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

Stephen Ambrose (1996)

In 1804, Captain Meriwether Lewis and his good friend Lt. William Clark lead an Army corps of 33 men into the largely uncharted wilderness of the American West. Their expedition was the 19th-century equivalent of the first trip to the moon—a journey into the great unknown that is almost impossible to fathom now. In his wonderfully written labor of love, historian Stephen Ambrose expertly conveys the awe and wonder of what Lewis and his team experienced and accomplished during their two-year, 7,000-mile trek.

As I continue my biographical tour through the American presidency (I’m up to Madison,) I thought this was the perfect time to read about the journey of the Corps of Discovery, the brainchild of then President Thomas Jefferson. Sold by Jefferson to the U.S. government as a mission to discover an all-important water route linking the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, the expedition was conceived for scientific gain as well. Jefferson mandated that Lewis and company gather specimens and take detailed notes on the plants and animals, geography and Native Americans they encountered along the way—much of which had never before been seen by “civilized” man. 122 species of animals and 178 plants were scientifically recorded for the first time, including the Grizzly Bear and the prairie dog, one of which Lewis sent back live to the White House.

Some of the best drama from the Lewis and Clark expedition comes from their encounters with Native American tribes–hostile, welcoming and, in some cases, life-saving, providing the Corps with food and horses at crucial times when the mission otherwise would have failed. Delivering a message from Jefferson, the new “Great White Father,” Lewis and Clark were charged with spreading a message of peace between tribes, laying the foundation for what promised to be a booming fur trade. Their observations of these native peoples are in some cases the first recorded encounters between white men and the natives.

Undaunted Courage is an incredible true story of adventure, bravery, teamwork, friendship, luck, and uncommon leadership. Ambrose brings these historical players to life, weaving their story into an immensely entertaining page-turner. At its conclusion, I wondered why the achievements of Lewis and Clark aren’t more celebrated.

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