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The Writingest Explorers’

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

by Stephen E. Ambrose
Simon and Schuster, 511 pp., $27.50

The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804–1806 is the greatest adventure of exploration in American history. The astronauts of the 1960s knew more about the surface of the moon they were to land on than Lewis and Clark knew about the northwest part of the Louisiana territory they were sent to explore by President Thomas Jefferson. And Lewis and Clark and their party were out of touch with their fellow Americans back home for long periods of time—weeks, months, years—longer certainly than the minutes when the astronauts were unable to communicate with Earth. Besides, the Lewis and Clark expedition had little of the technology that makes even space travel today seem routine. The members of the expedition had only boats, horses, and their legs—all of which makes the expedition seem within the capacity of ordinary campers and hikers in our own time.

Indeed, Lewis and Clark’s exploit is more alive for us at the end of the twentieth century than it was for Henry Adams a century ago. Whereas Adams could write nine volumes on the history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations and scarcely mention Lewis and Clark, we today cannot reexperience the adventure often enough. Maybe it is because we have now thoroughly mapped the territory the expedition explored and crisscrossed it with modern highways that the exploit has become all the more fascinating for us—the kind of extended camping trip we might read about in the travel section of our newspapers. We all cannot go to the moon, but Lewis and Clark’s expedition seems to be an experience of exploration that ordinary backpackers and hikers can actually attempt to share in or duplicate, complete with L. L. Bean gear, white-water rafting, and extended nature walks.

At any rate, every year dozens of enthusiasts retrace the trail of the expedition. Scholars and laymen have formed an organization exclusively devoted to studying and celebrating the venture. New sites and monuments commemorating the expedition are still being dedicated. And we cannot read enough about it. In the 1970s Donald Jackson edited a superb two-volume edition of the Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and in the early 1990s Gary Moulton and the University of Nebraska Press completed their modern eight-volume scholarly edition of the journals of Lewis and Clark. Over the past several decades we have had numerous monographs on one aspect or another of the expedition—on Jefferson’s plans for exploration, on the Indians the expedition met, on the flora and fauna it found, on the medicine it practiced, on the geography it explored. And finally there have been many narrative accounts, stirring accounts, of the whole expedition. This one by Stephen Ambrose is the most recent and it is one of the best.

Although Ambrose has written occasionally on some nineteenth-century events, he is best known for his work on modern America. He has written multi-volume biographies of Eisenhower and Nixon, and most recently an exciting account of D-Day in World War II. But this book is different: it not only deals with events of nearly two centuries ago, but it is, he says, “a labor of love.” Ambrose, it seems, is one of those Lewis and Clark enthusiasts. He has followed the expedition’s trail many times; indeed, every summer since 1976 he and his family have journeyed to Montana. He has crossed the Lolo Trail on horseback or foot five times. He has canoed the Missouri River Breaks in northern Montana ten times. He has camped at the Lemhi Pass almost every year since 1976. He and his family, he says, “have been obsessed with Lewis and Clark for twenty years.”

Ambrose has written a very readable narrative, made for brief attention spans. He has divided his book into thirty-eight chapters; each chapter is about twelve pages long and is headed by the dates of the narrative it covers. Within these short chapters the paragraphs are numerous, many containing no more than a sentence or two. Sometimes there are not even sentences, just short phrases, as if Ambrose were duplicating diary entries: e.g., “Another day on the river. Making about eighteen miles per day. Endless. Exhausting.”

Ambrose brings his experience with military history and military affairs to bear on the story, judging Captain Lewis’s and Captain Clark’s decisions and actions from the point of view of commanders in charge of a military company, which is exactly what they were. Ambrose’s judgments are shrewd and balanced: he makes some harsh criticisms of the leaders at times, but on the whole he supports their decisions and actions. If a reader knows little of the expedition and wants a solid, readable account of it, then this book is a good place to begin.

Lewis is the central character of the book, not Clark. Jefferson, too, is an important character in the story but only insofar as he relates to Lewis and the expedition across the continent. Clark, the former army officer chosen by Lewis to accompany him, remains throughout a somewhat shadowy figure, even though one senses that Clark’s solidity, common sense, and way with people were crucial to the success of the mission.

The book opens with several chapters on the youth and early life of Meriwether Lewis. Born in 1774 in the western part of Virginia, not far from Monticello, Lewis grew up expecting to become a member of the minor gentry of Virginia heading a plantation with about two dozen slaves. But he had what he called a “passion for rambling”; and once he joined the army to help put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania in 1794, he never looked back. “Seldom,” writes Ambrose, “would he spend more than a winter at one place for the rest of his life.”

