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.”

In October 1803 Lewis picked up Clark in Indiana, and gathered some of the recruits for what was called the Corps of Discovery. The party spent a long winter at River Dubois, across from St. Louis, waiting for the formal transfer of the Louisiana territory from Spain and France to the United States and enlisting more men for the expedition. The group set out on May 14, 1804, with forty-odd men, including Clark’s black slave, York. The explorers traveled up the Missouri, and by October reached the villages of the Mandan Indians, in present-day North Dakota, where they decided to spend the winter of 1804–1805.

Since traders had penetrated this far up the Missouri, the expedition had not yet covered completely unknown ground. Lewis and Clark spent time during this first stage of the journey dealing with some disciplinary problems and the death of a sergeant—the only member of the Corps to die on the journey. Although they had a nearly violent confrontation with the Teton Sioux in present-day South Dakota, most of the time the captains left the Indians they met more bewildered than angry. The translation problems were immense. The Indians would speak to an Indian in the expedition, who then spoke in another Indian tongue to someone who understood that tongue but could only speak French, who then passed on what he heard to someone who understood French but also spoke English. Only then could Lewis and Clark finally find out what the Indians had originally said. Their reply, of course, had to repeat the process in reverse. Tedious as conversation with the Indians was, Lewis and Clark worked out an elaborate ceremony for all the Indian tribes they encountered, informing them that the United States had taken over the territory and that their new father, “the great Chief the President,” was “the only friend to whom you can now look for protection, or from whom you can ask favours, or receive good counciles, and he will take care to serve you, & not deceive you.” After what became the standard speech to the Indians, the captains distributed some presents—from the large store of beads, brass buttons, tomahawks, axes, moccasin awls, scissors, mirrors, as well as US flags and medals with Jefferson’s visage, that they carried with them.

The Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1804–1805 in a fort it constructed near the Mandan villages. In April 1805 Lewis and Clark sent back their heavy keelboat and some enlisted men to St. Louis along with a written report, a map, and some botanical, mineral, and animal specimens to be delivered to President Jefferson. Joining the party now was the Shoshone woman Sacagawea with her husband and their infant son; she was to prove invaluable as a translator during the next stages of the journey.

In six canoes and two pirogues the group of thirty-three set out on April 7, 1805, to proceed up the Missouri to the Rockies. Even though Lewis, as he wrote in his journal, was about “to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine,” he could not have been happier. “This little fleet,” he said, “altho” not quite so rispectable as those of Columbus or Capt. Cook, were still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those deservedly famed adventures ever beheld theirs; and I dare say with quite as much anxiety for their safety and preservation.”

At this point in the narrative Ambrose really begins indulging in what earlier had been only occasional references to the “first” this and the “first” that. So in addition to having “the first collection of weather data” and “the first election” west of the Mississippi and “the first” American descriptions of the tepees and ceremonial dress of the Plains Indians, we have either the “first Americans” or the “first white men” to see a Sioux scalp dance, view the Rockies, kill a grizzly, confront a Shoshone war party, hear of the Nez Percé Indians, enter present-day Idaho, Washington, and Oregon by land, journey on the Columbia River east of the Cascades, and make the first transcontinental linking of what would become the United States. Even the decision of where to spend the winter of 1805–1806, which Lewis and Clark put to a vote of their party, becomes an occasion for Ambrose’s listing of firsts: “the first vote ever held in the Pacific Northwest… the first time in American history that a black slave had voted, the first time a woman had voted.” (This last is incorrect.)

Despite his happiness in getting his expedition going once again in April 1805, Lewis scarcely realized how arduous the rest of the journey to the Pacific would be. It took the party four months just to get to the Rockies, including a month-long portage of the Great Falls of the Missouri. The men suffered badly from their virtually all meat diet. Most of the time Lewis gave the ailing soldiers some of the fifty dozen pills that Dr. Rush had prescribed for the journey. Generally referred to as “Thunderclappers,” the pills were composed of a variety of drugs, each of which, says Ambrose, was “a purgative of explosive power; the combination was awesome.”

By the time the party reached the Continental Divide, on the present Montana-Idaho border, in August 1805, Lewis (who turned thirty-one on August 18) realized that there would be no simple portage to the waters of the Columbia. Although the commanders did not know it, they could scarcely have picked a more difficult place to cross the Rockies. From the Shoshone Indians the expedition got guides and horses for the journey across what one sergeant called “the most terrible mountains I ever beheld.” The crossing of Lolo Pass in the Bitterroots was the expedition’s worst experience. Beset by snow and hail, exhausted and half-starved, the men killed their horses and drank melted snow for nourishment. Yet the expedition made 160 miles in eleven days: “It was,” writes Ambrose, “one of the great forced marches in American history.”

On September 22, 1805, the party finally reached the country of the Nez Percé Indians on the Clearwater River in Idaho, where it built canoes for the trip down the Clearwater, the Snake, and the Columbia to the Pacific. On November 7, 1805, though the group was still in the estuary of the Columbia, Clark described what he saw: “Ocian in view! O! the joy!… Ocian 4142 Miles from the Mouth of Missouri R.” The men built a fort, Fort Clatsop, on the Oregon side of the Columbia estuary and spent a long wet winter there, with the captains writing descriptions of nature and the Indians and making a map. In March they began their return, spending a month with the Nez Percé waiting for the snow to melt in the Rockies. After crossing the mountains Lewis and Clark separated, Lewis exploring the Marias River in present Montana and Clark traveling down the Yellowstone River. On their trip Lewis and his men ran into a party of Blackfoot Indians who tried to steal their horses. In the only real violence of the expedition Lewis and his men killed two of the Indians and were lucky to escape with their lives. In view of all the trouble it caused, Ambrose rightly judges Lewis’s entire Marias side trip a big mistake.

