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Undaunted Courage

Undaunted Courage

Stephen E. Ambrose 1996

Author Biography
Key Figures
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


In his introduction to Undaunted Courage, Stephen E. Ambrose writes that he feels "privileged to have had the opportunity to spend so much time with Meriwether Lewis." With this expansive work, which he had wanted to write for twenty years, Ambrose takes the opportunity to unfold the Lewis and Clark drama. He makes it come alive, even for those readers who, unlike Ambrose, have never followed the Lewis and Clark trail.

By the publication of Undaunted Courage, several books had already appeared that chronicled the Lewis and Clark expedition. Still, this new work was immediately recognized as a valuable addition to historiography. Ambrose's thorough study provides telling details of the journey—drawing at all times on the extensive journals the company commanders wrote—and what its findings meant to early nineteenth-century America. His work is carefully placed in the context of the times, providing the reader the necessary comprehension of the morals and values of the period. Ambrose's work is unique for another reason. Throughout the book he injects his own enthusiasm for the incredible undertaking of traveling to a completely unknown land. The work also reflects his own admiration for the two men who were most important to it: Thomas Jefferson, the man who conceived it, and Meriwether Lewis, the man who carried it out.

Author Biography

Stephen Ambrose was born on January 10, 1936, in Decatur, Illinois. He grew up in the small town of Whitewater, Wisconsin. Ambrose's father was a doctor, and Ambrose headed to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, intending to pursue an undergraduate degree in pre-med. However, an American history course inspired Ambrose to switch his major. After earning his bachelor's in 1957, Ambrose went on to earn his master's degree at Louisiana State University the following year. He returned to Wisconsin for his doctorate, which he completed in 1963. Ambrose has taught at institutions including Louisiana State University (LSU), Johns Hopkins University, and the University of New Orleans. Ambrose retired from the teaching profession after thirty years.

While still in graduate school, Ambrose edited and published several books focusing on the military. While teaching at LSU, Ambrose received a phone call from an admirer of his biography of Civil War general Henry Halleck. That admirer was former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who appointed Ambrose to edit his papers. This lifelong association was prodigious for Ambrose; he eventually published numerous books, including a multi-volume set of Eisenhower's papers, a two-volume biography of Eisenhower, and several books on Eisenhower's military career. Ambrose also wrote a television documentary for the BBC about Eisenhower.

After nearly twenty years of writing about Eisenhower, Ambrose turned to another American president, Richard M. Nixon. Ambrose was the first historian to produce a carefully researched scholarly biography of the controversial president. Ambrose's three-volume work follows Nixon from his humble beginnings to his fall from the presidency to the resuscitation of his reputation in the 1980s.

Ambrose's interest in the Lewis and Clark expedition dates back to 1975 when he started reading their journals. His readings sparked a trip in which Ambrose and his family followed the Lewis and Clark trail to the Pacific Ocean and which they commenced on the 172nd anniversary of the expedition's departure. By the early 1990s, Ambrose had decided to write a book about the expedition. Undaunted Courage (1996) was a critical and commercial success. Since its publication, Ambrose also published Lewis and Clark: Voyage of Discovery (1998) and served as chief consultant to historian Ken Burns' PBS series on Lewis and Clark.

In recent years, Ambrose has particularly focused on World War II and the lives of the American soldier. His Citizen Soldiers tells the story of the Allied D-Day invasion of France from the perspective of the GIs. He subsequently consulted on Stephen Spielberg's award-winning movie Saving Private Ryan. In 1998, Ambrose was one of nine winners of the National Medal for the Humanities.


Lewis' Early Life

The first five chapters of Undaunted Courage detail Lewis' life before undertaking the expedition. Lewis was born to a distinguished Virginia plantation family in 1774. As a boy, Lewis spent several years living in a Georgia frontier colony. After his return from Georgia at the age of thirteen, he was given several years of formal education so that he would be prepared to manage the estate he had inherited from his father. However, he only spent a few years on the Virginia plantation; instead, he volunteered for the Virginia militia in 1794. He spent the next six years in the military, and his service required him to travel throughout much of the American frontier. However, in 1801, President Jefferson—a longtime acquaintance of the Lewis family—asked Lewis to serve as his personal secretary and aid. Captain Lewis quickly gave up his military commission and moved to the president's residence in Washington.

Planning the Expedition

Jefferson had long been interested in sending an expedition to explore the west. When Jefferson learned that the British were planning to engage in the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest, he was galvanized into action. In 1802, Jefferson chose Lewis to command an expedition to the Pacific. Lewis had three main goals: find an all-water route to the Pacific Ocean; tell the Indians they had a new leader and bring them into the American trading network; and explore the northern tributaries of the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers, which would determine the northern extent of the boundary of the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson was also keenly interested in scientific inquiry.

In preparation for the journey, Lewis studied geography, botany, mineralogy, astronomy, and ethnology with leading American scientists. He also made decisions on what and how many supplies to bring, what presents to give the Indians, and how many men to employ in the company. He oversaw the construction of a boat that would take the company up the Mississippi River. Lewis also decided he needed a co-commander, and he chose Clark, whom he had met in the military. Although Clark's official rank was never promoted beyond that of lieutenant, which dismayed Lewis greatly, the two men shared command. While preparations were being made, the Louisiana Purchase was also completed, giving the United States ownership of much of the land over which the men would travel.

Up the Missouri

On August 31, 1803, Lewis set forth down the Ohio River. He met with Clark in Clarksville, Indian Territory, where they enlisted men in their Corps of Discovery. The party then sailed upriver to Wood River, where they set up winter camp. Clark oversaw the preparations for the trip while Lewis took charge of purchasing supplies in St. Louis.

On May 22, 1804, the Corps of Discovery, made up of almost fifty men, was finally on its way. It consisted of a large keelboat and two smaller boats. The boats traveled more than 640 miles upriver before encountering a single Indian. On August 2, a party of Oto arrived at the expedition's camp. Lewis told them about Jefferson, their new Great Father, and gave them gifts. On August 20, the expedition suffered its only fatality when Sgt. Charles Floyd died of a ruptured appendix. In September, the Corps met a large party of Sioux and visited the Sioux village.

In October, the group approached the Mandan villages in present-day North Dakota. The friendly Mandans were at the center of Northern Plains' trade. The men built Fort Mandan, where they spent the winter. They also met a French-Canadian trader, Charbonneau, and his wife, Sacagawea, who joined the Corps as translators. A small group of men sailed back down the Missouri to bring back information about the expedition thus far.

Westward Bound

On April 7, 1805, the expedition was ready to move west. Eight days later, the expedition passed the farthest point upstream on the Missouri known by Lewis to have been reached by white men. The men hunted buffalo and had their first grizzly bear sighting. In June, the party crossed the Missouri and discovered that two large rivers met. They had to decide which river was the Missouri. They chose the south fork and followed the river to the Great Falls. At this point, the men had to carry their canoes overland. They had reached the foot of the Rocky Mountains and wanted to meet the Shoshoni. After several days, the men came across a Shoshoni party. Their leader was Cameahwait, who was Sacagawea's brother. They traded for horses with the Shoshoni and hired an Indian guide, Old Toby, to take them across the mountains.

Once across the mountains, the men traveled down the Columbia toward the Pacific. They discovered that rapids and falls broke up the Columbia for almost a fifty-mile stretch. The men shot the rapids while the important supplies were carried by hand. They continued onward to the Pacific.

The party built Fort Clatsop as their winter camp. By this time, the party had very little goods left to trade. When the Clatsops would not sell them a canoe that they needed, Lewis told his men to steal it. In March 1806, the men turned eastward on their way home.

Heading Home

The men headed east up the Columbia, which was hard going. They decided to go overland instead and purchased horses from the Nez Percé. Lewis also hoped to persuade them to send some guides and diplomats with them back east. The Nez Percé, however, said it was too early to cross the mountains, but the Corps was determined to do so. They headed out but soon discovered it was impossible to keep to the trail, which was hidden under feet of snow. They realized the difficulty of their undertaking but luckily came across two young Indians crossing the mountains and quickly engaged them as guides. Thus they reached the other side of the Continental Divide safely.

Lewis and Clark parted company briefly in July. Lewis wanted to explore the northern river that had met the Missouri, the Maria. He hoped that it would extend far northward, giving the United States more land. He took a small party of men. After several days out, they got into a fight with some Blackfeet Indians and shot two. However, Lewis and his men escaped unharmed. They met up with Clark at the Point of Reunion in present-day North Dakota, and the entire party continued on to Fort Mandan. Then they headed down the Missouri. They met trading boats, which gave them the first news of the country they had heard since their departure. They arrived in St. Louis on September 22, 1806. Lewis immediately sat down to write a report to Jefferson telling him of their discoveries.

