Though primarily a biography of Meriwether Lewis, this book also provides fascinating sketches of Thomas Jefferson, William Clark, Sacagawea, & other contemporaries. From the bestselling author of the definitive book on D-Day comes the definitive book on the most momentous expedition in American history and one of the great adventure stories of all time. In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson selected his personal secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to lead a voyage up the Missouri River to the Rockies, over the mountains, down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, and back. Lewis was the perfect choice. He endured incredible hardships and saw incredible sights, including vast herds of buffalo and Indian tribes that had had no previous contact with white men. He and his partner, Captain William Clark, made the first map of the trans-Mississippi West, provided invaluable scientific data on the flora and fauna of the Louisiana Purchase territory, and established the American claim to Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Ambrose has pieced together previously unknown information about weather, terrain, and medical knowledge at the time to provide a colorful and realistic backdrop for the expedition. Lewis saw the North American continent before any other white man; Ambrose describes in detail native peoples, weather, landscape, science, everything the expedition encountered along the way, through Lewis's eyes. Lewis is supported by a rich variety of colorful characters, first of all Jefferson himself, whose interest in exploring and acquiring the American West went back thirty years. Next comes Clark, a rugged frontiersman whose love for Lewis matched Jefferson's. There are numerous Indian chiefs, and Sacagawea, the Indian girl who accompanied the expedition, along with the French-Indian hunter Drouillard, the great naturalists of Philadelphia, the French and Spanish fur traders of St. Louis, John Quincy Adams, and many more leading political, scientific, and military figures of the turn of the century. This is a book about a hero. This is a book about national unity. But it is also a tragedy. When Lewis returned to Washington in the fall of 1806, he was a national hero. But for Lewis, the expedition was a failure. Jefferson had hoped to find an all-water route to the Pacific with a short hop over the Rockies-Lewis discovered there was no such passage. Jefferson hoped the Louisiana Purchase would provide endless land to support farming-but Lewis discovered that the Great Plains were too dry. Jefferson hoped there was a river flowing from Canada into the Missouri-but Lewis reported there was no such river, and thus no U.S. claim to the Canadian prairie. Lewis discovered the Plains Indians were hostile and would block settlement and trade up the Missouri. Lewis took to drink, engaged in land speculation, piled up debts he could not pay, made jealous political enemies, and suffered severe depression. High adventure, high politics, suspense, drama, and diplomacy combine with high romance and personal tragedy to make this outstanding work of scholarship as readable as a novel.
The account truly gives you the feeling and appreciation for being one of the first "Americans" to see the Rockies or a Great Plains' worth of Buffalo. If only I could see those scenes for real!
Written by the revered author of Band of Brothers, the book reads like a novel at many points. The men encountered Native American tribes (both hostile and friendly), diseases, wild animals, vicious turns in weather and a myriad of other obstacles to complete their goal. They traveled across the majority of the United States to reach the far west coast with canoes and horses as their only form of transportation. That alone is impressive, but then you realize that they also gathered and inventories dozens of new animal and plant species along the way. They worked on mapping out the entire area that they traveled along while also gathering new scientific data and establishing trade routes.
The project was a goal of Thomas Jefferson’s and when he became the president he began to put his plan into action. The book mainly focuses on Lewis’ life, his struggles and his role in blazing the trail out west. He was a brilliant, but troubled man and this trip was both the greatest and hardest endeavor of his life.
BOTTOM LINE: One of my favorite nonfiction books of the year. I know that traveling out west this fall certainly prompted my reading this book, but I think I would have loved it regardless of that. I learned so much about the individuals behind the trip and the sheer scope of what they accomplished. I highly recommend if you’re a fan of US History or just great nonfiction stories of accomplishment.
Ambrose clearly has an appropriate sense of appreciation for their travails and of Lewis' original writings. He often gives us snippets from Lewis' journals, which left me wanting to hear more from that and less praise of them. But at other times Ambrose must have thought that the action wasn't exciting enough because he often indulged in 'What If...?' scenarios that I thought could have been cut.
Some of the more interesting portions of the text were about the interplay between the expedition and the Sioux, Mandans, the Osage, Blackfoot, and other tribes, as well as the inter-tribal politics and war, most of which went right over Lewis' head. To me, its amazing they were able to communicate at all, given the number of people that had to be involved for translation of a single conversation! Talk about a game of Telephone!
I listened to the unabridged audiobook, but it took me a while to get used to narration by Barrett Whitener. To be honest, at first I really didn't like the way he read - the ends of his sentences were somewhat breathy and clipped - and I felt pauses between sentences were oddly timed. I found that turning my iPod to the Faster setting made it easier. With enough time (the unabridged is nearly 22 hrs!) I got used to it and could turn it back to the Normal setting.
