Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen E. Ambrose: Book Review

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3 Stars

So, we all learned something about the Lewis & Clark expedition in school, right? They were the first official group to travel all the way to the Pacific coast and back, with brave Sacagawea leading the way, papoose strapped to her back. That’s honestly pretty much all I knew. But there’s got to be so much more to it than that. I wanted to know the real story so I grabbed this at the library.

Eh. I did learn a lot but this book is primarily a biography of Meriwether Lewis. I’m not clear how you separate Lewis from Clark when their names are so inextricably intertwined, but there you go. I was disappointed by that. I’m not being fair to the book–the subtitle does clearly state its about Captain Lewis–but I wanted more.

It read like hero worship. The author has retraced some of the routes the group followed many times, has obviously read a lot about Lewis and the rest of the Corps of Discovery and knows his stuff. But there were frequently statements that amounted to (NOT a direct quote; I’ve returned my copy to library already), “Can you imagine? He’s practically an uneducated heathen but he discovered three new species on this day, eleven on this day, and stayed up late to take celestial observations that provided the most accurate maps known up to that time! And then wrote 2000 words about it! Holy smokes!” Am I exaggerating? Yes. But that’s how it felt. Also, by focusing on Lewis so exclusively (again, that was the point of the book), it started to read like the rest of the men were just along for the ride. Lewis could have done it all by himself. I still couldn’t name very many of the other men. Legendary Sacagawea is barely mentioned. Even when the Captain made some questionable decisions (granted, this did seem to be pretty rare), the author managed to explain them away with some sort of rationale. “Well, if he hadn’t chased down those young Blackfeet, they might have run away and brought the rest of the tribe down on the group, and they all might have died!” Maybe, maybe not. But I wanted the facts, not the what ifs.

This book contained quite a bit of speculation for something that’s nonfiction. I just wanted the facts in a readable format. Just in case the story of 30 or so men trekking across 7000 miles of uncharted wilderness wasn’t dramatic enough, there would suddenly be something along the lines of (again, I’m paraphrasing), “It all worked out this time, but what if it hadn’t? What if the trouble-making Sioux had decided to attack and kill the whole group? The expansion of the American West would have been delayed by years and years because Jefferson wouldn’t have had time to mount another expedition and his successor thought the whole purchase was folly anyway.” And then there was Lewis’s moodiness. Maybe this is an accepted theory among historians but it bothered me to read (paraphrasing), “Perhaps Lewis was bipolar. His father suffered from terrible mood swings and Lewis did too. We’ll never know. But if he was, the success of the expedition is an even bigger accomplishment!” That just bothered me. I think it was what I perceived as the lack of evidence to back such a claim up. He functioned admirably for a couple of years during this expedition. He got moody. Anyone living in such tight quarters with 30 other men would do the same. He either didn’t keep journals for large chunks of time or they’re lost to history. That doesn’t add up to a bipolar diagnosis to me, but I can’t claim to know very much about it. Had I known how Lewis died before reading this (I didn’t), I might have bought it, but by the time I found out, it was too late and I was irritated.

I’ve dwelt too long on what I didn’t like. Meriwether Lewis was truly an amazing man; a tireless, curious explorer; and a gifted leader. I did learn a lot about him and even the whole expedition. I just wanted so much more than what I found in these pages. If you’re looking for a Lewis biography, by all means, grab this. If you want to know more about the Corps of Discovery in general, I’d recommend that you look elsewhere.

Read an excerpt.

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

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1 Comment

  1. I've had this book on my TBR for years and may even own it but didn't realize it was focused on Lewis. I have to say that I agree with you that it is less appealing now than something focused on the expedition as a whole. I'll probably let it sit a while longer on the TBR mountain.

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