After the Expedition

Lewis went to Washington in January and after that on to Philadelphia. He made plans to publish his journals. Jefferson also appointed him the governor of the Louisiana Territory. Lewis, however, did little work, either on the journals or as the governor. He did not arrive in St. Louis until March 1808, at which point he was already experiencing bouts of depression and drinking heavily. In St. Louis, he attempted to set up a fur trade business with his friends and invested money in land speculation. He also spent money outfitting an expedition to return a Mandan chief to his homeland; however, the government decided not to reimburse him for these expenses. Lewis undertook a journey to Washington but died, apparently a suicide, on October 11, 1809.

Key Figures

Big White

Big White was a Mandan chief. He agreed to accompany the expedition on its return voyage and visit President Jefferson in Washington. He, his family, and a party of soldiers were attacked and repelled by a group of Arikaras on their return trip.


Cameahwait was a Shonshoni chief who aided the Lewis and Clark expedition. Cameahwait's people provided horses and Old Toby to guide the expedition through the Bitterroot Mountains. Cameahwait also turned out to be Sacagawea's brother.

Toussaint Charbonneau

Charbonneau was a French Canadian. At the time he met the Lewis and Clark company, he was living among the Hidatsas as an independent trader. Sacagawea was one of his wives. Lewis and Clark eagerly signed him on as an interpreter, thus gaining the service of Sacagawea. Lewis was disappointed with Charbonneau, however, calling him "a man of no particular merit."

Pierre Chouteau

Chouteau, along with his half-brother Auguste, co-founded St. Louis. They were among the merchants from whom Lewis purchased his expedition supplies. Chouteau accompanied the Osages on their trip to Washington in 1804. He later became a partner in the St. Louis Missouri River Fur Company. In 1809, he was given command of the group of men who returned Big White and his family to their home territory.

Captain William Clark

Clark was the co-commander of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Although his military appointment was only that of lieutenant, in the eyes of the entire group, he was a co-captain, in no way subservient to Lewis. Clark had first become acquainted with Lewis when both men served in the army.

Clark had served as a company commander and led a party of soldiers down the Mississippi River as far as Natchez, Louisiana. He was an accomplished woodsman, waterman, and terrestrial surveyor. He also was a strong commander and selected many of the men who made up the Corps of Discovery.

Along the trip, Clark functioned as the company's medical doctor, at times bartering his services to local American Indians. He also maintained a detailed journal, which provided much of the information that historians today know about the journey. On the return trip, he led the party of men who explored the Yellowstone River.

After returning from the expedition, Clark, although never awarded his captain status, received just compensation. President Jefferson appointed him the superintendent of Indian affairs for Louisiana. He married and settled in St. Louis. He also became a partner in the St. Louis Missouri River Fur Company. After Lewis' death, Clark undertook the task of getting the manuscript of the expedition ready for publication.

George Drouillard

Drouillard was the son of a French Canadian father and a Shawnee mother. He was a skilled frontiersman, hunter-trapper, and scout. He was knowledgeable in Indian ways and fluent in several Indian languages, including Indian sign language, in addition to English and French. An early recruit, Drouillard impressed Lewis from the start of the voyage. His hunting skills further made him a valued member of the party.

President Thomas Jefferson

Long before the Louisiana Purchase and before he even became president, Jefferson had wanted to send an expedition of explorers west of the Mississippi River. As the third president of the United States, Jefferson convinced Congress at the beginning of 1803 to fund such an expedition. He hoped that Lewis would discover an all-water route—a Northwest Passage—across the North American continent. Such a waterway, which did not exist, would make trading easier and facilitate Jefferson's desire to establish a fur trade empire for the United States. Jefferson also wanted Lewis to learn more about the land and its people and to make peace with the American Indians living in this territory in hopes of beginning the process of making them U.S. citizens. Also in 1803, Jefferson arranged for the Louisiana Purchase from France, which doubled the size of the United States.

Even aside from his actions regarding the expansion of the United States, Jefferson was a remarkable man. He was well educated, well read, a sparkling conversationalist, and a good judge of character. His contemporaries noted his intellectual curiosity and trusted his opinion. He also gave serious thought to and wrote about the important issues of his day, such as slavery.

Private Francis Labiche

In addition to performing his regular duties, Labiche served as a translator from French to English.

Captain Meriwether Lewis

Lewis organized and led the first journey across the North American continent. He was born in 1774 into a distinguished Virginia planter family that had a close acquaintance with the family of Thomas Jefferson. Lewis became an explorer at a young age when he and his family moved to a frontier colony in Georgia. Although he had little formal education, he became an avid naturalist.

Media Adaptations

  • A sound recording of Undaunted Courage, abridged by Harold Schmidt, was published by Simon & Schuster Audio in 1996.
  • A video recording of Undaunted Courage was produced by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns. Duncan wrote the recording and Burns directed it. Turner Home Entertainment, 1997; available from PBS Home Video.
  • Ambrose maintains a web page at (March 2001), with personal and professional information and links to sites with more media information on Ambrose.

In 1794, Lewis volunteered for the militia called out by President George Washington to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. He remained in the military for the next six years, traveling throughout the American frontier and becoming an even more accomplished woodsman. In his role as regimental paymaster, Lewis—promoted to a lieutenant—journeyed up and down the Ohio River.

In 1801, at the request of President Jefferson, Lewis left the military to become Jefferson's personal secretary. When Jefferson planned an expedition to the Pacific, he appointed Lewis as its commander. In preparation for this journey, Lewis studied botany, geography, cartography, mineralogy, ethnology, and astronomy. At the same time, he needed to outfit his expedition with men and supplies. He also decided to solicit his army acquaintance, Clark, as a co-commander.

Lewis was a good commander. His men respected him and trusted him. Under his lead, the expedition accomplished its important goals of charting western territory, asserting its authority over American Indians, and working to establish peace agreements between different Indian tribes.

The journey was the pinnacle of Lewis' career. After returning, Lewis became an instant celebrity. However, his professional life faltered. Although he was appointed the governor of the Louisiana Territory, he was utterly unsuited for a political career. Lewis also failed to work on his promised three-volume chronicle of the journey. In his personal life, Lewis was unsuccessful in a number of courtships. In the last few years of his life, Lewis, a manic-depressive, increasingly turned to alcohol. He died in 1806, an apparent suicide.

Manuel Lisa

Lisa was a trader and explorer. He was one of the merchants who provided supplies for the Lewis and Clark expedition. He later became a partner in the St. Louis Missouri River Fur Company. He accompanied the second expedition to return Big White and his family. After the party reached the Mandans, he took command of the company's men to explore the Yellowstone River and set the groundwork for the fur company's commercial operations.


Sacagawea was a fifteen-year-old Shoshoni who accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition. Captured by a Hidatsa raiding party as a child, she was one of two squaws, or wives, of the trader Toussaint Charbonneau. She was an integral member of the party because she was the only member who could speak the Shoshoni language. On the return trip, she guided Clark's party along the Bozeman Pass and up the Yellowstone River. The voyage led to personal discovery for Sacagawea; in addition, she was reunited with her brother, Cameahwait. Her son, who was a baby during the trip, and her daughter eventually became boarders in Clark's home and were tutored there.

Private John Shields

As a skilled blacksmith, Shields repaired Indian tools in exchange for corn. He also repaired the company's guns.

Old Toby

Old Toby was the Shoshoni who led the expedition through the Bitterroot Mountains.


Exploration and Expansion

The ideas of exploration and expansion form the core of Undaunted Courage—and the Lewis and Clark expedition. In 1790, the United States stretched only as far as the east bank of the Mississippi River. Though western lands were virtually unknown, they drew the interest of many Americans for several different reasons. At the opening of the nineteenth century, a pioneering spirit remained an integral part of the American character. Also, many people wanted to settle and farm their own land, but available lots were limited by increasing eastern populations. Further, a spirit of nationalism was growing, and many Americans came to believe that the United States should spread across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The Louisiana Purchase legally opened up vast quantities of land to American settlers, despite the fact that American Indians considered this western territory their own. As a result of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the journey of Zebulon Pike—who explored the upper Mississippi Valley—more Americans became interested in expanding settlements onto these lands. In this sense, Lewis was a true empire builder.

Ethnic Groups and Racism

Undaunted Courage provides important insight into the prevailing feeling of superiority that most nineteenth-century white Americans felt over non-whites. Despite these sentiments, politicians like Jefferson hoped to bring American Indians into mainstream society. Jefferson's reasoning was not completely altruistic, however. He knew that whites would push west into American Indian lands; his only options, as he saw them, were to "civilize" Indians or to remove them to reservations. Jefferson's American Indian policy relied on eventual Indian assimilation into white society. He believed that Indians could be transformed into responsible American citizens. They would renounce their lifestyle and instead become farmers or traders.

