that they might be descendants of the Lost Tribe of Israel, but that more likely they were a wandering tribe of Welshmen. Because of these odd beliefs, Ambrose points out, Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis on dealing with the Indians were ‘‘hopelessly naive and impossible to carry out,’’ since Jefferson assumed that their European heritage would make the Indians eager to be civilized. They conceived of this civilizing process as a boon to the Indians, and never considered the possibility that the Indians might not want to become civilized and be citizens of a white-run country.

As Daniel L. Wick noted in the San Francisco Chronicle, ‘‘They were not especially skilled in dealing with the tribes that they encountered and managed to avoid major conflict through a combination of luck and Indian forbearance.’’

Despite the fact that the expedition was ultimately dependent on the help of Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman who became their guide and interpreter, Lewis says little about her in his journals, perhaps because it hurt his pride to admit he was indebted to an Indian—and a woman, at that. For example, when she found a great quantity of wild edible roots, Lewis spent five hundred words describing them in his journal but never mentioned that she had found them; Ambrose notes that the only reason we now know that she discovered them was because Clark mentioned it in his own journal. When she fell ill in 1805, from what Ambrose conjectures was chronic pelvic inflammatory disease, Lewis was concerned for her safety mainly because the expedition was dependent on her to negotiate with the Snake Indians, who provided horses to the men on their portage from the Missouri to the Columbia River. Ambrose also provides a commentary on her role as interpreter, which involved a long chain of translation: Indians they encountered would speak to Sacagawea, who would translate their words to her husband, Charbonneau, a Canadian who spoke French. A French trader who had married into the Mandan tribe, Rene Jessaume, who spoke ‘‘bad French and worse English,’’ then interpreted the words to Lewis and Clark. Ambrose humorously observes, ‘‘That might not have been so bad, except that Charbonneau and Jessaume argued about the meaning of every French word they used.’’

Ambrose also notes incredulously that, in keeping with their general disregard for Indians, it never occurred to Lewis and Clark to ask Sacagawea about her people and their customs; that they didn’t ask her what the land was like on the other side of the Continental Divide, although she knew; and as far as is known, the only question they ever asked her about the Shoshone was how to say ‘‘white man’’ in the Shoshone language.

Despite these shortcomings in his attitudes about Indians, however, Lewis unknowingly conducted ‘‘pathbreaking ethnology,’’ according to Ambrose, in providing the first written description of the ceremonial dress and customs of the tribes they encountered.

In addition to being a grand exploration, route-finding mission, and Indian reconnaissance, the expedition was also a scientific mission. Lewis spent much of his time gathering botanical specimens, taking notes, and tracking the expedition’s location with a sextant and chronometer. Ambrose describes how one morning, between 7:06 and 8:57 A.M., Lewis took a measurement of the distance between the sun and the moon forty-eight times, and writes, ‘‘He faithfully recorded whatever he could whenever he could, leaving up to experts back east to work out the meaning of the figures.’’

According to Ambrose, Lewis discovered 179 new plants and 122 new species or subspecies of animals. He describes animals, such as the grizzly bear—which, even when shot ten times, could still swim across a river—the prairie dog, and a host of birds, including the gray jay, Stellar’s jay, the black woodpecker, the blue grouse, the spruce grouse, and the Oregon ruffed grouse, among many others.

As Ambrose points out, Lewis’s observations are all the more remarkable because he was unable to spell or write grammatically, yet he was incredibly precise. For example, in describing a least tern, he wrote, ‘‘The tail has 11 feathers the outer of which are an inch longer than those in the center gradually tapering inwards....The largest or outer feather is 2 2/4 inches that of the shortest 1 3/4 inches.’’ In all, he used a thousand equally detailed words to describe this single bird.

Sadly, because he delayed in publishing his journals, many of his discoveries were not attributed to him, but to others who traveled west after him and ‘‘discovered’’ plants and animals that had not been written about before.

