In the introduction to his biography of the great Western explorer Meriwether Lewis, Stephen E. Ambrose admits to a long- standing “obsession” with the Lewis and Clark expedition that led him to spend most of his Independence Days over the last two decades at the Lemhi Pass in Idaho, where his subject crossed the Continental Divide on his way to the Pacific in 1805. Originally intending a biography of William Clark but learning that one was in progress, and advised that new material on Lewis had come to light since his life was last written more than thirty years ago, Ambrose chose to focus on the man President Thomas Jefferson selected to open the West to the young republic.
Ambrose brought to the project not only his obsession but also his experience as the biographer of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon and a talent for zesty narrative. The result is not only one of the best retellings of the oft-told story of the expedition but also a probing of the enigmatic character of a man who, while still in his twenties, earned and largely justified the full confidence of Jefferson; one who returned from his incredible three-year overland round trip to the mouth of the Columbia River a national hero, yet took his own life three years later in an obscure inn in rural Tennessee.
Born into a patrician Virginia family in 1774, Meriwether Lewis, whose father died young, found himself master of a substantial plantation at the age of eighteen, but he was not cut out for the sedentary life. He joined the Virginia militia at age twenty, served in the military action against the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, and rose to the rank of captain by 1800. The following year, President Jefferson made him his personal secretary. Lewis lived in the president’s house (not yet called the White House) and impressed Jefferson as the man he needed to find an overland route to the Pacific. Jefferson had multiple motives for such an expedition. Spain, France, Britain, and Russia all had claims on portions of the vast territory west of the Mississippi River, which Jefferson wanted for American trade, security, and something about which he felt no need to blush—empire. He also hungered for scientific knowledge of the unknown area between the territory of the Mandan tribes on the Missouri River (in modern North Dakota) and the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific coast. One of the most learned men of his time, Jefferson nevertheless had no idea of the immensity of the Rocky Mountains and believed in the possibility of an all-water route to the Pacific.
Lewis possessed all the qualities that such an expedition required except education, which Jefferson proceeded to give him, personally and through crash courses in botany, zoology, mineralogy, astronomy, and medicine from Jefferson’s scientific friends in Philadelphia. Lewis learned quickly, and, by June of 1803, he was ready. Jefferson gave him carte blanche to draft the most qualified men he could find to undertake the journey. Authorized a second-in-command, he seized upon William Clark, once his commander, and insisted on an arrangement normally shunned in the military: a shared command. In Washington, D.C., Clark was recognized only as a lieutenant; to everyone on the expedition, however, he was Captain Clark. Clark did, however, draw a captain’s pay, and the unusual co-command seemed to work smoothly at all times. While Lewis engaged in the multitude of necessary preparations, Jefferson was busy buying from France the Louisiana Territory—a vaguely defined entity stretching from the Mississippi to the mountains of the West. So when Lewis, with an initial group of eight recruits, began his descent of the Ohio River from Pittsburgh in a fifty-five-foot galley on August 31, 1803, he would be in the United States not merely to the Mississippi but, nominally at least, for many months beyond St. Louis. Jefferson instructed him to develop peaceful relations with all the diverse Indian tribes he would meet along the way and to record minutely the scientific data that the president craved.
It was a back-breaking trip from the start. The Ohio River was low that fall, in many places barely floating the vessel. This part of the journey took nearly two and a half months. Reaching the Mississippi, Lewis faced the prospect of urging the craft upstream to the Missouri and then sailing, paddling, poling, boosting it up that river as far as it went—how far he had no idea. At St. Louis and at a camp established nearby, Lewis had to complete the roster of the approximately thirty men who would make up the expedition, lay in supplies, and generally make all necessary preparations for a journey into the unknown expected to last more than two years. Finally, in May of 1804, they were off.
The bulk of Ambrose’s book thereafter is a lively narrative of this dangerous and frequently harrowing journey. Mostly soldiers, his group also included Clark’s resourceful slave York and, beginning in the Mandan villages, the family consisting of the French-Canadian trader Toussaint Charbonneau, his remarkable teenaged Shoshone wife Sacagawea, and their infant son. Lewis and Clark wanted Charbonneau as an interpreter; Ambrose makes it clear that they never did value Sacagawea, or for that matter...
(The entire section is 2153 words.)