Saturday, July 23, 2016

Undaunted Courage. Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. By Stephen E. Ambrose.

There are many who are captivated by the adventure of Lewis and Clark. But what these two military men accomplished, both positive and negative, was far more important than just an exciting story. Their exploration helped to expand a nation from Atlantic to Pacific under one flag. It also facilitated the genocide of western Native American nations. During their travels, Meriwether Lewis described 122 species of fauna and 178 species of flora that were formerly unknown to US and European science. Conversely, this journey also sped the widespread extinction of flora and fauna across this continent. However one chooses to assess the value of their effort, the mission, (established by Thomas Jefferson to map a water route to the Pacific and describe the land, flora, fauna and tribes along the way), had an immense impact on the history of North America.

Undaunted Courage is both a biography of Meriwether Lewis and a chronicle of his famous journey. By taking Lewis separately from his co-commander, we are able to delve more deeply into the mind, demons, character, motivations and personal history of this complex Enlightenment man. Ambrose writes a popular history, rather than a strictly factual academic history. As a result, there are several speculative pictures he paints, such as the rendezvous of Lewis and Clark off of the Ohio River at Clarksville where the expedition began. Characteristically, the author indicates that his description is how it might have gone, given that “we don’t have a single word of description of the meeting of Lewis and Clark.” (Ambrose, p. 117). While Ambrose knows the audience wants an adventure tale, he is usually careful to point out when his description of a buffalo hunt or a confrontation with Native Americans is colored, for public consumption. Even where he does not, discerning non-fiction readers will be able to extract the facts from the legend, by assessing where the author is attempting to get one’s blood pressure to rise.

It is a difficult task, for any author, to write a biography of a Virginia planter turned western explorer. One must provide a fair enough account of the era’s injustices, while presenting the individual as a product of his time. The skill, to give slavery, sexism, and Native American genocide the place they deserve, while not judging an Eighteenth Century man by Twenty-first Century values, will remain a perplexing challenge for historians. Lewis owned slaves. We don’t know if he personally whipped them, but he had an overseer and they were, no doubt beaten. We do not know if he raped slave women, but he would have been unusual among his peers if he had not. While Ambrose will speculate, offering imaginative description regarding travel events throughout his story, he does not offer speculation on these subjects. He comments that “the glittering social, intellectual, economic and political life of Virginia rested on the backs of slaves. Those backs were crisscrossed with scars.” (Ambrose, p. 34). Slavery is covered sporadically throughout the book. Ambrose sensitively portrays the plight of York, Captain Clark’s slave on the journey, who “crossed the continent and returned with his childhood companion, only to be beaten because he was insolent and sulky” when he was “denied not only his freedom but his wife.” (Ambrose, p. 458). This historian covers the constricted lives of white women in less detail. Also, his descriptions of Sacajawea’s role in the party are not as prominent as those in feminist accounts. There is slightly more attention given to the destruction of Native American cultures, and the white attitude of “get out of the way or get killed” (Ambrose, p. 348).  This author intersperses his narrative with brief discussions concerning all of these issues, but they are not principal themes no matter how much they shaped the lives of both oppressor and oppressed. We cannot separate the planters from the slaves, the Native Americans from the pioneers or the men from the women, and hope to have an accurate account of Lewis’s environment. Though the theme of Undaunted Courage was not about these issues, they are an integral part of the history surrounding both the journey and the life of Lewis. While Ambrose did not ignore these concerns, neither did he permit a generous focus upon them.

Though Ambrose only touches upon injustice, he is not uncritical of Lewis. Certainly, he portrays this figure as a superb explorer for his leadership, woodcraft and scientific skills. But the author is quick to point-out failures in judgment or problems of temperament. Ambrose critically examines Lewis’s decisions, (like his determination to divide the party on the return trip), his depressions and his suicide, with as thorough a view as possible given the available information.

The entire project of Undaunted Courage is accomplished without the use of primary sources. Even the letters of Lewis and Clark to their contemporaries are quoted from other historian’s compilations. No new data is contributed by the author. On a positive note, there are also no hare-brained theories or misleading views. There is nothing wrong with marshalling existing resources into an exciting tale; especially when that tale permits a wider audience to access a wealth of history they would not otherwise read. Ambrose created a bestseller that informed hundreds of thousands of readers on a subject they would never have approached. For a non-fiction reader who is looking for an entertaining account of Lewis and the expedition that covers its most important facts, this book is a fine choice.


Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage. Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.