As Jefferson's advance Indian agent, Lewis supported these plans. He subjected each tribe to his speech about Jefferson, their new "Great White Father." He told the Indians that they must respect the power of the United States and work in its proposed commercial network. He ordered the Indians to make peace with other tribes and did not understand when they disobeyed. Throughout the trip, Lewis rarely regarded the Indians as individual people. For instance, he insisted on naming a primary chief, even when one did not actually exist.

Undaunted Courage also shows attitudes toward African Americans. Early in the book, Ambrose quotes from Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia:"The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of … the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other." Although Jefferson—a slaveholder—wished to see slavery abolished, he did not want this to happen in his lifetime because he believed his generation was not ready for such a major step. Lewis, also a slaveholder, did not believe that African Americans could ever become American citizens.

Topics for Further Study

  • Examine early artwork of the American West, such as the paintings by George Catlin. What impression do you get of American Indian tribes or of the geography of the American West? Write a reader's response to one or more of these pieces of artwork.
  • Lewis underwent a quick course of scientific study before setting out on the expedition. Conduct research to find out more about early nineteenth-century scientific knowledge and learning. How much help do you think this knowledge lent to Lewis on the expedition? Explain your answer.
  • Ambrose states that Lewis probably suffered from depression. Find out more about how depression manifests itself and then write your own analysis of whether Lewis seemed to have suffered from depression.
  • Read another account of the Lewis and Clark expedition and compare it to Undaunted Courage.
  • Compare the leadership qualities of Lewis and Clark. Which man do you think was a more effective leader? Why do you think as you do? Give examples from the book to support your answer.
  • Ambrose asserts that Lewis was "the greatest of all American explorers, and in the top rank of world explorers." Do you agree or disagree with Ambrose? Draw on prior knowledge of famous explorers or conduct research as necessary to support your answer.

Such racism is clearly demonstrated throughout the book, but nowhere as strongly as in the narrative of York, Clark's slave. York had undertaken the same dangers as every member of the Corps of Discovery. However, after the expedition, when York asked for his freedom as reward for his services, Clark refused this request. He further refused to allow York to move to Louisville, Kentucky, where his wife lived, and to hire himself out for Clark's profit. As Ambrose succinctly puts it, "York had … shown he was prepared to sacrifice his life to save Clark's, crossed the continent and returned with his childhood companion, only to be beaten because he was insolent and sulky and denied not only his freedom but his wife, and we may suppose, children."

Man and Nature

The members of the Corps of Discovery, moving into areas uninhabited by whites, relied to a large extent on their environment for survival. Lewis and his men had to depend on their own abilities. There was no book knowledge that could ensure their safe trip. They hunted for food and ate roots. They constructed boats out of natural resources. Time after time, the men were challenged by nature, from making the upstream battle against the Missouri or crossing the snowy Rocky Mountains, to dealing with the geographical fact that an all-water route leading to the Pacific Ocean did not exist.

Lewis, however, saw nature not only as a challenge but also as a sort of wonderland. He and his men, for example, saw grizzly bears and herds of buffalo. He discovered new plants. An avid naturalist, Lewis had taken a quick course from top scientists before starting on the expedition. He attempted to use this scientific knowledge in describing the plants and animals he observed throughout the journey.



Undaunted Courage is a work that can be placed in many categories. In its essence, it is the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition. However, it also is a biography of Lewis. Unlike most other writers, Ambrose delves into Lewis' early life and his post-expedition life. While the journey was the highlight of Lewis' life, Ambrose shows how Lewis' desire for adventure and the expedition itself affected him overall. Before setting out on the expedition, Lewis was prone to seek out new experiences. He joined the militia. He traveled the frontier as part of his army service. After the expedition had ended, life no longer offered Lewis the drama to which he had become accustomed. He discovered that he did not fit into the conventional, civilized world. He was unsuccessful as a governor, and despite concerted efforts, he was unable to find a wife. Lewis, prone to fits of melancholy and depression, lapsed into alcoholism and most likely committed suicide only a few years after returning from the expedition.

Undaunted Courage also is a sort of biography of American expansionism. To this end, Ambrose includes a history of the origins of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Jefferson's own interest in exploring the western part of North America dated all the way back to 1750 when his father was a member of a land company awarded frontier territory west of the Appalachian mountains. In the decade following the end of the Revolutionary War, Jefferson instigated three out of four plans to explore the West. The successful embarking of the Lewis and Clark expedition was the culmination of Jefferson's dreams, inspired in no small part by British expansionism in the Pacific Northwest.

First-Person Narrative

Ambrose introduces first-person narrative into his work by including numerous excerpts from Lewis' and Clark's journals and letters, thus allowing the leaders to make their unique presence and personality felt. Shorter quotes are woven into the narrative, making it more vivid. Longer quotes give a greater sense of what was important to the leaders and how they looked at their adventure. These primary sources provide a deeper comprehension of the leaders' personal response to the expedition. From a practical point of view, they also enable historians to map out actions and events. The crucial importance of such sources is underscored when Ambrose turns his pen to Lewis' last years. Lewis did not keep a journal, and significantly less information is known about what he did and why. There is even an eight-month period of his life that is essentially a "lost period" to historians.


Along with excerpts from journal entries and Ambrose's careful analysis of events, Undaunted Courage includes maps and other illustrations pertaining to the expedition and the American West. The maps are extremely helpful in following the progress of the journey and getting a sense of the distances and landscapes traveled. The other illustrations include journal pages, artwork, portraits, and artifacts, all of which provide readers a stronger sense of the historical period. Journal pages give an insight into the personality of the writer; for example, several entries show Lewis' sketches of some of the birds and fishes he saw around Fort Clatsop. The inclusion of artwork of American Indians, as well as the western environment, is particularly interesting because these images do not actually date as far back as the expedition. Artists were not present to render any of the scenes witnessed by Lewis and Clark. The first artist to capture images of American Indians was George Catlin, who did not begin traveling through the western lands until 1830.

Historical Context

The Revolutionary War

In 1774, the year that Lewis was born, the present-day United States was still only thirteen British colonies, but they were colonies that were dissatisfied with their lack of representation in the British Parliament. The Revolutionary War began with fighting at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, and the following year, the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, of which Thomas Jefferson was the primary author. The Revolutionary War ended in an American victory in 1783, and the United States of America was established.

The First U.S. Government

The first U.S. government was the Articles of Confederation. This was a relatively weak government, lacking even an executive branch, and in 1787, state delegates ratified the U.S. Constitution. George Washington was elected president of the new nation by a unanimous vote. He appointed Jefferson as his secretary of state, but Jefferson resigned that position in 1793.

Several challenges faced the new nation. Britain and France were at war, and the United States had a difficult time maintaining its neutrality. The United States also had problems with Spanish Florida and Louisiana. A 1795 treaty resolved border issues and ensured U.S. shipping along the Mississippi. At home, Washington faced conflict on the frontier. An Indian confederation launched an uprising in the Northwest Territory, which was put down by U.S. troops. Washington also sent more than 10,000 soldiers to western Pennsylvania to settle the Whiskey Rebellion, which arose after new taxes affected whiskey producers. Washington stepped down after two terms, and John Adams was elected president. During his administration, increasing divisions grew between the Federalist and the Democratic-Republican parties.

The Jefferson Years

Jefferson, an ardent Republican, was elected the nation's third president. He was the first president to be inaugurated in the new capital city of Washington. From his first months in office, Jefferson faced difficulties with his Federalist opponents. He refused to allow dozens of Federalist judges to take office. Adams had made these appointments on his last evening as president. William Marbury, one of the judges, demanded that the Supreme Court force the executive branch to hand over his commission, but Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Supreme Court did not have this power. His decision established the principle of judicial review—the Supreme Court has the right to declare an act of Congress to be unconstitutional.

The Louisiana Purchase

Spain had held Louisiana since 1762 until a secret treaty gave Louisiana to France. Spain was having difficulties defending the territory from American settlers. France's leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, dreamed of rebuilding France's North American empire. He hoped that by occupying Louisiana, the French would replace the Spanish as the key European power in western North America. However, a slave rebellion in the French colony of Saint Domingue—present-day Haiti—taxed France's resources, leaving few soldiers to defend the recently acquired Louisiana.

Jefferson was alarmed when he heard of the treaty between France and Spain because a French-occupied Spain could block westward U.S. expansion. Also, the French could interfere with U.S. trade along the Mississippi River. Jefferson sent U.S. ambassador Robert Livingstone to France to try to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans, which would ensure continued American use of the Mississippi. The French minister stunned Americans with France's willingness to sell all of Louisiana. Napoleon had several reasons for this action. First, about to go to war with Britain, France did not want to have to fight the United States as well. Additionally, the French had no troops in Louisiana because they all had been sent to Saint Domingue. Also, Louisiana would be hard to protect, and Napoleon was able to sell it for the money he needed to buy military supplies. Lastly, Napoleon hoped that by selling to the United States, he could create a challenge to Britain's power in North America.