He also saw amazing places, such as the Great Falls of the Missouri and the Pacific Ocean—about which he was strangely silent. As Ambrose points out, however, he didn’t bother to keep records on the rocks and minerals he encountered, perhaps because there was no way to move heavy, bulky samples of minerals back to the East. Ambrose excels in pointing out these technological differences between Lewis’s age and modern times, and the effect they had on the expedition and its aims.

He also excels in conveying the sheer thrill of exploration, noting that very few people in history have had the experience of ‘‘not knowing what they would see when they got to the top of the mountain or turned into the river or sailed around the tip of a continent.’’ In Lewis’s mapless world, the explorers had such thrills every day.

Lewis, as the main character in the book, is a man filled with contrasts. Although he couldn’t spell or write grammatically, he took vibrantly detailed, meticulous notes. Although he was a fine leader of his small group, he collapsed when, after his return, he was given the larger post of governor of the Louisiana Territory by Jefferson. He drank, took opium and morphine, and became increasingly unstable. Ambrose believes he suffered from manic depression, but notes that the mood disorder didn’t seem to trouble him during the expedition. However, after it, Lewis lost the ability to cope. After a scandal involving his finances, he went to Washington to try and explain his failure, but before he got there, tried to commit suicide. His first two attempts to shoot himself failed, and in desperation he hacked at his body with a razor, finally dying from these wounds.

Ambrose presents a compassionate and insightful study of Lewis’ strengths and weaknesses, including his mood disorder and his post-trip depression, which was probably exacerbated by his failure to find the much-dreamed-of water route to the Pacific. He writes that if it is true that Lewis suffered from manic depression, his success is even more remarkable: ‘‘His special triumph is that [during the expedition] he seldom let his emotional state take over, and then only momentarily.’’

Ambrose tells his story with immediacy and verve; he is the kind of writer who can make a reader feel the hardships, the weather, the uncertainty of dealing with people whose language, customs, and motives are unknown, and the thrill of seeing something new and unheard-of every day. He accurately conveys the sense that, as Steve Raymond noted in the Seattle Times, ‘‘Lewis and Clark were the astronauts of their time, something more than astronauts, in fact, for they had no way to keep in touch with those who sent them forth.’’ The same writer noted, ‘‘The story flows as compellingly as a crackling work of fiction—except the story is better than fiction.’’

Ambrose mourns the apparent loss of a large chunk of Lewis’s detailed journals covering the period between September 17, 1804 and April 1805. No one knows for certain that Lewis took such daily notes, but as Ambrose comments, the entries that remain imply the presence of others, now missing; there is no indication that Lewis himself was aware of any gap in his coverage of the expedition. Ambrose makes the loss real, writing that the pain caused by the missing entries is intensified by the quality of what remains because in the entries that still exist, Lewis ‘‘walks you through his day and lets you see through his eyes; what he saw no American would ever see before and only a few would see in the future.’’

In this book, Ambrose does the same.

Source: Kelly Winters, Critical Essay on Undaunted Courage, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Winters is a freelance writer and editor.

Cataloguing Discovery

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1462

In a small but telling coincidence, two very different books on the Lewis and Clark expedition begin in the same way, with the author revealing where he first read the Journals. Stephen Ambrose borrowed the Nicholas Biddle edition from his aunt in 1975, plowed through the set, and the rest is (shall we say) history: the following summer, Ambrose celebrated the Bicentennial with his family, friends, and 25 students at Lemhi Pass, where the Corps of Discovery crossed the Continental Divide; he has traced the country almost every year since that glorious Fourth of July; patriotism and a profound identification with Meriwether Lewis breathe through his biography of the explorer. Paying quieter homage, Albert Furtwangler recalls the pleasure of reading Bernard DeVoto’s classic abridgement on a cross-country train home from college, and credits—in addition to the requisite camping trips along the company’s trail—the education from elementary through graduate school that made the Journals accessible to him. Something about the subject of Lewis and Clark produces deeply personal scholarship. Both of these studies are thoroughly researched and well written; their poignancy, however, derives to a large part from the authors’ candidly stated involvement in the material.