The book is a biography of Meriwether Lewis. But, reflected in the light of Ambrose's examination, we also come to know William Clark as a real man. Of course, the book concentrates on their famous expedition, but it's over a hundred pages before that journey starts. Ambrose doesn't waste the space though. Not only does he show how Lewis' life prepared him for leading the Corps of Discovery, but we also get details of Lewis' friendship with Thomas Jefferson, Lewis' experiences in the Whiskey Rebellion and his training in scientific matters before leaving for the west. We also get a brief, but fascinating, section on how Thomas Jefferson's slaveholding was not only a moral failing, as he knew it was, but also not justifiable on an economic level since German farmers in Virginia had profitable farms with fewer acres and no slaves.
Of course, the bulk of the book is taken up with Lewis and Clark's trip to the Pacific and back. And it's a gripping tale of survival, exploration, first European contact with some Indian tribes, and, briefly, of combat. Ambrose's style is emminently readable even if, as some have noted, he does repeat certain passages from time to time. His biggest contribution may be to emphasize Lewis' scientific contributions. Lewis faithfully gathered a great many samples of the plants and animals he found and made detailed descriptions in his journal.
Those journals are at the heart of a mystery covered in this book. Lewis' raw notes are still extant and are extensive. But, for great chunks of time on his trip, he made no entries. Ambrose, following other scholars, offers an explanation for those gaps.
Lewis' journals are also central to the mystery of his psychological dissolution. Though he made preparations to organize his notes and publish them in book form, he never completed the job though he had plenty of time. He came back a hero in 1806; he died from a gunshot wound in 1809. Ambrose blames early fame, alcoholism, and Lewis' tendancy towards depression. And he makes a convincing case, conspiracy theories notwithstanding, that it was suickide and not murder, a conclusion bolstered by Lewis' history and the opinion of his friends. The failure to publish his findings and pass his knowledge on to a wide audience hurt the historical reputation of the expedition. It was only in the 20th Century that Lewis and Clark became popular figures of American history.
Ambrose's account will certainly keep Lewis and Clark from falling into obscurity again.
At its core, this is not a new story. As a child of the Pacific Northwest—I in fact grew up within walking distance of the explorers' eponymous college—I'm steeped in this history, which around here almost has a mythic ring to it. I've read the journals (Penguin Classics; ed. Frank Bergon) and the crib-like compressed edition, The Essential Lewis and Clark (ed. Landon Y. Jones). Our close family friend cum former history professor wrote a book on the lasting cultural impact of the duo and the passing of the 200 year mark since they put their white feet on Northwest soil.
Without being able to re-invent history, what Ambrose does here is two-fold. One, though the account he gives is necessarily in line with what's in the journals, he gives a modern-edited rollicking flick to the narrative, lending it a momentum that landed the book at the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestseller List. Two, he bookends the story with early- and (tragic) late-life vignettes of his hero, aiming to round out what we know about Lewis, thus stretching the story of his life larger than solely the adventurer's journey.
Ambrose takes time to introduce us to young Lewis, his firebrand mother, his rustic rearing, his capacity for and interest in intellectual self-improvement. We get to watch him establish himself with Jefferson and make Smart Youthful Choices that put him in line to lead the long-shot expedition to the Pacific coast.
It's the later-life pieces that still feel fragmentary. Lewis, robust and stalwart on the expedition, makes a sudden turn for the melancholy and incompetent. His post as governor of the Louisiana Territory goes sloppy from the get-go, as Lewis falls into debt, likely into heavy opiate and alcohol abuse, and what seems to our modern eyes like some deep mental health grief. We don't have the luxury of understanding exactly how this happened. Lewis is mum on the situation for the most part—one of the symptoms of his decline is that he stops writing people back, or writing at all. Ambrose puts together the pieces where he can, he looks for hints in fragmentary documentation, but the chips are stacked against him: There just isn't much existing material to dig through. Colleagues comment on Lewis' "madness"; government officials refuse to back his spending; he is heaped in shame—this we know. But the end story is far less fleshed out than the early story, and leaves us with a shroud of mystery that is likely eternal.
That Ambrose paints Lewis' portrait with an occasionally starry-eyed luster is not surprising. It's almost as if he's a tiny bit in love with Lewis. One can feel Ambrose's sadness as Lewis' behavior becomes more erratic, his confusion and shock at Lewis' eventual awful suicide. Through the bracing days of the expedition, Ambrose's admiration is palpable—here is a biographer who maintains a steady commitment to the man he has brought to life.
Undaunted Courage is a biography of Meriwether Lewis, with the Lewis and Clark Expedition as the centerpiece and occupying perhaps 2/3 of the text. Lewis was a Virginia planter who joined the military and eventually became secretary to fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, leading Jefferson to pick him to lead the expedition to the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. Lewis put a lot of effort into preparation, learning what he could of botany, zoology, cartography and zoology before setting off. He selected William Clark as co-leader; Ambrose notes that Clark was supposed to be promoted to captain, the same rank as Lewis, but the War Department never got around to commissioning him and he remained a lieutenant (although he received back pay as if he had been a captain). There never seems to have been any conflict between the two despite the apparently divided command.