The two sides signed a treaty on May 2, 1803, selling Louisiana to the United States in exchange for $15 million. The Senate approved the treaty with France on October 20, making the Louisiana Purchase official. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States. Although the boundaries of the territory were not clearly defined—for instance, the United States did not know how far northward the region extended—Americans did know it stretched west all the way to the Rocky Mountains.

Compare & Contrast

  • Early 1800s: In 1803, after the Louisiana Purchase, the area of the United States is 1,716,003 square miles, stretching across the North American continent to the Rocky Mountains.

    Today: The area of the United States is 3,717,796 square miles including Alaska and Hawaii.

  • Early 1800s: In 1805, the U.S. population is about 6.3 million, up 1 million from five years earlier. The western regions see enormous growth; for instance, the population of Louisiana grows from 77,000 in 1810 to 153,000 in 1820.

    Today: The U.S. population is over 270 million.

  • Early 1800s: In 1803, war breaks out between longtime enemies France and Great Britain.

    Today: Both France and Great Britain are members of the European Union (EU), an organization with the goal of creating economic and political ties among the countries of Europe. In 1999, the EU introduces the "euro" as its common currency.

  • Early 1800s: In 1803, vast quantities of the North American continent are completely unknown to Americans.

    Today: In the 1990s, the United States enters into a new phase of space exploration. The United States also sends an unmanned probe to Mars. In 1997, Pathfinder travels over the planet's surface, collecting information and sending back images. In 1999, the United States launches another spacecraft headed for Mars.

  • Early 1800s: Very little about maintaining health and preventing disease is known. Aspirin has yet to be discovered although when Lewis gives his men the bark of willow for toothaches, he is essentially giving them aspirin. Another example is Lewis' use of mercury as a cure for syphilis, which may have contributed to the early deaths.

    Today: Medicine continues to make progress. Biological researchers who use genetic engineering to alter genes hope that such research offers potential cures to human genetic disorders and some diseases.

  • Early 1800s: Agriculture is the mainstay of the U.S. economy.

    Today: In the late 1990s, high-tech industries have offered many new career paths. Some of the biggest growth is in the computer-related fields, which need computer engineers, computer support specialists, database administrators, and systems analysts.

  • Early 1800s: The only form of communication between people in distant locations is through the mail, which is slow and unreliable. Sending mail between the Atlantic Coast and the Mississippi River takes six weeks or longer.

    Today: People communicate using a number of methods. Almost all houses have telephones, and a growing number of households have personal computers equipped with email programs. By 1998, as many as sixty million Americans use the internet to obtain and share information.

Western Explorations

Aside from the Lewis and Clark expedition, there were other important western explorations. Zebulon Pike, a young army officer, was sent on a mission to find the starting point of the Red River, which runs through Louisiana along the border of northern Texas. This river was important because the United States claimed that the Red River formed the Louisiana Territory's western border with New Spain. Pike led his expedition to the Rocky Mountains in present-day Colorado, and then in 1807, he headed south into present-day New Mexico. He and his group traveled to the Rio Grande, which was part of New Spain, where they were arrested by the Spanish cavalry. Pike was eventually released, and when he returned to the United States, he reported on the excellent opportunities for doing business with the Spanish in the Southwest.

American Indians and the United States

Since colonists had first arrived in North America, these immigrants had pushed American Indians off their lands and further to the west. In 1794, the defeat of an Indian confederation in the Northwest Territory led to the signing of the Treaty of Greenville. This treaty gave the United States access to some Indian lands in the Northwest Territory and guaranteed safe travel for U.S. citizens crossing Indian lands in that region. Throughout the early 1800s, thousands of American settlers poured into this region, establishing farms and settlements. The British government, hoping to staunch this expansion, provided military aid to Indian nations in the Northwest Territory. Shawnee chief Tecumseh dreamed of uniting the American Indians of the Northwest Territory, the South, and the eastern Mississippi River valley in opposition to the settlers. William Henry Harrison—who later became president—was the governor of the Indiana Territory. He saw Tecumseh as a serious threat to American power. In 1811, Harrison forces attacked the Indian confederation. They forced the retreat of the Indian warriors, effectively ending Tecumseh's dream of an Indian confederation.

The War of 1812

Many Americans believed that the British had incited the Indians against the United States. Members of Congress began calling for war against Britain. Some of these representatives further believed that a successful war could enlarge the United States, adding Florida and Canada to the country. Federalists from New England posed the strongest opposition to these "War Hawks." President James Madison, however, declared that Britain—which had been impressing American sailors and violating U.S. neutrality—was already at war with the United States. In June of 1812, the War of 1812 began. With the victory that came in December 1814, the United States again redrew its boundaries.

America in the 1990s

In 1992, the Democrats regained the presidency for the first time in twelve years when Bill Clinton was elected for the first of two terms. In 1994, however, voters gave Republicans control of both the House and the Senate. The Clinton administration faced domestic and foreign challenges. Under Clinton, the country experienced a remarkable economic boom and balanced the federal budget for the first time in years. Problems arose, however, over racial violence and other hate crimes. The United States confronted global crises as regional conflict grew in Eastern Europe. Thousands of UN forces, including U.S. troops, played a successful role in peacekeeping missions throughout the world, in places such as Cambodia and El Salvador. UN forces went to famine-stricken Somalia and wartorn Bosnia and Herzegovina, with mixed results.

Critical Overview

Undaunted Courage, published in 1996, was the first in-depth book about the Lewis and Clark expedition. By the early 1990s, when Ambrose first began to consider the project, no new works had appeared in about twenty-five years, even though a great deal of new research had emerged, including a revised edition of the letters and journals of the expedition members. As the reviewer for Publishers Weekly pointed out, the "journals of the expedition, most written by Clark, are one of the treasures of American history." Ambrose decided to use this material to write an updated account of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Undaunted Courage, as numerous critics agreed, earned its lofty title. An immediate critical and commercial success, Ambrose's vivid retelling of this historic event captivated readers and reviewers alike. According to Dale L. Walker writing in Wild West, Ambrose provided a "meticulous reconstruction" of the journey of the Corps of Discovery. Gilbert Taylor of Booklist called Ambrose a "stimulating tour guide," one who "paces the mundane so well with the unusual that readers will be entranced."

While critics all greatly enjoyed Ambrose's effort, they were not in complete agreement as to how much Undaunted Courage contributed to the body of work on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Malcolm Jones Jr. of Newsweek called it an "absorbing new history," and Taylor praised the book for providing a "final glimpse at a pristine Eden before the crowd of trappers and settlers altered it forever." Publishers Weekly, on the other hand, maintained that Ambrose did not add "a great deal to existing accounts" of the expedition. Jones, however, pointed out that Ambrose "uses his skill with detail and atmosphere to dust off an icon and put him back on the trail west." Roger Miller, writing for BookPage Review, also commended the book for capturing the "flavor of life in the struggling nation, particularly on the frontier." From Ambrose, for example, the contemporary reader learns of the partisan politics of the Jeffersonian era.

Another important element of the book was the insight it provided into Lewis' early and post-expedition life, both often overlooked aspects. "Ironically, Hollywood—not to mention grade-school textbooks—tends to draw the curtain just when the story gets most interesting," wrote Jones. "They say nothing, for example, about Lewis's manic depression, his scandal-ridden political career or his eventual suicide at the age of 35." Lewis' relationships with other people were also deeply explored, such as his relationship with Jefferson, which Walker believed was "at the heart of Lewis' life." However, as Publishers Weekly pointed out, the friendship between Lewis and Clark also lies at the "center of this account."

Though the great respect that Ambrose holds for Lewis and his accomplishment is clear, Jones noted that Ambrose is a "remarkably balanced historian." He is "neither a revisionist nor an apologist." Ambrose also examines Lewis' attitude toward American Indians, which may seem problematic to the modern reader. Wrote Jones, "Ambrose weighs shortcomings against positive attributes and ultimately presents us with a convincing hero." David S. Dahl in The Region further heaped praise on Ambrose's style: He "lets the explorers tell their own story as [he] quotes liberally from Lewis and Clark's journals."

Ambrose wrote this book, in part hoping to inspire readers to explore the Lewis and Clark trail themselves. "The single thing I most wanted," he told Peter Carlin of People Weekly,"was to enlarge the circle of the those of us who sit around the campfire talking about Lewis and Clark." Ambrose's efforts have paid off. Officials at state and national parks along the route say that in 1996 tourism was up as much as 15 percent over the previous years. Miller perhaps best summed up the perception of Undaunted Courage: "At its conclusion the expedition seemed a grand undertaking. Nearly two hundred years later, thanks to Ambrose, it still does."


