Themes

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771

Exploration and Expansion
The ideas of exploration and expansion form the core of Undaunted Courage—and the Lewis and Clark expedition. In 1790, the United States stretched only as far as the east bank of the Mississippi River. Though western lands were virtually unknown, they drew the interest of many Americans for several different reasons. At the opening of the nineteenth century, a pioneering spirit remained an integral part of the American character. Also, many people wanted to settle and farm their own land, but available lots were limited by increasing eastern populations. Further, a spirit of nationalism was growing, and many Americans came to believe that the United States should spread across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The Louisiana Purchase legally opened up vast quantities of land to American settlers, despite the fact that American Indians considered this western territory their own. As a result of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the journey of Zebulon Pike—who explored the upper Mississippi Valley—more Americans became interested in expanding settlements onto these lands. In this sense, Lewis was a true empire builder.

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Ethnic Groups and Racism
Undaunted Courage provides important insight into the prevailing feeling of superiority that most nineteenth-century white Americans felt over non-whites. Despite these sentiments, politicians like Jefferson hoped to bring American Indians into mainstream society. Jefferson’s reasoning was not completely altruistic, however. He knew that whites would push west into American Indian lands; his only options, as he saw them, were to ‘‘civilize’’ Indians or to remove them to reservations. Jefferson’s American Indian policy relied on eventual Indian assimilation into white society. He believed that Indians could be transformed into responsible American citizens. They would renounce their lifestyle and instead become farmers or traders.

As Jefferson’s advance Indian agent, Lewis supported these plans. He subjected each tribe to his speech about Jefferson, their new ‘‘Great White Father.’’ He told the Indians that they must respect the power of the United States and work in its proposed commercial network. He ordered the Indians to make peace with other tribes and did not understand when they disobeyed. Throughout the trip, Lewis rarely regarded the Indians as individual people. For instance, he insisted on naming a primary chief, even when one did not actually exist.

Undaunted Courage also shows attitudes toward African Americans. Early in the book, Ambrose quotes from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia: ‘‘The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of...the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.’’ Although Jefferson—a slaveholder—wished to see slavery abolished, he did not want this to happen in his lifetime because he believed his generation was not ready for such a major step. Lewis, also a slaveholder, did not believe that African Americans could ever become American citizens.

Such racism is clearly demonstrated throughout the book, but nowhere as strongly as in the narrative of York, Clark’s slave. York had undertaken the same dangers as every member of the Corps of Discovery. However, after the expedition, when York asked for his freedom as reward for his services, Clark refused this request. He further refused to allow York to move to Louisville, Kentucky, where his wife lived, and to hire himself out for Clark’s profit. As Ambrose succinctly puts it, his life to save Clark’s, crossed the continent and returned with his childhood companion, only to be beaten because he was insolent and sulky and denied not only his freedom but his wife, and we may suppose, children.’’

Man and Nature
The members of the Corps of Discovery, moving into areas uninhabited by whites, relied to a large extent on their environment for survival. Lewis and his men had to depend on their own abilities. There was no book knowledge that could ensure their safe trip. They hunted for food and ate roots. They constructed boats out of natural resources. Time after time, the men were challenged by nature, from making the upstream battle against the Missouri or crossing the snowy Rocky Mountains, to dealing with the geographical fact that an all-water route leading to the Pacific Ocean did not exist.

Lewis, however, saw nature not only as a challenge but also as a sort of wonderland. He and his men, for example, saw grizzly bears and herds of buffalo. He discovered new plants. An avid naturalist, Lewis had taken a quick course from top scientists before starting on the expedition. He attempted to use this scientific knowledge in describing the plants and animals he observed throughout the journey.

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