Ambrose notes the purpose of the expedition was a little different from what I had learned in high school American history. Jefferson was under the impression that the Rockies were similar in height and ruggedness to the Appalachians, and expected there would be a relatively short portage between the headwaters of the Missouri and the Columbia; he also thought that the Missouri might swing across the 49th parallel and give the US a claim on part of Canada (which wasn’t called Canada yet; at least not out there). Thus a major part of Lewis and Clark’s mission was to thwart British/Canadian/Northwest Company influence in the area by persuading Indians to trade with Americans rather than the NWC. This was sometimes problematic; for example when negotiating with the Nez Perce, Lewis explained his purpose to trapper Toussaint Charbonneau in French. Charbonneau relayed this to his wife Sacajawea in Hidatsa, which she had picked up when captive. Sacajawea then talked to one of the Nez Perce who knew Shoshone, who then explained to the rest of his tribe in Salish. One expects that it came out a little distorted at the end.
Sacajawea gets quite a bit of acknowledgement, and it isn’t all political correctness; for a 16-year-old who was one of two wives of a disreputable voyageur she did remarkably well; one wonders what she thought about the whole thing. A lot of the expedition’s experience with the Indians didn’t come across in American History class either; Lewis and Clark and their men would have starved to death without the generosity of the natives (as it was, they ate a lot of roast dog). Incidentally, Indian hospitality also resulted in the entire party – with the possible exception of Lewis and Clark themselves – coming down with syphilis.
There is no denying that Lewis accomplished a lot; he discovered, described and named numerous animals and plants previously unknown (including, for example, prairie dogs; he sent one back to Jefferson and it made it to Monticello alive). He kept his troops in reasonably good morale and when presented with route finding problems almost always made the right choice; Ambrose argues that his only bad decision on the entire expedition was to split the party to explore the Marais River in northern Montana, where he got in a gun battle with a hunting party of Blackfoot Indians.
But all was not cloudless glory when he got back. Ambrose finds symptoms of depression or bipolar disorder through Lewis’ entire life. None of this really came out on the expedition itself, except for a puzzling gap in Lewis’ journals where he didn’t record anything for weeks. Ambrose notes there’s no hint of anything amiss for the dates on either side of the gap and expresses the hope that the missing pages remain to be found somewhere. However, after his return Lewis seemingly fell apart. Jefferson appointed him Governor of Louisiana (which took in the entire area; his headquarters were at St. Louis.
Lewis began to behave self-destructively, taking to drink and laudanum, and getting into debt. His attitude toward his journals was especially puzzling – he arranged (and paid for) engravers to illustrate, astronomers to reduce observations, botanists to go over the plant descriptions, but somehow, despite repeated requests by Jefferson and other interested parties and their value for settling his accounts, he never submitted them to a publisher. On the way to Washington to explain some of his financial dealings to the War Department he attempted suicide twice, and finally did succeed in an isolated cabin in Tennessee. Although maybe not; there are persistent theories that it was murder instead. His journals finally did get published but only in an abridged form; full publication didn’t come for many years (meaning Lewis didn’t get credit for a lot of his zoological and botanical discoveries).
Well written, as usual for Ambrose – even if some came from somebody else. Excellent maps; contemporary engravings; well referenced. It’s been commented that the book reads like a novel; I didn’t see that but obviously Ambrose did have to speculate about motives and actions for parts the expedition that weren’t covered by the journals.
I am planning a bike ride that will go through the Bitterroot Valley in Montana. The geography is pretty complicated up there. I can't say that this book helped me get it straightened out... The Bitterroot Mountains are on the west side of the continental divide. The book doesn't make any mistakes about that, but doesn't get it crisp and clear either. It sort of marches right through the complexity. But that got me staring at various maps and scratching my head. It's complex terrain up there!
It's a great fun read, a delightful way to learn some history.
Ambrose has such a gift for description and a greta eye for excerpting the Journals in ways that make you feel like you are there.
It is easy in this day and time to downplay the significance of this journey, however by reading this account, a full appreciation of the hazards faced by the expedition can perhaps be attained. No maps, hostile Indian tribes, constant hunger, wild animals and constant insect infestation (clouds of mosquitoes drove some mad), bitter weather, etc.
The picture painted by Ambrose is vivid. A fascinating story told by a less talented writer and historian would not have been nearly as effective.
Undaunted Courage is an outstanding book and enjoyable read. While this contributed little to my book regarding the Podunks it was a pleasure to see the differing attitude towards Native Americans by Meriwether Lewis as they traversed the west. Keep in mind when reading Undaunted Courage that it precedes the expansion into the west which colors our vision of Native Americans versus what they truly are…a unique culture that deserves as much respect as any nation of the world usually defined solely by political borders. In 2010 we face these same issues in the Middle East as occurred in North America in the 17th Century up to present times.