UNDAUNTED COURAGE: LEWIS & CLARK AND THE AMERICAN WEST
A Simon & Schuster Press Release
Stephen E. Ambrose, the best-selling author of D-Day and the distinguished biographer of Richard Nixon and Dwight D. Eisenhower, has now written the definitive account of the most momentous expedition in American history -- Lewis and Clark's pioneering journey across the North American continent from the Mississippi to the Pacific, carried out under the personal direction of President Thomas Jefferson.
In UNDAUNTED COURAGE: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (Simon & Schuster; February 15, 1996, $27.50 U.S.), Ambrose draws on new scholarship to create a compelling and original portrait of the expedition's leader, Captain Meriwether Lewis, who made extraordinary but underappreciated contributions to scientific knowledge. In fact, Ambrose argues, Lewis was not only an intrepid explorer, but a scientist who earned "a rank not far below Darwin as a naturalist," and who was deprived of scientific recognition because of a bizarre century-long delay in the publication of the scientific portions of his journals. Ambrose presents persuasive evidence that Lewis, a complex man who committed suicide only three years after achieving his historic triumph, suffered from alcoholism and manic-depressive illness. In addition, Ambrose offers a realistic and nuanced portrait of Sacagawea, the quietly heroic young Native American who was the only woman on the two-year trek, and who served as an interpreter for the expedition.
Above all, however, UNDAUNTED COURAGE is a grand, colorful narrative of heart-stopping adventure and wondrous discovery, in which Ambrose conveys a vivid sense of what western North America was like before its settlement by European-Americans, as seen through the eyes of the first white man to explore it. As Ambrose puts it, "Lewis was able, through his writing, to take us, two centuries later, to the unexplored Missouri River, Rocky Mountain, and Oregon wilderness country of 1804-6, to meet Indian tribes untouched by European influence, to paint their portraits in words that capture the economic, political, and social conditions of their lives, along with their vibrancy, savagery, beliefs, habits, manners, and customs in a way never since surpassed and seldom matched. The journals he wrote are among his greatest achievements and constitute a priceless gift to the American people. . . . "
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson desperately needed reliable information about the vast territory lying between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains, which would soon fall into American hands as the Louisiana Purchase. Even more urgently, he wanted to know whether there was a navigable water route from the Mississippi to the Pacific, which would make possible the realization of his great dream: a strong, democratic United States stretching from sea to sea. No one was better suited to lead the expedition that would answer these questions than Meriwether Lewis, a neighbor and family friend of Jefferson's. A Virginia planter, frontiersman, and army officer, Lewis had also served for two years as Jefferson's personal secretary, living in the White House as the President's intimate companion. Lewis augmented his practical knowledge as a woodsman with crash tutorials in botany, zoology, geology, geography, meteorology, astronomy, and ethnology, given to him personally by the leading scholars of the American Enlightenment in Philadelphia.
On August 31, 1803, Lewis set out from Pittsburgh, traveling down the Ohio River to Louisville, Kentucky, where he joined forces with William Clark, the man he had chosen without hesitation to be co-commander of the expedition. The complete mutual trust between Lewis and Clark, which Ambrose calls "one of the great friendships of all time, " was vital to the success of their enterprise. Together with a company of some thirty men, they voyaged down the Ohio, up the Mississippi to the rollicking frontier town of St. Louis, and then up the Missouri to an Indian settlement near what is now Bismarck, North Dakota, where they wintered. At last, as the spring of 1804 burst forth around them, they embarked on the most critical leg of their journey, venturing into what was then literally uncharted territory.
Ambrose writes of Lewis, "He was entering a heart of darkness. Deserts, mountains, great cataracts, warlike Indian tribes -- he could not imagine them, because no American had ever seen them. But, far from causing apprehension or depression, the prospect brought out his fullest talents. He knew that from now on, until he reached the Pacific and returned, he would be making history. He was exactly what Jefferson wanted him to be, optimistic, prudent, alert to all that was new about him, and able to describe the flora and fauna, the native inhabitants, and the skies above with scientific measurement. His health was excellent. His ambition was boundless. His determination was complete. He could not, would not, contemplate failure."
Ambrose continues, "Lewis had come to a point that he had longed for, worked for, dreamed of all his life. He was ready, intensely alive. Every nerve ending was sensitive to the slightest change, whether what the eye saw or the skin felt or the ears heard or the tongue tasted or the fingers touched. He had an endearing sense of wonder and awe at the marvels of nature that made him the nearly perfect man to be the first to describe the glories of the American West. He turned his face west. He would not turn it around until he reached the Pacific Ocean. He stepped forward, into paradise."
After making their way over the Rockies and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Coast, Lewis and Clark returned to St. Louis in the fall of 1806 as national heroes. The toast of Washington and Philadelphia, Lewis was appointed Governor of the Louisiana Territory by Jefferson. He traveled back to St. Louis to take up his new post, laying plans for the publication of his journals and for his business ventures in the lucrative fur trade. "But if he was a near-perfect army officer, " Ambrose writes, "Lewis was a lousy politician. " He quickly made powerful enemies and fell into debt. Disappointed in love, he drank heavily and used opium.
For all of his success, Lewis was also crushed to have discovered that there was no easy Northwest Passage, and to have failed Jefferson, the man he admired most in the world. Inexplicably, Lewis delayed publication of his journals, which would have earned him a fortune, by neglecting to hire an editor. After a bout of severe depression -- an illness that had dogged him earlier in life -- Lewis shot himself in October of 1809 near what is now Nashville, Tennessee. He was on his way to Washington, D.C., to defend himself against charges that he had misused public funds.
Stephen Ambrose has long had a major personal interest, as well as a historical one, in the story of Lewis and Clark. For more than twenty years, he and his family have journeyed during vacations along portions of the Lewis and Clark Trail, reading from the explorers' journals each night by the light of their campfires. Ambrose writes, "This book has been a labor of love. We have endured summer snowstorms terrible thunderstorms in canoes on the Missouri and Columbia rivers, soaking rains on the Lolo, and innumerable moments of exhilaration on the Lewis and Clark Trail. The Lewis and Clark experience has brought us together so many times in so many places that we cannot measure or express what it has meant to our marriage and our family."
Displaying Stephen E. Ambrose's superb skills as both a writer and a historian, UNDAUNTED COURAGE is a fresh, vital, and authoritative new telling of a magnificent and uniquely American story -- filled with marvelous characters, breathtaking settings, and riveting action -- that is central to our history.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Stephen E. Ambrose is the former Boyd Professor of History at the University of New Orleans. He is the author of seventeen books, including the national bestseller D-Day and multi-volume biographies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. He is also Director of the Eisenhower Center and President of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans. He lives in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.