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Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas…

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of… (1996)

by Stephen E. Ambrose

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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5,356581,206 (4.09)121

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Showing 1-5 of 56 (next | show all)
Changed the way I thought about writing history--and a hell of a story. One of those books that, the day you finish it, you'll bother everyone you know about reading it. ( )
  Stubb | Aug 28, 2018 |
This book really focuses on Lewis. It does place him on a broad tapestry. I learned, for example, that Aaron Burr wanted to turn trans-Appalachia into a separate country. There was quite a bit of discussion of the Federalists vs the Republicans. My US history is pretty shaky so it was very nice to learn a lot of this. Still, the focus stays centered on Lewis.

I am planning a bike ride that will go through the Bitterroot Valley in Montana. The geography is pretty complicated up there. I can't say that this book helped me get it straightened out... The Bitterroot Mountains are on the west side of the continental divide. The book doesn't make any mistakes about that, but doesn't get it crisp and clear either. It sort of marches right through the complexity. But that got me staring at various maps and scratching my head. It's complex terrain up there!

It's a great fun read, a delightful way to learn some history. ( )
1 vote kukulaj | Feb 10, 2018 |
I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen Ambrose recently. There is, of course, something of a controversy over Ambrose’s plagiarism, which he didn’t quite deny and didn’t quite admit.

Undaunted Courage is a biography of Meriwether Lewis, with the Lewis and Clark Expedition as the centerpiece and occupying perhaps 2/3 of the text. Lewis was a Virginia planter who joined the military and eventually became secretary to fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, leading Jefferson to pick him to lead the expedition to the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. Lewis put a lot of effort into preparation, learning what he could of botany, zoology, cartography and zoology before setting off. He selected William Clark as co-leader; Ambrose notes that Clark was supposed to be promoted to captain, the same rank as Lewis, but the War Department never got around to commissioning him and he remained a lieutenant (although he received back pay as if he had been a captain). There never seems to have been any conflict between the two despite the apparently divided command.

Ambrose notes the purpose of the expedition was a little different from what I had learned in high school American history. Jefferson was under the impression that the Rockies were similar in height and ruggedness to the Appalachians, and expected there would be a relatively short portage between the headwaters of the Missouri and the Columbia; he also thought that the Missouri might swing across the 49th parallel and give the US a claim on part of Canada (which wasn’t called Canada yet; at least not out there). Thus a major part of Lewis and Clark’s mission was to thwart British/Canadian/Northwest Company influence in the area by persuading Indians to trade with Americans rather than the NWC. This was sometimes problematic; for example when negotiating with the Nez Perce, Lewis explained his purpose to trapper Toussaint Charbonneau in French. Charbonneau relayed this to his wife Sacajawea in Hidatsa, which she had picked up when captive. Sacajawea then talked to one of the Nez Perce who knew Shoshone, who then explained to the rest of his tribe in Salish. One expects that it came out a little distorted at the end.

Sacajawea gets quite a bit of acknowledgement, and it isn’t all political correctness; for a 16-year-old who was one of two wives of a disreputable voyageur she did remarkably well; one wonders what she thought about the whole thing. A lot of the expedition’s experience with the Indians didn’t come across in American History class either; Lewis and Clark and their men would have starved to death without the generosity of the natives (as it was, they ate a lot of roast dog). Incidentally, Indian hospitality also resulted in the entire party – with the possible exception of Lewis and Clark themselves – coming down with syphilis.

There is no denying that Lewis accomplished a lot; he discovered, described and named numerous animals and plants previously unknown (including, for example, prairie dogs; he sent one back to Jefferson and it made it to Monticello alive). He kept his troops in reasonably good morale and when presented with route finding problems almost always made the right choice; Ambrose argues that his only bad decision on the entire expedition was to split the party to explore the Marais River in northern Montana, where he got in a gun battle with a hunting party of Blackfoot Indians.