Rena Korb

Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she discusses the author's presentation of Lewis and his cross-continent expedition.

Contemporaries of Lewis and Clark were captivated by the cross-continent expedition, delighting in news of its successes and yearning to learn more about the adventure. Before the expedition's return, Lewis was able to send only one report to President Jefferson. Book publishers in Washington, New York, London, and Natchez, Louisiana, quickly readied this 1805 report concerning American Indian tribes, along with Clark's map. When the Corps of Discovery returned the following year, its members were celebrated wherever they went. Along the route to Washington, "in every town and village the residents insisted on some sort of dinner and ball to honor him [Lewis]." Upon the expedition's arrival in the nation's capital, one spectator observed, "Never did a similar event excite more joy."

Despite this enthusiasm, Lewis and his exploits eventually faded from the American imagination. He never prepared his journals for publication before his early death, and within decades, it seemed this one-time hero was in danger of being forgotten. In 1891, when respected historian Henry Adams completed his multi-volume study of the Jefferson administration, Lewis scarcely rated a mention. Then in 1904, Reuben Gold Thwaites published an eight-volume edition of the expedition's journals, renewing interest in the adventure. In the twentieth century, several different editions of journals and letters have been published, and with Undaunted Courage, Ambrose significantly added to the body of Lewis and Clark work. His lengthy exploration of the expedition relates the drama of the adventure and what it meant for the United States. More interestingly for some readers, however, is Ambrose's personal involvement with the figures that populate his book. Ambrose is a staunch fan of Lewis, writing in his introduction that his family's experiences following the Lewis and Clark trail have "brought us together so many times in so many places that we cannot measure or express what it has meant."

What Do I Read Next?

  • Ambrose's Crazy Horse and Custer (1996) chronicles the striking similarities between the Sioux leader, Crazy Horse, and the U.S. general, William Custer, who faced each other in a deadly battle in 1876.
  • Erika Funkhouser's Sureshot and Other Poems, published in 1992, includes her long poem, "Bird Woman," in which she tries to enter the experience of Sacagawea.
  • Trail: The Story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1989), written by Louis Charbonneau, is a fictionalized account of the journey.
  • The Expeditions of Zebulon Pike (1987), by Zebulon Pike, tells of another important western exploration that took place in the American Southwest about the same time as the Lewis and Clark expedition.
  • The Making of Sacagawea: A Euro-American Legend (1996), by Donna J. Kessler, charts the evolution of the legend of Sacagawea.

The subtitle of Undaunted Courage, "Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West," indicates the underpinning of the author's true interests; in a very real sense, the actual expedition takes a backseat to the determined personalities of Lewis and Jefferson. Ambrose's admiration for Lewis and his accomplishments fairly bursts off his well-documented pages. Ambrose credits Lewis with contributing greatly to American expansionism, reminding readers that "everyone who has ever paddled a canoe on the Missouri, or the Columbia, does so in the wake of the Lewis and Clark Expedition." He asserts that "the journals of Lewis and Clark provided the introduction to and serve as the model for all subsequent writing on the American West." Lewis was not only "a great company commander," he was also "the greatest of all American explorers, and in the top rank of world explorers." Further, Lewis was a budding scientist who did himself a grave disservice by not preparing his journal for publication as he did not receive credit for numerous scientific, geographical, zoological, and botanical discoveries. "Lewis had cheated himself out of a rank not far below Darwin as a naturalist," Ambrose concludes.

Before heaping such praise, however, Ambrose provides a multitude of evidence supporting his great respect for Lewis. Lewis was a seasoned, hearty outdoorsman. It was reported that as a boy Lewis hunted barefoot in the snow and saved his family from an Indian attack. Jefferson once explained why he chose Lewis to lead the expedition: the younger man possessed the "firmness of constitution & character, prudence, habits adapted to the woods, & a familiarity with the Indian manners & character, requisite for this undertaking." Another quality Lewis had in abundance was his ability to react quickly to danger. One incident that Ambrose relates in some detail is how he saved Private Windsor from tumbling down a ninety-foot precipice. Placing his trust in Lewis and following his commander's instructions, Windsor was able to pull himself to safety.

As a leader, Lewis was also remarkable. He insisted on sharing command with Clark. Even after the secretary of war withheld the latter's captaincy, Lewis wrote to Clark, "I think it will be the best to let none of our party or any other persons know anything about the grade." Indeed, the members of the Corps of Discovery never discovered the difference in their leaders' ranks. Both Lewis and Clark were equal captains, each with his strengths and particular responsibilities.

Though Lewis and Clark were firmly in command, they did pay attention to the will of their men. An important decision arose when the Missouri River split into two branches. The "whole of my party to a man … were fully peswaided that this river [the northern fork] was the Missouri," but Lewis and Clark believed they needed to follow the southern fork. Though the men declared that they were prepared to "cheerfully" follow their leaders, Lewis and Clark worked to devise a sort of compromise. One small party would be sent along the banks of the northern fork to better resolve the issue. This party confirmed Lewis and Clark's decision. At other times, Lewis allowed the men to play a more active role in decision-making. When a location to build the Pacific Coast winter camp needed to be selected, Lewis and Clark put the vote to the party, including York and Sacagawea. "This was the first vote ever held in the Pacific Northwest," writes Ambrose. "It was the first time in American history that a black slave had voted, the first time a woman had voted."

Although Ambrose admires Lewis, he does not attempt to cover up certain of Lewis' very real faults. For example, he was a "lousy politician," one whose few decisions were ruled by nepotism and a drive for personal wealth. Jefferson's appointment of him as the governor of the Louisiana Territory was a "frightful misjudgment." Lewis also demonstrated a grave lapse in judgment in the decision to split up the party on the return trip. Ambrose characterizes Lewis' side trip up the Marias with only a handful of men as "a big mistake from the start," one that risked the lives of the men and the safe return of the entire party—and the overall success of the expedition. Ambrose also points out that Lewis "had a short temper and too often acted upon it," for instance, beating Indians or talking about burning their villages.

Another quality Lewis had in abundance was his ability to react quickly to danger."

One telling event took place when the Corps readied to leave Fort Clatsop. They needed another canoe for the return journey but were unable to obtain one because the Indians' asking price was too high. Lewis decided that "we will take one of them [a canoe] in lue of the six Elk which they stole from us in the winter." However, the Clatsops had already paid for the stolen elk with food. Ambrose agrees with historian James Ronda's characterization of this incident as "a particularly sordid tale of deception and friendship betrayed … at worst criminal and at best a terrible lapse of judgment." In this instance, Lewis had compromised his "essential honesty." However, Ambrose also justifies, to some extent, Lewis' actions. In the case of the stolen canoe, Ambrose muses that "Lewis felt he had no choice. Perhaps he was right.… Giving a rifle to a native [as payment for the canoe] would have involved a violation of an absolute rule—just as stealing a canoe did. Lewis chose to steal." For further rationalization, Ambrose looks to Jefferson's writings for explanation of Lewis' overall treatment of and attitude toward Indians: "It would be a prodigy indeed who could grow up to be a slave master and keep his humanity."

Ambrose's personal admiration for Lewis does not cause him to overlook the unique talents of other members of the party. Readers learn, for instance, of Sacagawea's important contributions not only as an interpreter between the Corps and the Shoshoni but as a collector of wild edible roots. Private John Shields is singled out for his ingenious and valuable skill in repairing the party's guns. George Drouillard's skills with sign language among the Indians are noted.

Ambrose shows how William Clark particularly lent his special skills to the success of the expedition. Clark was a better land surveyor and waterman than Lewis and possessed mapmaking skills. Ambrose characterizes the map that Clark drew of the United States west of the Mississippi as a "masterpiece of the cartographer's art" and "an invaluable contribution to the world's knowledge." Ambrose acknowledges that it is Clark, not Lewis, who maintains the journals throughout much of the journey. Clark also achieves special status among the Nez Percé as a medicine man, from their point of view, able to cure seemingly devastating maladies, such as paralysis. Clark's medical practice was particularly crucial to the success of the mission because the Indians paid doctor fees in much-needed food.

Ambrose reserves more praise for another of his personal heroes, Thomas Jefferson. Ambrose glowingly likens life on the Virginia plantation after the American Revolution—the life that Jefferson led on Monticello—to life in ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy. "The political talk," he writes, "about the nature of man and the role of government, has not been surpassed at any time or any place since, and at its best the talk could stand to be compared to the level in ancient Athens." Jefferson was widely respected by his contemporaries. "Most guests found [him] to be the most delightful companion they ever met." The young Lewis had great luck in becoming Jefferson's personal secretary, which offered him the president's daily company. "No American has ever surpassed Jefferson, and fewer than a handful have ever equaled him, as friend, teacher, guide, model, leader, companion." While serving under the president, Lewis added a great deal to his much-lacking formal education. Lewis learned more about science, philosophy, literature, and history. Most importantly, he learned how to write more cohesively. Because of this improved skill, the journals he later wrote on the expedition "constitute a priceless gift to the American people, all thanks, apparently, to lessons learned from Mr. Jefferson."

