Apart from Thomas Jefferson, names like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark probably mean little to non-Americans. If not for the words “Undaunted Courage” as the main title, I might have given the book a miss. Well, not quite, ‘cos I’m a fan of Stephen Ambrose, but it might have been at the bottom of my reading list.
This was a time when the Americans have just won their independence from the British, fought their Indian Wars, and where parts of America were unexplored. President Jefferson organises an expedition to explore North America and appoints his protege, Meriwether Lewis, as the commander. Lewis, already a skilled woodsman, had to learn new skills like mapping the land, medicine, and botany.
The book does a brilliant job in presenting facts with a flow reads like a well-researched historical novel, except that it’s history and a biography you’re reading, and not a work of fiction. There are insights to life in America in the 1800s, as well as ethnographic descriptions of Native Americans.
Stephen Ambrose just brings history alive. He’s the author of highly readable books about USA’s involvement in WWII, like “Band of Brothers”, “Citizen Soldiers” and “Pegasus Bridge”. Your not just reading history. You’re reading beautiful prose. Like this one, describing Meriwether Lewis on p. 20:
“Meriwether Lewis was born on the even of revolution into a world of conflict between Americans and the British government for control of the trans-Appalachian West in a colony whose western ambitions were limitless, a colony that was leading the surge of Americans over the mountains, and in a country that was a nursery of explorers.”
Education was not something that people readily valued in the 1800s. The correspondences from Meriwether, Clark and Jefferson are filled with inconsistencies in spelling. Books were treasure, and personal libraries were heirlooms. P. 25 (about Meriwether Lewis’ mother): “She had a small library, which she treasured. She valued it so much that she was careful to leave directions in her will for its equal division among her surviving children.”
P. 139: “The captains expected to be gone two years, perhaps more… This was an independent command, such as the U.S. Army had not previously seen and never would again. Lewis and Clark were as free as Columbus, Magellan, or Cook to make their mark on the sole basis of their own judgments and abilities.”
P. 170: The expedition almost comes to a premature end, when there was a confrontation with the Sioux Indians.
Their dealings with Native American Indians may seem strange, almost absurd, by today’s standards — making grand speeches (and not quite knowing if the Indians understood through translations), offering gifts of beads, uniforms and medals, demonstration of technologies like guns. But when you think about how little understanding and exposure the people had back then, it’s not so strange really.
P. 180: “The soldiers, meanwhile, enjoyed the favors of the Arikara women, often encouraged to do so by the husbands, who believed that they would catch some of the power of the white men from such intercourse, transmitted to them through their wives… …Whether the Indians got white or black power from the intercourse cannot be said, but what they had gotten for sure from their hospitality to previous white traders was venereal disease…”
It was a time when game was plentiful and the land unspoilt. P. 190: “Using rifles, Lewis and his men killed eleven buffalo that day… The next day, the Americans killed nine more buffalo. They ate only the tongues; the wolves got the rest.”
Glimpse into Lewis’ introspective nature. P. 280, where Lewis wrote: “This day I completed my thirty first year… I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the hapiness [sic] of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended.”
Ambrose does not gloss over the shortcomings of Lewis. For instance, on P. 358, Ambrose explains Lewis’ actions against the Native Americans as not from racism but from “blind prejudice” based on “false but fully believed stereotypes”. Yet he goes on to write about Lewis’ duplicity in his attitudes towards the black slaves: “With regards to blacks, he made no distinctions between them, made no study of them, had no thought that they could be of benefit to America in any capacity other than slave labor.”
P. 363: “After the conference, the captains held a magic show, displaying the latest in European and American technology, including a magnet, a spy glass, a compass, a watch, and “sundry other articles equally novel and incomprehensible to them.”“
P. 378: “What a many-faceted man was Lewis. On the day he put the final touches to the plan for separate explorations, informed the men of what he and Clark intended, he picked the volunteers to accompany him, and wrote that long letter to Heney, he also found time to do a bird count and write a five-hundred-word essay on the prairie dog.”
The expedition receives help from Native Americans; P. 380: “The Nez Perce had seen the white soldiers hungry and fed them; seen them cold and provided fuel… seen them confused and provided good advice; seen them make fools of themselves trying to cross mountains ten feet deep in snow an not snickered… They had ridden together, eaten together… Although they could communicate only with the sign language, they had an abundance of shared experiences that drew them together. They had managed to cross communication and cultural barriers to become genuine friends.”
P. 385, Lewis wrote: “The musquetoes [sic] continue to infest us in such manner that we can scarcely exist… … my dog even howls with the torture he experiences…”
The expedition was harassed. P. 391, where one of the men kills an Indian, who was stealing their rifles. This was probably the only instance where the expedition actually killed an Indian.
P. 403. The expedition returns home, “twenty-eight months and eight thousand mile ago“.
P. 416. The captains auction off the items that survived their voyage (which Ambrose called it “a dreadful disgrace” as the items should have been preserved as public treasures). Lewis prepares to publish his journals. Finds himself caught in some controversy over publication rights.
Lewis becomes a victim of early success and fame. P. 436: “Lewis was leading a very heady life. At thirty-three, he was the most celebrated man in Philadelphia… … It was, perhaps, too much success too early in life. There were, perhaps, too many balls with too many toasts.”
William Clark marries and be and his wife, Julia Clark, names their baby “Meriwether Lewis Clark” (p. 460).
Lewis tried to kill himself at least twice (p. 471). Lewis attempts suicide again and dies (p. 474 – 475).
P. 483: “But if he was a near-perfect army officer, Lewis was a lousy politician. He was entirely unsuited to the job.”