This personal stake presents some risks, of course. The expedition offers notoriously unstable ground for writers, and a close identification with Lewis and Clark leaves open the same narrative pitfalls that the original journalists met. The Corps of Discovery was (among other things) a state-of-the-art gathering machine, its leaders fulfilled this aspect of their mission admirably, and collected more knowledge about the West than any one person could ever catalogue alone. The late Donald Jackson called Lewis and Clark ‘‘the writingest explorers ever,’’ and the literature generated by the trek—not just the Journals and related documents, but countless articles, a shelf of monographs, even a quarterly publication—takes years to master. One writes in retrospect about the journey by necessity, because of the time needed to sift through the primary material and relevant scholarship. The question of time, moreover, points to a second problem: organization. How does one collate into a single, intelligible account the embarrassment of riches that the Corps of Discovery amassed?

The opening of the West offers many great and tragic stories; just figuring out how to assemble the many stories is one of them. From the beginning, the conventions of 18th-century travel literature suggested two narrative modes to Lewis and Clark, each with its own structuring basis. The first, a surveyor’s log or itinerary, followed a largely chronological plan, noting the events of the day as they arose. Clark wrote this way, and his consistent—if not tedious—diary forms the bulk of the Journals. Lewis, on the other hand, thought on a much grander scale than his partner, and would supplement the daily record with the static form of a scientific or geographic essay. Although several discourses were at work, the more-schooled of the two Captains probably sought to fuse the voyage motif with a Western version of Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia. A prospectus released in 1807 promised a four-volume, encyclopedic account of Louisiana: the first two installments would provide maps and a narrative of the journey, and the next two would catalogue the flora, fauna, and native inhabitants of the territory. A definitive, first-hand edition never materialized, however. For reasons partly related to this authorial burden, Lewis took his own life in 1809. Jefferson and Clark (a military man but no author) scrambled to make alternatives, but the resulting History of the Expedition of Captains Lewis and Clark included only the daily record, and contained almost no scientific or ethnographic data. As a result of this lapse in publishing the full journals, Lewis’s fieldwork in botany and zoology passed unnoticed for almost a century, and his codices of Native American languages disappeared altogether. Negotiating this same, fundamentally narrative chasm—between a linear travelogue and the tableau of a natural history—has become the challenge to many later scholars who would write about the expedition.

Undaunted Courage occasionally sneaks past the problem by sticking close to its subject. All points of Stephen Ambrose’s compass lead to the Louisiana Purchase. ‘‘From the west-facing window of the room in which Meriwether Lewis was born,’’ the life begins, ‘‘one could look out at Rockfish Gap, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, an opening to the West that invited exploration.’’ Fate appears to beckon the swaddled Virginian across the continent, and the biography—which rarely tarries or disappoints—hurries toward this promised journey. After dispensing with a few thin chapters on the early life (appetizers for the main course), Ambrose shows how a combination of family ties, luck, and ability secured Lewis’s commission to survey the territory. More thorough discussions of a two-year apprenticeship under Jefferson and tutorials with leading minds of the American Enlightenment demonstrate how preparation on the part of Jefferson and his protégé yielded success on the frontier; the book does not hit full stride, however, until the Corps of Discovery actually turns its fleet upriver. With a level of detail that practically places readers on board one of the company’s pirogues, Ambrose follows the travellers’ path to the headwaters of the Missouri and over the Rockies, he suffers with the unit through a soggy winter on the Pacific Coast, and he comments insightfully on the party’s hurried return to St. Louis. Not surprisingly, the author of a definitive study on D-Day shrewdly appraises army matters—the troop’s discipline and arsenal, key tactical decisions—to show how the Captains’ military acumen ensured a remarkably peaceful passage through several hotly-disputed zones.