When Jefferson became president in 1801 he wanted a secretary, not only to handle the private affairs of the household but also to advise him on the Ohio Valley and military matters. He especially wanted to know which Federalist officers should be dismissed from service, since he planned to cut the size of the army by half. Who was better for the post than his twenty-six year-old Virginia neighbor Captain Lewis, who knew the West and army and was a good Jeffersonian Republican to boot?

Although Jefferson was apparently not thinking of Lewis’s leading a western expedition when he appointed him secretary, he certainly had been thinking for decades about supporting some sort of exploration of the far western territory beyond the Mississippi—even though that territory belonged to the Spanish. Jefferson was the greatest expansionist in American history. “[He] wanted land. He wanted empire,” declares Ambrose. Jefferson felt that sooner or later the entire continent would become American—because the Spanish hold on their territory was so weak and the exploding population of the United States would spread everywhere. In 1783 he asked the Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark (the older brother of William Clark) to lead a privately sponsored expedition to explore the West, but Clark declined. When Jefferson was minister to France he encouraged the extravagant and ill-fated hopes of John Ledyard to cross Siberia and reach the western coast of North America. Later, as secretary of state, Jefferson supported several plans for expeditions up the Missouri.

In the meantime, in 1972 an American sea trader, Captain Robert Gray, had discovered and named the Columbia River, and Captain George Vancouver of the British Navy and the Canadian trader Alexander Mackenzie were staking British claims to the northwest portion of the continent and threatening to take complete control of the fur trade around the Columbia River. In 1792–1793 Mackenzie in fact made the first crossing of the continent north of Mexico, at least by a white man. Mackenzie’s account of his expedition, published in 1801, was apparently what jogged Jefferson into action.

Sometime in 1802 Jefferson offered Lewis the command of a military expedition that the US government would undertake to explore the trans-Mississippi West. Lewis had volunteered for an expedition, planned by Jefferson, that was to take place in 1793 and never came off; he undoubtedly had conveyed to Jefferson in numerous conversations his desire to explore the West. It was an excellent choice. As Jefferson explained to Dr. Benjamin Rush, “Capt. Lewis is brave, prudent, habituated to the woods, & familiar with Indian manners & character.” Although Lewis was “not regularly educated,” he knew enough about nature to select and describe flora and fauna that were new. And what he did not know he could learn. Jefferson sent Lewis off to Philadelphia for crash courses in astronomy, natural history, medicine, and ethnology with several scientific experts.

Yet so much about the land beyond the Mississippi remained unknown or wrongly understood that no one could prepare fully for what lay ahead. Although Jefferson had the most extensive library in the world on the geography, cartography, natural history, and ethnology of the American West, he nevertheless assumed in 1800 that the Rockies were no higher than the Blue Ridge Mountains, that mammoths and other prehistoric creatures still roamed along the upper Missouri among active volcanoes, that a huge mile-long mountain of pure salt lay somewhere on the Great Plains, that the western Indians may have been the lost tribes of Israel or wandering Welshmen, and, most important, that there was a water route, linked by a low portage across the mountains, that led to the Pacific.

Lewis wanted a co-commander and selected his old army friend William Clark. Clark was four years older than Lewis and had been Lewis’s immediate superior for a time, but in 1796 he had resigned his captain’s commission and was engaged in family business in the Ohio Valley when he received Lewis’s invitation. Since the army regulations for the expedition provided for only a lieutenant as the second officer, Clark did not get his captain’s commission back. But Lewis was determined that Clark be treated as his equal and kept his status as a lieutenant a secret from the men of the expedition. Having co-commanders was an extraordinary experiment in cooperation, in violation of all army ideas of chain of command, but it worked. Lewis and Clark seem never to have quarreled and only rarely disagreed with each other. They complemented each other beautifully. Clark had been a company commander and had explored the Mississippi. He knew how to handle enlisted men and was a better surveyor, mapmaker, and waterman than Lewis. Where Lewis was apt to be moody and sometimes wander off alone, Clark was always tough, steady, and reliable. The two men trusted each other completely; they had, writes Ambrose, “one of the great friendships of all time.”

Lewis left Pittsburgh and started down the Ohio River on August 31, 1803, and made the first entry in what became the journals of the expedition. The journals, says Ambrose, “have a driving narrative that is compelling, yet they pause for little asides and anecdotes that make them a delight to read.” Donald Jackson, editor of the Letters of Lewis and Clark, describes the two captains as “the writingest explorers of their time,” men who “wrote constantly and abundantly, afloat and ashore, legibly and illegibly, and always with an urgent sense of purpose.” In often vivid and sharp prose they described much of what they encountered—plants, animals, people, weather, geography, and unusual experiences. In reading the journals we experience the journey as the two captains experienced it. Ambrose is not exaggerating in calling the journals “one of America’s literary treasures.”

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