In the last chapters, in case any reader missed it, Ambrose makes his opinion of Lewis clear: "If I was ever in a desperate situation—caught in a grass fire on the prairie, or sinking in a small boat in a big ocean, or the like—then I would want Meriwether Lewis for my leader," writes Ambrose glowingly. However, Ambrose allows Jefferson to have the final word. Jefferson writes of Lewis:

Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness & perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction, careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order & discipline, … honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as seen as if by ourselves, with all those qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body, for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprize to him.


Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Undaunted Courage, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Kelly Winters

Winters is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she commends Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage for the succinctness of the account, "its rich detail and often entertaining tone," and its "compassionate and insightful study of Lewis' strengths and weaknesses."

When an aunt gave Stephen Ambrose a complete set of the journals of the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Ambrose read them and was "entranced." The journals spurred him to begin twenty years of research, some of which involved books, and much of which involved retracing their journey-on foot, in a canoe, or on horses, with family and friends. Ambrose's personal experience of the land and the journey shines through Undaunted Courage, making it a "splendid retelling" of the original explorers' trek, according to a writer in Kirkus Reviews.

The book centers on the friendship between Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis, which was the catalyst for the trek; Lewis was Jefferson's secretary and spent two years living in the White House. After completing the Louisiana Purchase and thus doubling the size of the United States overnight, Jefferson chose Lewis to explore the new territory and search for a navigable water route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, which most people at the time believed existed. Lewis in turn chose William Clark to be co-commander of the expedition, and they set out on the trek in 1803, with a group of "good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried men, accustomed to the woods," including one black slave named York.

The trek would take twenty-eight months and would ultimately cover eight thousand miles.

Although, as a Publishers Weekly reviewer notes, the original journals kept by Lewis and Clark on the journey are one of the "treasures of American history," Ambrose presents a more succinct and at times more vivid account, and also sets the journey in the context of events of that time and subsequent years. However, the real appeal of the book lies in its rich detail and often entertaining tone: Ambrose describes the plagues of mosquitoes, so thick that the men had to cover themselves with buffalo grease to repel them; tells about the rancid meat and filthy water they ate and drank; discusses the dysentery, boils, and fevers they suffered from; and details their daily schedule and the positions men were assigned to, such as night watch, whiskey rationer, or hunter. Whiskey rationing was, according to Ambrose, critical to the success of the venture; he quotes Frederick the Great on the key role of alcohol in military strategy, and then sums up by noting, in his typical vivid and entertaining style, "In other words, don't run out of booze until there is no turning back."

In the Washington Post, Blaine Harden called the book "intelligently conceived and splendidly written," and praised Ambrose's "impressive insight" as a historian. He also commended the way Ambrose "neatly captures the primitiveness of Jefferson's era, a time when no means of transport moved faster than a galloping horse." As Ambrose notes, "No human being, no manufactured item, no bushel of wheat, no side of beef, no letter, no information, no idea, order, or instruction of any kind moved faster." In the age of the internet and jet travel, most people can't comprehend such painstaking slowness, or the roughness of the territory that had to be covered; Ambrose brings these all-encompassing limitations to life.

The expedition's contacts with Native Americans were often friendly, often filled with mutual cultural misunderstanding, and only once violent. Ambrose accurately depicts the attitudes toward Indians held by whites of the time; some whites considered them "noble savages" who were pure at heart and who could be civilized and made into full citizens (unlike black Americans, who were believed to be fit only to be slaves). In addition, the men subscribed to President Jefferson's Indian policy, which was that the goal of taking control of the Indians' land could be accomplished in two ways: by fighting with them, or by trading with them, civilizing them, and then getting title to their land. The second choice was the cheapest and easiest.

Ambrose notes that Jefferson and Lewis both subscribed to odd notions about the Mandan tribe, believing that they might be descendants of the Lost Tribe of Israel, but that more likely they were a wandering tribe of Welshmen. Because of these odd beliefs, Ambrose points out, Jefferson's instructions to Lewis on dealing with the Indians were "hopelessly naive and impossible to carry out," since Jefferson assumed that their European heritage would make the Indians eager to be civilized. They conceived of this civilizing process as a boon to the Indians, and never considered the possibility that the Indians might not want to become civilized and be citizens of a white-run country.

As Daniel L. Wick noted in the San Francisco Chronicle,"They were not especially skilled in dealing with the tribes that they encountered and managed to avoid major conflict through a combination of luck and Indian forbearance."

Ambrose notes that Jefferson and Lewis both subscribed to odd notions about the Mandan tribe, believing that they might be descendants of the Lost Tribe of Israel, but that more likely they were a wandering tribe of Welshmen."

Despite the fact that the expedition was ultimately dependent on the help of Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman who became their guide and interpreter, Lewis says little about her in his journals, perhaps because it hurt his pride to admit he was indebted to an Indian—and a woman, at that. For example, when she found a great quantity of wild edible roots, Lewis spent five hundred words describing them in his journal but never mentioned that she had found them; Ambrose notes that the only reason we now know that she discovered them was because Clark mentioned it in his own journal. When she fell ill in 1805, from what Ambrose conjectures was chronic pelvic inflammatory disease, Lewis was concerned for her safety mainly because the expedition was dependent on her to negotiate with the Snake Indians, who provided horses to the men on their portage from the Missouri to the Columbia River. Ambrose also provides a commentary on her role as interpreter, which involved a long chain of translation: Indians they encountered would speak to Sacagawea, who would translate their words to her husband, Charbonneau, a Canadian who spoke French. A French trader who had married into the Mandan tribe, Rene Jessaume, who spoke "bad French and worse English," then interpreted the words to Lewis and Clark. Ambrose humorously observes, "That might not have been so bad, except that Charbonneau and Jessaume argued about the meaning of every French word they used."

Ambrose also notes incredulously that, in keeping with their general disregard for Indians, it never occurred to Lewis and Clark to ask Sacagawea about her people and their customs; that they didn't ask her what the land was like on the other side of the Continental Divide, although she knew; and as far as is known, the only question they ever asked her about the Shoshone was how to say "white man" in the Shoshone language.

Despite these shortcomings in his attitudes about Indians, however, Lewis unknowingly conducted "pathbreaking ethnology," according to Ambrose, in providing the first written description of the ceremonial dress and customs of the tribes they encountered.

In addition to being a grand exploration, routefinding mission, and Indian reconnaissance, the expedition was also a scientific mission. Lewis spent much of his time gathering botanical specimens, taking notes, and tracking the expedition's location with a sextant and chronometer. Ambrose describes how one morning, between 7:06 and 8:57 A.M., Lewis took a measurement of the distance between the sun and the moon forty-eight times, and writes, "He faithfully recorded whatever he could whenever he could, leaving up to experts back east to work out the meaning of the figures."

According to Ambrose, Lewis discovered 179 new plants and 122 new species or subspecies of animals. He describes animals, such as the grizzly bear—which, even when shot ten times, could still swim across a river—the prairie dog, and a host of birds, including the gray jay, Stellar's jay, the black woodpecker, the blue grouse, the spruce grouse, and the Oregon ruffed grouse, among many others.

As Ambrose points out, Lewis's observations are all the more remarkable because he was unable to spell or write grammatically, yet he was incredibly precise. For example, in describing a least tern, he wrote, "The tail has 11 feathers the outer of which are an inch longer than those in the center gradually tapering inwards.… The largest or outer feather is 2 2/4 inches that of the shortest 1 3/4 inches." In all, he used a thousand equally detailed words to describe this single bird.

Sadly, because he delayed in publishing his journals, many of his discoveries were not attributed to him, but to others who traveled west after him and "discovered" plants and animals that had not been written about before.

He also saw amazing places, such as the Great Falls of the Missouri and the Pacific Ocean—about which he was strangely silent. As Ambrose points out, however, he didn't bother to keep records on the rocks and minerals he encountered, perhaps because there was no way to move heavy, bulky samples of minerals back to the East. Ambrose excels in pointing out these technological differences between Lewis's age and modern times, and the effect they had on the expedition and its aims.

He also excels in conveying the sheer thrill of exploration, noting that very few people in history have had the experience of "not knowing what they would see when they got to the top of the mountain or turned into the river or sailed around the tip of a continent." In Lewis's mapless world, the explorers had such thrills every day.