Reunited in North Dakota, the captains revisited the Mandan villages where they had wintered in 1804–1805. They left Sacagawea and her husband and child with the Mandans, and moved rapidly down the Missouri to St. Louis, which they reached on September 23, 1806. From the time they had originally set out from St. Louis, they had been gone two years and four months. Nearly everyone had given them up for lost—except Jefferson.

The completion of this “epic voyage,” writes Ambrose, was by itself enough to place Lewis and “his partner-friend” in “the pantheon of explorers.” But he and Clark had done more. In addition to opening up a “fur-trading empire” in the West, the explorers had brought back “a treasure of scientific information.” Their, “discoveries in the fields of zoology, botany, ethnology, and geography were beyond any value.” They had discovered and described 178 new plants and 122 species and subspecies of animals. By systematically recording all they had seen—“from weather to rocks to people,” says Ambrose—they introduced new approaches to exploration that affected all future expeditions. Their marvelous journals, which one historian has called “perhaps the most important account of discovery and exploration ever written,” became “the model for all subsequent writing on the American West.”

Without a photographer or an artist present Lewis and Clark had only words to record what they saw. Here, for example, is Lewis’s description of the bighorn sheep in the upper parts of the Missouri:

The head and horns of the male…weighed 27 lbs. it was somewhat larger than the male of the common deer, the boddy reather thicker deeper and not so long in proportion to it’s hight as the common deer; the head and horns are remarkably large compared with the other part of the anamal; the whole form is much more delicate than that of the common goat, and there is a greater disparity in the size of the male and female than between those of either the deer or the goat. the eye is large and prominant, the puple of a deep sea green and small, the iris of a silvery colour much like the common sheep; the bone above the eye is remarkably prominant; the head nostrils and division of the upper lip are precisely in form like the sheep….

These were just the opening lines. Lewis went on for another seven hundred or so words detailing the characteristics of this creature.

But the public knew none of these descriptions. It was delighted just to see the explorers, who were cheered and fêted everywhere they went. Jefferson secured Lewis’s election to the American Philosophical Society and appointed him governor of the Territory of Louisiana. Although both explorers received double back pay and land bonuses, they expected that publication of their journals would make their fortune. But, alas, Lewis seemed unable to get the manuscript ready for publication. After returning to St. Louis to take up the governorship, Lewis became involved in establishing a fur company and other get-rich schemes and apparently began drinking heavily and taking drugs and running up debts. He had no practical experience in politics or government and, says Ambrose, “had more success than was good for him.” Jefferson pleaded with him to get the manuscript of the journals to a printer, but Lewis never even answered Jefferson’s letters. With the War Department on his back over his policies as governor and refusing to honor his drafts of money, Lewis in the late summer of 1809 decided to return to Washington to clear his name. He took the journals with him, intending, he told Clark, to see to their publication.

As he traveled eastward he behaved strangely, drinking heavily and taking pills; twice he tried to kill himself, and on September 11, 1809, he wrote out his last will and testament. At Fort Pickering (present site of Memphis, Tennessee) Major James Neelly, the army’s agent to the Chickasaws, agreed to accompany Lewis to Washington. But on October 10, 1809, Lewis with two servants went on ahead of Neelly and that evening stopped at an inn seventy miles west of Nashville. Sometime later that night he shot himself twice, and, failing to kill himself, cut himself with a razor. Lewis begged the servants to shoot him, but they refused and shortly after sunrise on October 11, 1809, he died of his wounds. He was thirty-five.

This strange end has sparked a great deal of historical controversy and a number of charges of conspiracy and murder. The most recent is a 1994 book by the late David Leon Chandler, The Jefferson Conspiracies: A President’s Role in the Assassination of Meriwether Lewis, whose descriptions of hidden designs involving Jefferson and General James Wilkinson put even the elaborate concoctions of Oliver Stone to shame.1 Ambrose quite rightly dismisses these imagined murder plots (neither Clark nor Jefferson doubted that Lewis had killed himself), and concludes that the really “great mystery of Lewis’s life” is why he did not prepare the journals for publication.

Clark tried to pick up the pieces, and he persuaded young Nicholas Biddle to edit the journals. In 1814 Biddle published a narrative account of the journey that omitted most of the material on the flora and fauna. Because Biddle’s History of the Expedition Under the Commands of Captains Lewis and Clark was for the next ninety years the only printed account of the expedition based on the journals, Lewis and Clark received no credit for most of their discoveries in nature.2 Others renamed the plants, animals, birds, and rivers that they had discovered and named, and these later names, not Lewis’s and Clark’s, were the ones that survived. By failing to publish the journals, says Ambrose, in a bit of hyperbole, “Lewis had cheated himself out of a rank not far below Darwin as a naturalist.” But he remains, in Ambrose’s opinion, “the greatest of all American explorers, and in the top rank of world explorers.” This may not be true, but Ambrose’s book has at least made it seem so.

This Issue

April 4, 1996