The sad fate of Meriwether Lewis and the central tragedy of this biography, however, is that his triumph as an officer brought personal catastrophe. The return from his ‘‘tour’’ reaped expected rewards plus some unexpected temptations. The latter proved fatal. In Washington, Lewis became the toast of the town, deepening his problem with alcohol. With the appointment to govern Louisiana came controversies and headaches—worsened by a habit of dashing off ‘‘chits,’’ or expenses, to the federal government—that exacerbated his already unstable condition. The hero fell into a steady decline. The last and very gripping chapters of this biography trace how a series of mishaps, an illness recognized only today as depression, and chemical dependence culminated in Lewis’s suicide. A shady death on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee brings the life full circle: from the western-facing room where he was born, to the territory that he explored, to his demise at age 36—having accomplished only a fraction of his initial promise.

The cradle to early grave format of Undaunted Courage moves quickly, too quickly, for the focus upon one individual leaves Ambrose little textual room to explore the West that proved bigger than his subject. In one of the book’s many novelistic flourishes, the biographer portrays the party on the eve of its departure, standing on the western bank of the Mississippi:

Let’s go! one can almost hear the men of the Corps of Discovery crying to the Captains. Let’s go, for God’s sake. Lewis decided no, not yet.

It is difficult to determine who felt most impatient to embark at this point—the soldiers, Clark, Lewis, or Ambrose. The hurried pace certainly keeps the story moving. Paragraphs are short, some sentences just phrases: ‘‘Another day on the river. Making about eighteen miles per day. Endless. Exhausting.’’ The division of chapters by dates and the page-turning prose raises problems, however, as Ambrose struggles to account for the full range of the expedition’s responsibilities. Chains of short sections that compose a chapter often lack cohesion from one to the next; facing pages can range from observations on geography and medicine to comments on the food and natural history; footnotes attempt to catch loose ends but only recall a basic question: how does one catalogue so much material? The effort to keep the party on a steady pace upstream, while juggling incompatible narrative strands, sometimes makes the territory seem like an obstacle course, placed there by destiny for the company to master. The book rarely considers the world from outside the perspective of the Corps of Discovery. In particular, a series of questionable ‘‘firsts’’ west of the Mississippi (first election, first map, etc.) suggests that the historical calendar for one-half of the continent began at 1804. Ambrose writes powerfully about Lewis because he can walk in the explorer’s moccasins, yet this reluctance to step out of them occasionally leaves Undaunted Courage open to the same problems that defeated the explorer-author: namely, the journey produced more data than any individual could ever collate into a coherent account.

Source: Thomas Hallock, ‘‘Cataloguing Discovery,’’ in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 73, No. 1, Winter 1997, pp. 183–87.

Review of Undaunded Courage

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 746

Thomas Jefferson, the grand architect of Manifest Destiny, ventured no farther west than the Blue Ridge Mountains, yet he determined the westward course of American expansion as deftly as he charted his country’s route to political independence. Our nation’s territorial growth in large part is owing to Jefferson’s vision, pragmatism, and, perhaps most important, scientific curiosity. His eyes to the West were provided by his protegé Meriwether Lewis who, with his companion William Clark, unlocked the secrets of the trans-Mississippi West.

Jefferson had looked longingly toward the West for many years, but not until he became president could he turn his dream into a reality. The Louisiana Purchase was fortuitous, but Jefferson would have sent an expedition to the Pacific Coast had that welcome opportunity failed to materialize.

The person Jefferson hand-picked to lead the Corps of Discovery was Lewis, son of a family friend and a man well known to the president. For two years Lewis lived with Jefferson at Monticello and at the president’s house in Washington, giving them ample time to plan their grand adventure. It was Lewis who felt the need for a co-commander and who picked William Clark, younger brother of Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark. The elder Clark had been Jefferson’s first choice to lead such an expedition, but he had declined the invitation.

