Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West, by Stephen E.Ambrose, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996, $27.50.
No disrespect to William Clark (a good man who needs a good biography of his own), but Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809),that Virginia tidewater gentleman and lifelong friend of Thomas Jefferson’s, was the brain and soul of the 1803-1806 Lewisand Clark Expedition across the continent. This is made clear in Stephen Ambrose’s brilliant new book, and the relationshipbetween Lewis and Jefferson, which is at the heart of Lewis’ life, has never been explored more deeply.
Ambrose makes a meticulous reconstruction of the 2,000-mile journey through Louisiana Purchase lands, basing this part ofthe story principally on Lewis’ voluminous journals, and all the joys and miseries of that greatest exploration in our history cometo life in the author’s measured prose. Here are the agonizingly slow months of travel on the rivers, the mountain portages, thestruggles against the furies of weather, insects and animals, and the tentative and potentially dangerous encounters with Indiantribes–a catalog of them, Assiniboine to Yakima–most of whom had had no previous encounter with white men. Ambroseremarks on the cost of the expedition–budgeted at $2,500, costing $39,000 (an early example of a familiar governmentalfeature, the cost overrun); the relationship between the co-leaders of the expedition; and the invaluable contributions made bythe Shoshoni guide Sacajawea.
But while the great exploration was central to his subject’s life, Ambrose is equally expert in re-creating Lewis’ early life andmilitary career, his work as Jefferson’s private secretary, and his postexpedition career as the troubled governor of UpperLouisiana Territory, headquartered in St. Louis. This last period is a sad chapter in a life of “courage undaunted” (Jefferson’sphrase), ending with Lewis’ suspicious death at the age of 35–by suicide (Ambrose’s belief) or possible murder–in theNatchez Trace of Tennessee.
Lewis has been lucky with his biographers. Richard Dillon’s 1969 Meriwether Lewis: A Biography is excellent; Ambrose’s1996 book is even better.
Dale L. Walker