The story of how Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark opened the American West.
I recently finished reading Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage. It is an epic tale. Told from a historical perspective, Ambrose takes us on a journey through Meriwether Lewis’s life.
The book moves from one topic to another ranging from post-revolutionary politics to Lewis’s nightmares of grizzly bears. Early American history that led to the war of 1812 was never covered so entertainingly.
Undaunted Courage also does an excellent job of describing the Founding Father’s politics at the time, and how differing ideologies about what the United States should be, shaped the course of the country. We can feel the effects of the policy in 1800-1810. It also does an excellent psychological analysis of Meriwether Lewis to show just the type of mindset and lifestyle an adventure of such magnitude would require.
It’s hard not to admire Lewis for accepting this mission. Thomas Jefferson became Lewis’s mentor during his presidency. He asked Lewis to go on this journey, but the task was indeed daunting. He would travel across lands unknown, discover plant-life and beasts unknown to science, trade and negotiate with warring Native American nations who were skeptical and uncaring of the US, and climb the unforgiving Rocky Mountains of the American West. It takes a special kind of bravery to believe you can lead a small group of men thousands of miles across such dangerous unmapped territory. It takes an even more special kind to do it on your President mentor’s behalf.
Something that you don’t hear in your history books is how essential Native Americans were to the expedition’s success. Without the assistance of the Mandan Tribe, many others, and Sacagawea the mountain men would never have reached the Pacific Ocean.
There were three primary goals of the mission that Thomas Jefferson laid out.
1. Find an all-water route to the Pacific ocean across the continent.
2. Create friendly relations with Native American nations and ask them to trade with the American Empire instead of the British. Jefferson planned to set up trading posts with several Native American nations to begin peace talks between the tribes. Jefferson hoped to eventually assimilate the tribes into the US as equal citizens. He was very curious about their cultures and wanted to peacefully connect the natives and the immigrant nation through trade. Thomas Jefferson was a public advocate for diversity and the freeing of slaves despite the hypocritical notion that he was a slave-owner.
3. Promote scientific, botanical, and ethnological understanding of the American West. Jefferson told Lewis to keep detailed journals of all new plant-life, animal-life, terrain, and Native-American culture he and the group would discover.
The third goal was successful and the second would have been if not for the administrations that took power after Jefferson.
Lewis’s adventure eventually turned into a fascinating psychological downward spiral. His family had dealt with a history of depression according to Jefferson. Lewis was also known for his drinking. In addition, such bravery and accomplishment from Lewis were accompanied by arrogance and opioid abuse later in his life. Never finding a wife certainly didn’t help his mental state either. He ended up taking his own life at only 35 years old. Lewis likely would’ve taken his life sooner if it hadn’t been for his best friend, the savvy and skilled hunter, William Clark.
Both men have incredible tales to be told in Undaunted Courage. If you are interested in early American history then I recommend this book over any other early historical text I have read. It perfectly depicts the true adventurous nature of the American Farmer Nation.