But all was not cloudless glory when he got back. Ambrose finds symptoms of depression or bipolar disorder through Lewis’ entire life. None of this really came out on the expedition itself, except for a puzzling gap in Lewis’ journals where he didn’t record anything for weeks. Ambrose notes there’s no hint of anything amiss for the dates on either side of the gap and expresses the hope that the missing pages remain to be found somewhere. However, after his return Lewis seemingly fell apart. Jefferson appointed him Governor of Louisiana (which took in the entire area; his headquarters were at St. Louis.

Lewis began to behave self-destructively, taking to drink and laudanum, and getting into debt. His attitude toward his journals was especially puzzling – he arranged (and paid for) engravers to illustrate, astronomers to reduce observations, botanists to go over the plant descriptions, but somehow, despite repeated requests by Jefferson and other interested parties and their value for settling his accounts, he never submitted them to a publisher. On the way to Washington to explain some of his financial dealings to the War Department he attempted suicide twice, and finally did succeed in an isolated cabin in Tennessee. Although maybe not; there are persistent theories that it was murder instead. His journals finally did get published but only in an abridged form; full publication didn’t come for many years (meaning Lewis didn’t get credit for a lot of his zoological and botanical discoveries).

Well written, as usual for Ambrose – even if some came from somebody else. Excellent maps; contemporary engravings; well referenced. It’s been commented that the book reads like a novel; I didn’t see that but obviously Ambrose did have to speculate about motives and actions for parts the expedition that weren’t covered by the journals. ( )
1 vote setnahkt | Jan 1, 2018 |
A Book Club Selection.

Must. Wear. Reading glasses.

The Kindle version came out three days after my library hold showed up, which is a good thing.

You cannot cheat on this one--no Cliffs, Sparks, or Shmoops that I could find.

I know I'll be glad for all the background information and there have been some good tidbits, however.....it has been a slog through the early regions of the book.

(Updated: The one book club member who finished it liked it real well. She's an Oregon Trail buff and it wasn't even her selection....) ( )
  kbosso | May 2, 2017 |
My favorite American History book.
  resuttor76 | Apr 20, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 56 (next | show all)
- conveyed with passionate enthusiasm by Mr. Ambrose and sprinkled liberally with some of the most famous and vivid passages from the travelers' journals.

» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ambrose, Stephen E.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Whitener, BarrettReadersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness & perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from it's [sic] direction, careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order & discipline, intimate with the Indian character, customs & principles, habituated to the hunting life, guarded by exact observation of the vegetables & animals of his own country, against losing tine in the description of objects already possessed, honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves, with all these qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body, for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him."

—Thomas Jefferson

on Meriwether Lewis
For Bob Tubbs
First words
From the west-facing window of the room in which Meriwether Lewis was born on August 8, 1774, one could look out at Rockfish Gap, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, an opening to the West that invited exploration.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
ISBNs 0671574434 and 0743508084: abridged audiobook read by Cotter Smith. Do not combine the abridged audiobook with the book since they are not the same work.
Audiobook - Unknown if part 1, part 2, or the entire book combined.
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Haiku summary
Found no direct water way
But ate dog courageously
Jefferson ate none

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0684826976, Paperback)

A biography of Meriwether Lewis that relies heavily on the journals of both Lewis and Clark, this book is also backed up by the author's personal travels along Lewis and Clark's route to the Pacific. Ambrose is not content to simply chronicle the events of the "Corps of Discovery" as the explorers called their ventures. He often pauses to assess the military leadership of Lewis and Clark, how they negotiated with various native peoples and what they reported to Jefferson. Though the expedition failed to find Jefferson's hoped for water route to the Pacific, it fired interest among fur traders and other Americans, changing the face of the West forever.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:21 -0400)

(see all 8 descriptions)

Chronicles the experiences of Meriwether Lewis, the man chosen by President Jefferson to lead a voyage from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, discusses the experiences of those who took part in the expedition, and tells of the leading political, scientific, and military figures involved in the mapping of the American West.… (more)

» see all 10 descriptions

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