‘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…

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