After being “entranced” by the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark when he read them in 1975, historian Stephen Ambrose travelled many times along parts of the route taken by the Corps of Discovery from 1804 to 1806. Along with friends, family members and students, he camped at the explorers’ sites, canoed the same rivers, and read from their journals around the fire at night.
Ambrose’s book, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, is the product of his twenty-year obsession with the pair’s epic journey.
With comments from previous biographers and many of his own, Ambrose works hard to enter the mind of Lewis, particularly, during his preparation (living in the President’s House—as the White House was originally known—with Thomas Jefferson, who commissioned the expedition), the assembling of the corps and the journey itself. Analyzing Lewis’ decisions at many crucial moments, he offers insight by pulling back to the big picture and purpose of the project, i.e., the gathering of information that would provide a foundation for trade across North America and displacing British efforts to do the same.
Of course, the journey’s mission is of staggering historical importance, with implications still being felt, but equally fascinating for me throughout is the way Lewis the man looms over the logistics of the trip itself. I wonder how many men in all of history could have filled all of the roles Lewis did:
- boat captain
Lewis prepared medicines that healed a very sick Sacagawea, he cut the only tree for 20 miles around to make wheels for a wagon to port their boats 16 miles around falls, and he wrote (sometimes 1500-2000 words) in his journal by candlelight after walking or riding as much as a hundred miles in a day. Unfathomable.
In addition to overcoming the dangers and obstacles of the journey itself, Lewis was determined to satisfy the President’s desire for knowledge of the newly-bought Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the area of the United States. Along the way, he worked tirelessly to collect, identify and return with a trove of specimens and drawings. Ambrose says, “Jefferson considered Lewis a better zoologist than botanist…but he was skillful enough in both fields to provide descriptions of dozens of previously unknown plants and animals so accurate and complete that modern-day botanists and zoologists have little difficulty in recognizing the species.”
Has there ever been a better union of a man and a task than Meriwether Lewis and his expedition? Thanks to Stephen Ambrose for his description of a well-known but underappreciated hero.