Lewis, as the main character in the book, is a man filled with contrasts. Although he couldn't spell or write grammatically, he took vibrantly detailed, meticulous notes. Although he was a fine leader of his small group, he collapsed when, after his return, he was given the larger post of governor of the Louisiana Territory by Jefferson. He drank, took opium and morphine, and became increasingly unstable. Ambrose believes he suffered from manic depression, but notes that the mood disorder didn't seem to trouble him during the expedition. However, after it, Lewis lost the ability to cope. After a scandal involving his finances, he went to Washington to try and explain his failure, but before he got there, tried to commit suicide. His first two attempts to shoot himself failed, and in desperation he hacked at his body with a razor, finally dying from these wounds.

Ambrose presents a compassionate and insightful study of Lewis' strengths and weaknesses, including his mood disorder and his post-trip depression, which was probably exacerbated by his failure to find the much-dreamed-of water route to the Pacific. He writes that if it is true that Lewis suffered from manic depression, his success is even more remarkable: "His special triumph is that [during the expedition] he seldom let his emotional state take over, and then only momentarily."

Ambrose tells his story with immediacy and verve; he is the kind of writer who can make a reader feel the hardships, the weather, the uncertainty of dealing with people whose language, customs, and motives are unknown, and the thrill of seeing something new and unheard-of every day. He accurately conveys the sense that, as Steve Raymond noted in the Seattle Times,"Lewis and Clark were the astronauts of their time, something more than astronauts, in fact, for they had no way to keep in touch with those who sent them forth." The same writer noted, "The story flows as compellingly as a crackling work of fiction—except the story is better than fiction."

Ambrose mourns the apparent loss of a large chunk of Lewis's detailed journals covering the period between September 17, 1804 and April 1805. No one knows for certain that Lewis took such daily notes, but as Ambrose comments, the entries that remain imply the presence of others, now missing; there is no indication that Lewis himself was aware of any gap in his coverage of the expedition. Ambrose makes the loss real, writing that the pain caused by the missing entries is intensified by the quality of what remains because in the entries that still exist, Lewis "walks you through his day and lets you see through his eyes; what he saw not American would ever see before and only a few would see in the future."

In this book, Ambrose does the same.


Kelly Winters, Critical Essay on Undaunted Courage, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Thomas Hallock

In the following review excerpt, Hallock asserts that "the focus upon one individual leaves Ambrose little textual room to explore the West."

In a small but telling coincidence, two very different books on the Lewis and Clark expedition begin in the same way, with the author revealing where he first read the Journals. Stephen Ambrose borrowed the Nicholas Biddle edition from his aunt in 1975, plowed through the set, and the rest is (shall we say) history: the following summer, Ambrose celebrated the Bicentennial with his family, friends, and 25 students at Lemhi Pass, where the Corps of Discovery crossed the Continental Divide; he has traced the country almost every year since that glorious Fourth of July; patriotism and a profound identification with Meriwether Lewis breathe through his biography of the explorer. Paying quieter homage, Albert Furtwangler recalls the pleasure of reading Bernard DeVoto's classic abridgement on a cross-country train home from college, and credits—in addition to the requisite camping trips along the company's trail—the education from elementary through graduate school that made the Journals accessible to him. Something about the subject of Lewis and Clark produces deeply personal scholarship. Both of these studies are thoroughly researched and well written; their poignancy, however, derives to a large part from the authors' candidly stated involvement in the material.

This personal stake presents some risks, of course. The expedition offers notoriously unstable ground for writers, and a close identification with Lewis and Clark leaves open the same narrative pitfalls that the original journalists met. The Corps of Discovery was (among other things) a state-ofthe-art gathering machine, its leaders fulfilled this aspect of their mission admirably, and collected more knowledge about the West than any one person could ever catalogue alone. The late Donald Jackson called Lewis and Clark "the writingest explorers ever," and the literature generated by the trek—not just the Journals and related documents, but countless articles, a shelf of monographs, even a quarterly publication—takes years to master. One writes in retrospect about the journey by necessity, because of the time needed to sift through the primary material and relevant scholarship. The question of time, moreover, points to a second problem: organization. How does one collate into a single, intelligible account the embarrassment of riches that the Corps of Discovery amassed?

The opening of the West offers many great and tragic stories; just figuring out how to assemble the many stories is one of them. From the beginning, the conventions of 18th-century travel literature suggested two narrative modes to Lewis and Clark, each with its own structuring basis. The first, a surveyor's log or itinerary, followed a largely chronological plan, noting the events of the day as they arose. Clark wrote this way, and his consistent—if not tedious—diary forms the bulk of the Journals. Lewis, on the other hand, thought on a much grander scale than his partner, and would supplement the daily record with the static form of a scientific or geographic essay. Although several discourses were at work, the more-schooled of the two Captains probably sought to fuse the voyage motif with a Western version of Jefferson's Notes on Virginia. A prospectus released in 1807 promised a four-volume, encyclopedic account of Louisiana: the first two installments would provide maps and a narrative of the journey, and the next two would catalogue the flora, fauna, and native inhabitants of the territory. A definitive, first-hand edition never materialized, however. For reasons partly related to this authorial burden, Lewis took his own life in 1809. Jefferson and Clark (a military man but no author) scrambled to make alternatives, but the resulting History of the Expedition of Captains Lewis and Clark included only the daily record, and contained almost no scientific or ethnographic data. As a result of this lapse in publishing the full journals, Lewis's fieldwork in botany and zoology passed unnoticed for almost a century, and his codices of Native American languages disappeared altogether. Negotiating this same, fundamentally narrative chasm—between a linear travelogue and the tableau of a natural history—has become the challenge to many later scholars who would write about the expedition.

Undaunted Courage occasionally sneaks past the problem by sticking close to its subject. All points of Stephen Ambrose's compass lead to the Louisiana Purchase. "From the west-facing window of the room in which Meriwether Lewis was born," the life begins, "one could look out at Rockfish Gap, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, an opening to the West that invited exploration." Fate appears to beckon the swaddled Virginian acrossthe continent, and the biography—which rarely tarries or disappoints—hurries toward this promised journey. After dispensing with a few thin chapters on the early life (appetizers for the main course), Ambrose shows how a combination of family ties, luck, and ability secured Lewis's commission to survey the territory. More thorough discussions of a two-year apprenticeship under Jefferson and tutorials with leading minds of the American Enlightenment demonstrate how preparation on the part of Jefferson and his protégé yielded success on the frontier; the book does not hit full stride, however, until the Corps of Discovery actually turns its fleet upriver. With a level of detail that practically places readers on board one of the company's pirogues, Ambrose follows the travellers' path to the headwaters of the Missouri and over the Rockies, he suffers with the unit through a soggy winter on the Pacific Coast, and he comments insightfully on the party's hurried return to St. Louis. Not surprisingly, the author of a definitive study on D-Day shrewdly appraises army matters—the troop's discipline and arsenal, key tactical decisions—to show how the Captains' military acumen ensured a remarkably peaceful passage through several hotly-disputed zones.

The sad fate of Meriwether Lewis and the central tragedy of this biography, however, is that his triumph as an officer brought personal catastrophe. The return from his "tour" reaped expected rewards plus some unexpected temptations. The latter proved fatal. In Washington, Lewis became the toast of the town, deepening his problem with alcohol. With the appointment to govern Louisiana came controversies and headaches—worsened by a habit of dashing off "chits," or expenses, to the federal government—that exacerbated his already unstable condition. The hero fell into a steady decline. The last and very gripping chapters of this biography trace how a series of mishaps, an illness recognized only today as depression, and chemical dependence culminated in Lewis's suicide. A shady death on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee brings the life full circle: from the western-facing room where he was born, to the territory that he explored, to his demise at age 36—having accomplished only a fraction of his initial promise.

Ambrose writes powerfully about Lewis because he can walk in the explorer's moccasins, yet this reluctance to step out of them occasionally leaves Undaunted Courage open to the same problems that defeated the explorer-author: namely, the journey produced more data than any individual could ever collate into a coherent account."

The cradle to early grave format of Undaunted Courage moves quickly, too quickly, for the focus upon one individual leaves Ambrose little textual room to explore the West that proved bigger than his subject. In one of the book's many novelistic flourishes, the biographer portrays the party on the eve of its departure, standing on the western bank of the Mississippi:

Let's go! one can almost hear the men of the Corps of Discovery crying to the Captains. Let's go, for God's sake. Lewis decided no, not yet.