By any standard, the Lewis and Clark expedition was as successful as it was monumental. Accompanied by Clark’s slave York and a young Shoshone woman, Sacagawea, the members of the Corps of Discovery were the first Americans to cross this vast continent. They not only survived, they thrived, despite encountering hazards from angry Indians to aggressive grizzly bears. Indeed, they lost only one companion, and that was probably the result of a ruptured appendix.

Although the story of the expedition has often been told and detailed journals and diaries of the explorers have been published in a variety of editions, here is a study that merits attention from both history buffs and scholars. Stephen E. Ambrose presents a carefully written, well-balanced, and thoroughly researched biography of Lewis as well as a compelling history of the expedition.

Particularly valuable is Ambrose’s profile of Lewis, a person who has defied understanding. That someone so gifted and so respected would take his life senselessly and needlessly seems improbable. Some historians have therefore preferred to believe he fell at the hands of robbers or assassins. Ambrose has uncovered considerable evidence to suggest otherwise. Lewis was probably a manic depressive who suffered from alcoholism and drug abuse. By making him governor of Louisiana Territory, Jefferson thought he was giving his protégé an appropriate reward, but, Ambrose believes, the appointment was ‘‘a frightful misjudgment.’’ Lewis was entirely unsuited for the job. He may have been an excellent army officer, but he was a terrible politician, incapable of compromise, short tempered, and arrogant. That the two people who knew Lewis best—Jefferson and Clark—had no doubt that he committed suicide should satisfy even the most skeptical.

Sadly, Lewis’s suicide deprived the Corps of Discovery of the acknowledgment it richly deserved for its amazing success and remarkable discoveries. Because Lewis failed to publish the journals in a timely manner, others later received credit for identifying and naming the flora and fauna that Lewis and Clark discovered and described. Only with Reuben Gold Thwaites’s edition of their journals, published at the start of the twentieth century, did the explorers begin to receive appropriate recognition for their efforts.

Ambrose has done a remarkable job ferreting out little-known and obscure documents and facts relating to the expedition. He is also generous in crediting scholars whose efforts facilitated his own research. Superb as this book is, however, there are a few minor caveats. This reviewer was surprised to see Ambrose leave readers with the image of a seemingly heartless Clark whipping his slave York instead of freeing him as a reward for his considerable contribution to the expedition’s success. Clark later did free York and set him up in business in St. Louis. Ambrose is also silent about Sacagawea’s later life. Did she die young, as most scholars believe, or did she live to a ripe old age, as some claim? As with Lewis’s suicide, it would be nice to resolve that mystery as well.

Source: Herman J. Viola, Review of Undaunted Courage, in William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. LIV, No. 1, January 1997, pp. 273–74.

The Essence of Lewis and Clark

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 897

The 1803–1806 Lewis and Clark expedition was conceived by the young republic’s most visionary president and conducted under scrupulous military organization and leadership. Launched into the unknown, its potential for marvelous discovery was tempered by an equally unsettling prospect of its unforeseeable demise. The palpable tension between these outcomes makes for a story more compellingly told in the eyewitness accounts of its participants.

Stephen E. Ambrose, author of a definitive history of D-Day revisits this earlier military mission and superbly conveys the essence of the two men most responsible for its inception, its success, and its national repercussions. Ambrose fills a void on Meriwether Lewis unaddressed since Richard Dillon’s 1965 biography, by drawing substantially on the subsequent work of expedition scholars Donald Jackson, Paul Russell Cutright, James P. Ronda, and notably Gary E. Moulton. The result is a masterful retelling of Thomas Jefferson’s long-cherished vision of an exploration to the Pacific via the Missouri and Columbia rivers, and the officer uniquely qualified to advance its commercial, diplomatic, and scientific imperatives.

