Reading Material: Undaunted Courage


We’ve crossed the paths of the Lewis and Clark expedition many times over the past few years. St. Louis, Columbia River, Pompey’s Pillar, Fort Mandan and Omaha, to name a few. We’ve gotten bits and pieces of the history all over the place, but Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage ties the whole Corp of Discovery story together. The book covers the time from Lewis’ childhood in Virginia through the completion of the trip and the aftermath of their discoveries. He quotes important passages from their journals but combines it with his own words and research to create a concise and readable narrative. The original journals take up an entire bookshelf, so this is a nice option for anyone with a casual interest in Lewis and Clark who doesn’t want to deal with stumbling over the terrible grammar, spelling and run-on sentences of their raw writing. The book primarily follows Lewis’ life and times. Clark doesn’t appear as a main character until page 117, a few pages after we first meet Seaman the dog.

While the journey from St Louis to the Pacific is what gets the bulk of attention, most people forget that Lewis himself really did cross the entire North American continent (he met up with Clark in Kentucky). His traveling began in Washington DC with an assignment from his boss, President Thomas Jefferson (who plays a large role in the early chapters). It was his vision of a nation “from sea to shining sea” that largely led to the Louisiana Purchase and the desire to find what exactly they had just bought. The main goal was to follow the Missouri River to its source and discover a primarily water route to the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson needed a man to lead an exploratory party who had a military background and understood a broad range of knowledge on subjects like botany, zoology, astronomy (to find longitude and latitude) and general outdoorsmanship and survival skills. He knew he had that man in his personal secretary and long-time Virginia family friend, Meriwether Lewis. There were a couple years of planning before he set out, including crash courses in many topics from experts in Philadelphia. It’s remarkable to read about some of the assumptions people had about what they would find in western North America. They thought the Rockies were going to be similar in stature and difficulty to the Appalachians, and they thought one of the native tribes might be a band of “lost Welshmen”.

Usually we think of the voyage as just Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea and a canoe, but it was really an impressive military operation that at different points consisted of 30+ men, a 55 foot long keelboat, several canoes and a large herd of horses. Sacagawea (who was only 16) even had her newborn son, Jean Baptiste, aka Pompey, strapped to her back. And they did not pack lightly either; they had a small library’s worth of books, a writing desk (seriously?), and thousands of pounds of food, gifts, ammunition and general supplies. One of the additional goals was to create a transcontinental fur trading empire by making contact with the natives and bringing them into the American economy. We all know how well that turned out, but there were some good intentions going in.
Major successes of the Corp of Discovery included identifying, describing and sketching 178 new plant species and 122 new species or subspecies of animals. They confirmed the approximate northern extent of the Missouri River watershed, and disappointingly discovered that the hoped-for easy water access to the Pacific Northwest does not exist. Perhaps more importantly and most impressively, they did not die. Against all odds, only one man was lost, and that was due to illness. Lewis was shot in the ass by one of his own men, but that healed.

Some of my favorite parts of the book were the passages taken directly from the journals that described daily life and events. There are several references to raging late-night parties happening. It cracks me up to imagine thirty dudes in the wilderness dancing and singing while one of them jammed on the fiddle. Some of these events, mind you, happened months after the whiskey had run out. Important travel tip: always pack enough whiskey.

Ambrose puts into perspective just how remote the expedition really was in some interesting ways. First of all, there were three other exploration parties sent out by Jefferson to map other rivers, but we don’t hear about them because they were complete failures. Also, the Spanish who controlled much of the Southwestern land sent out multiple armed parties to try to stop the Corps of Discovery, but could never find them. The slow pace of things is crazy to think about too. In 1806, nothing moved faster over land than the speed of a horse. St. Louis was a week’s travel from the nearest post office in Vincennes, IN and another week from Louisville. It took 3 months to get from New Orleans to St. Louis by river. Lewis and Clark’s trip included a month-long portage around the great falls of the Missouri and weeks of waiting to cross the Rockies on the way home. It’s unimaginable in an age when we can cross the same country by air in a few hours. When Lewis finally arrived back in Washington, DC, he hadn’t seen Jefferson in three and a half years. They actually didn’t even know for sure if he was still president until they got back to civilization. In the meantime, most of the country had given up on them returning alive.

Largely because of his untimely death, and the fact that he never managed to publish his journals, Lewis’ legacy was initially forgotten or misrepresented for 100 years. Many of the the Corp’s scientific and geographic discoveries were re-discovered by other people and renamed before the journals were seen by the public in 1813. When they first appeared, Lewis and Clark’s names weren’t even on them. It really wasn’t until a University of Wisconsin professor re-edited the content in 1904 that the expedition finally got the respect it deserved. Now of course, it is a legendary American adventure. This 8-volume edition is known as the “Thwaites Edition” and is considered the gold standard of Lewis and Clark writing. Maybe I’ll read that when I have a couple years to spare.

Undaunted Courage has gotten me daydreaming of re-creating the Corp of Discovery route. While that’s not possible at the moment, we will get to see some relevant sites when we visit Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, VA and the town of Harpers Ferry, WV where Lewis spent time preparing munitions and supplies. Check out our plans.

Clark's signature carved into Pompey's Pillar in Montana. Suiting up at the Lewis & Clark interpretive center in Washburn, ND. Re-creation of Fort Mandan.

Clark’s signature carved into Pompey’s Pillar in Montana. Suiting up at the Lewis & Clark interpretive center in Washburn, ND. Re-creation of Fort Mandan nearby.

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