It is difficult to determine who felt most impatient to embark at this point—the soldiers, Clark, Lewis, or Ambrose. The hurried pace certainly keeps the story moving. Paragraphs are short, some sentences just phrases: "Another day on the river. Making about eighteen miles per day. Endless. Exhausting." The division of chapters by dates and the page-turning prose raises problems, however, as Ambrose struggles to account for the full range of the expedition's responsibilities. Chains of short sections that compose a chapter often lack cohesion from one to the next; facing pages can range from observations on geography and medicine to comments on the food and natural history; footnotes attempt to catch loose ends but only recall a basic question: how does one catalogue so much material? The effort to keep the party on a steady pace upstream, while juggling incompatible narrative strands, sometimes makes the territory seem like an obstacle course, placed there by destiny for the company to master. The book rarely considers the world from outside the perspective of the Corps of Discovery. In particular, a series of questionable "firsts" west of the Mississippi (first election, first map, etc.) suggests that the historical calendar for one-half of the continent began at 1804. Ambrose writes powerfully about Lewis because he can walk in the explorer's moccasins, yet this reluctance to step out of them occasionally leaves Undaunted Courage open to the same problems that defeated the explorer-author: namely, the journey produced more data than any individual could ever collate into a coherent account.


Thomas Hallock, "Cataloguing Discovery," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 73, No. 1, Winter 1997, pp. 183-87.

Scott B. Eckberg

In the following review, Eckberg asserts that Ambrose "superbly conveys the essence" of Lewis and Clark and their famous expedition.

The 1803-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition was conceived by the young republic's most visionary president and conducted under scrupulous military organization and leadership. Launched into the unknown, its potential for marvelous discovery was tempered by an equally unsettling prospect of its unforeseeable demise. The palpable tension between these outcomes makes for a story more compellingly told in the eyewitness accounts of its participants.

Stephen E. Ambrose, author of a definitive history of D-Day, revisits this earlier military mission and superbly conveys the essence of the two men most responsible for its inception, its success, and its national repercussions. Ambrose fills a void on Meriwether Lewis unaddressed since Richard Dillon's 1965 biography, by drawing substantially on the subsequent work of expedition scholars Donald Jackson, Paul Russell Cutright, James P. Ronda, and notably Gary E. Moulton. The result is a masterful retelling of Thomas Jefferson's long-cherished vision of an exploration to the Pacific via the Missouri and Columbia rivers, and the officer uniquely qualified to advance its commercial, diplomatic, and scientific imperatives.

Ambrose reads well; the cadence of dipping oars, the desperate crossing of the Rocky Mountains, the patient if misguided Indian diplomacy resonate with immediacy and drama. The synergy between Jefferson and his young protege, and the nuances of Lewis's complex personality and command presence, are reinforced with every page. Lewis's intense preparation, his precise and prodigious description of flora and fauna new to western science, and his expedition's steady conduct unfurl like a well-coordinated battle plan. Dwight Eisenhower's biographer even correlates Ike's famous aphorism on that subject with that of Lewis's exploration: "plans are everything, but worthless when the shooting begins."

Ambrose's assessment of Lewis as a company commander is less satisfying. While possessing all requisites, Lewis's impetuosity and quirky moodiness were evidence of the manic-depressive disorder Ambrose persuasively argues Lewis suffered. These fleeting episodes were balanced by co-commander William Clark, an equal leader in the eyes of the enlisted volunteers of the Corps of Discovery, without whom Lewis and the exploration would not likely have fared as well. Similarly, Ambrose's characterization of Lewis the naturalist, whose inexplicable procrastination long delayed publication of his writings and thus "cheated himself out of a rank not far below Darwin as a naturalist" is extreme but excusable.

Ambrose's most useful contributions precede and follow the expedition narrative. He explores the violent, contradictory milieu of Virginia's tobacco aristocracy, whose addiction to slavery and land consumption were formative to Albemarle County planters Jefferson and Lewis. Tobacco exhausted the land; planters engaged in rife speculation to gain more. "Small wonder Jefferson was so obsessed with securing an empire for the United States." Likewise, Lewis's abortive post-expedition career as territorial governor of Louisiana was punctuated by expansive speculation in western lands and fur trade ventures. The able military explorer, who did more to open the West to settlement, did an about-face as political appointee by seeking its constraint in furtherance of Indian policy, while continuing to speculate. The tragic events leading to his suicide belie Meriwether Lewis's potential for continued, extraordinary service to his country.

Ambrose acknowledges the critical contribution of Gary E. Moulton, whose edited University of Nebraska edition of the journals of Lewis and Clark were integral to his own exploration of Meriwether Lewis. Having published the atlas and captains' journals, Moulton now incorporates the accounts of Sergeants John Ordway and Charles Floyd in a volume that sustains the reputation of its predecessors for outstanding scholarship and painstaking annotation.

Jefferson suggested to Lewis that "attendants" make verbatim copies of the captains' writings against loss of the originals. The captains modified this by ordering their sergeants to keep separate daily accounts. Before departing Fort Mandan in April 1805, Lewis wrote Jefferson that while all the men were now encouraged to keep journals, seven were so doing. Four enlisted men's journals (Ordway, Floyd, Sergeant Patrick Gass, and Private Joseph Whitehouse) are extant. Counting Floyd, Moulton posits Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor and privates Robert Frazer and Alexander Willard as the likely others. "One way or another a considerable part of the record appears to be lost, perhaps forever."

As senior sergeant, Ordway was in charge when the captains were away from the main body of the expedition. His account is the most complete, the sole member to never miss any of 863 days. Ordway exhibits interest and curiosity in the new country and its inhabitants but refrains from personal insights into its participants and commanders, an intriguing possibility from the vantage of the unit's "top sergeant." Discreet and professional, "like the captains he was writing a public document, not a private record of emotions." It appears for the first time together with the other records of the exploration.

Charles Floyd's August 20, 1804 death ended a record of the journey that is the poorer for his tragic loss. The only member to die en route, Floyd corroborated and contributed additional details beyond the captains' observations. Like Ordway, Floyd's terse, telegraphic style lends staccato urgency to his narrative. Leaders in their own right, these subcommanders of the Lewis and Clark expedition compel a realization that all shared equally in this grand adventure. Their surviving accounts give us an inclusive sense of making history with them.

Ambrose reads well; the cadence of dipping oars, the desperate crossing of the Rocky Mountains, the patient if misguided Indian diplomacy resonate with immediacy and drama. The synergy between Jefferson and his young protege, and the nuances of Lewis's complex personality and command presence, are reinforced with every page."


Scott B. Eckberg, Review of Undaunted Courage, in Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 16, No. 4, Winter 1996, pp. 672-74.


Carlin, Peter, "Outward Bound," in People Weekly, Vol. 46, No. 1, July 1, 1996, pp. 101-104.

Dahl, David S., Review in Region, December 1996, at (last accessed March, 2001).

Harden, Blaine, "Where the Wild Things Are," in Washington Post, February 11, 1996, p. X03.

Jones, Malcolm, Jr., Review in Newsweek, Vol. 127, No. 8, February 19, 1996, p. 70.

Miller, Roger, "Heading West with Meriwether Lewis," (1996).

"Plotting a Continent with Bravery and Optimism," in Christian Science Monitor, April 3, 1996, p. 15.

Pollack, Michael, "Lewis and Clark's Trip to Manifest Destiny," in New York Times November 23, 2000, p. G8.

Raymond, Steve, Review in Seattle Times, March 17, 1996, p. M2.

Review in Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1995.

Review in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 49, December 4, 1995, p. 46.

Taylor, Gilbert, Review in Booklist, Vol. 92, No. 9-10, January 1, 1996, p. 780.

Walker, Dale L., Review in Wild West, Vol. 4, No. 4, December 1996, p. 74.

Weaver, Gregory, "Corps of Courage," in Indianapolis Star, September 5, 2000, p. D01.

Wick, Daniel, "The Man Who Mapped the Louisiana Territory," in San Francisco Chronicle, February 25, 1996, p. 3.

Further Reading

Allen, John Logan, Lewis and Clark and the Image of the American Northwest, Dover Publications, 1991.

This reissue of the 1975 book Passage Through the Garden deals with Lewis and Clark and the concept of North American geography at the time of the expedition.

Appelman, Roy, Historic Places Associated with Their Transcontinental Exploration, National Park Service, 1975.

The first half of this book presents a historic overview of the expedition, and the second half talks about the sites along the trail as they exist today.

Dillon, Richard, Meriwether Lewis: A Biography, National Park Service, 1975.

This is an early biography of Lewis.

Duncan, Dayton, Lewis and Clark: An Illustrated History, Knopf, 1997.

This companion piece to the Ken Burns' documentary Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery includes contributions by Ambrose and other noted writers.

Jackson, Donald, Thomas Jefferson and the Stony Mountains: Exploring the West from Monticello, University of Illinois Press, 1981.

This book explores the expedition from Jefferson's perspective.

Jones, Landon Y., The Essential Lewis and Clark, Ecco Press, 2000.

This book is made up of excerpts from the 1904-1905 original journal publication of the Lewis and Clark journals.

Ronda, James P., Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

This book is considered the definitive work about the expedition's relations with native peoples.

Steffen, Jerome O., William Clark: Jeffersonian Man on the Frontier, University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.

This is a biography of Clark.

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