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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 Lewis and Clark Expedition across the continent. This is made clear in Stephen Ambrose’s brilliant new book, and the relationship between 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 of the story principally on Lewis’ voluminous journals, and all the joys and miseries of that greatest exploration in our history come to life in the author’s measured prose. Here are the agonizingly slow months of travel on the rivers, the mountain portages, the struggles against the furies of weather, insects and animals, and the tentative and potentially dangerous encounters with Indian tribes–a catalog of them, Assiniboine to Yakima–most of whom had had no previous encounter with white men. Ambrose remarks on the cost of the expedition–budgeted at $2,500, costing $39,000 (an early example of a familiar governmental feature, the cost overrun); the relationship between the co-leaders of the expedition; and the invaluable contributions made by the 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 and military career, his work as Jefferson’s private secretary, and his post expedition career as the troubled governor of Upper Louisiana Territory, headquartered in St. Louis. This last period is a sad chapter in a life of “courage undaunted” (Jefferson’s phrase), ending with Lewis’ suspicious death at the age of 35–by suicide (Ambrose’s belief) or possible murder–in the Natchez Trace of Tennessee.

Lewis has been lucky with his biographers. Richard Dillon’s 1969 Meriwether Lewis: A Biography is excellent; Ambrose’s 1996 book is even better.

Dale L. Walker