Ambrose reads well; the cadence of dipping oars, the desperate crossing of the Rocky Mountains, the patient if misguided Indian diplomacy resonate with immediacy and drama. The synergy between Jefferson and his young protege, and the nuances of Lewis’s complex personality and command presence, are reinforced with every page. Lewis’s intense preparation, his precise and prodigious description of flora and fauna new to western science, and his expedition’s steady conduct unfurl like a well-coordinated battle plan. Dwight Eisenhower’s biographer even correlates Ike’s famous aphorism on that subject with that of Lewis’s exploration: ‘‘plans are everything, but worthless when the shooting begins.’’

Ambrose’s assessment of Lewis as a company commander is less satisfying. While possessing all requisites, Lewis’s impetuosity and quirky moodiness were evidence of the manic-depressive disorder Ambrose persuasively argues Lewis suffered. These fleeting episodes were balanced by co-commander William Clark, an equal leader in the eyes of the enlisted volunteers of the Corps of Discovery, without whom Lewis and the exploration would not likely have fared as well. Similarly, Ambrose’s characterization of Lewis the naturalist, whose inexplicable procrastination long delayed publication of his writings and thus ‘‘cheated himself out of a rank not far below Darwin as a naturalist’’ is extreme but excusable.

Ambrose’s most useful contributions precede and follow the expedition narrative. He explores the violent, contradictory milieu of Virginia’s tobacco aristocracy, whose addiction to slavery and land consumption were formative to Albemarle County planters Jefferson and Lewis. Tobacco exhausted the land; planters engaged in rife speculation to gain more. ‘‘Small wonder Jefferson was so obsessed with securing an empire for the United States.’’ Likewise, Lewis’s abortive post-expedition career as territorial governor of Louisiana was punctuated by expansive speculation in western lands and fur trade ventures. The able military explorer, who did more to open the West to settlement, did an about-face as political appointee by seeking its constraint in furtherance of Indian policy, while continuing to speculate. The tragic events leading to his suicide belie Meriwether Lewis’s potential for continued, extraordinary service to his country.

Ambrose acknowledges the critical contribution of Gary E. Moulton, whose edited University of Nebraska edition of the journals of Lewis and Clark were integral to his own exploration of Meriwether Lewis. Having published the atlas and captains’ journals, Moulton now incorporates the accounts of Sergeants John Ordway and Charles Floyd in a volume that sustains the reputation of its predecessors for outstanding scholarship and painstaking annotation.

Jefferson suggested to Lewis that ‘‘attendants’’ make verbatim copies of the captains’ writings against loss of the originals. The captains modified this by ordering their sergeants to keep separate daily accounts. Before departing Fort Mandan in April 1805, Lewis wrote Jefferson that while all the men were now encouraged to keep journals, seven were so doing. Four enlisted men’s journals (Ordway, Floyd, Sergeant Patrick Gass, and Private Joseph Whitehouse) are extant. Counting Floyd, Moulton posits Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor and privates Robert Frazer and Alexander Willard as the likely others. ‘‘One way or another a considerable part of the record appears to be lost, perhaps forever.’’

As senior sergeant, Ordway was in charge when the captains were away from the main body of the expedition. His account is the most complete, the sole member to never miss any of 863 days. Ordway exhibits interest and curiosity in the new country and its inhabitants but refrains from personal insights into its participants and commanders, an intriguing possibility from the vantage of the unit’s ‘‘top sergeant.’’ Discreet and professional, ‘‘like the captains he was writing a public document, not a private record of emotions.’’ It appears for the first time together with the other records of the exploration.

Charles Floyd’s August 20, 1804 death ended a record of the journey that is the poorer for his tragic loss. The only member to die en route, Floyd corroborated and contributed additional details beyond the captains’ observations. Like Ordway, Floyd’s terse, telegraphic style lends staccato urgency to his narrative. Leaders in their own right, these subcommanders of the Lewis and Clark expedition compel a realization that all shared equally in this grand adventure. Their surviving accounts give us an inclusive sense of making history with them.

Source: Scott B. Eckberg, Review of Undaunted Courage, in Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 16, No. 4, Winter 1996, pp. 672–74.

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