Book Breakdown: “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen E. Ambrose

The names “Lewis and Clark” are synonymous with the history of the United States and, in particular, the history of the American West. Although most Americans grow up aware of this famous duo, it’s still difficult to truly understand the scope and significance of their journey.

Many books about the expedition and biographies of Lewis and Clark have been written over the years, but the gritty details of their improbable expedition – as told through the voyagers’ journals – had never been so artfully organized and weaved into the context of the historical moment until Stephen E. Ambrose published “Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American” in 1996.

Ambrose focuses the book around the central roles Meriwether Lewis and Thomas Jefferson played in the expedition. As we begin to understand the two men’s lives in more detail, we get a greater understanding of how they came to be such integral figures to the expansion of the United States across North America.

The Louisiana Purchase by the United States in 1803 was the primary catalyst for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. With around 828,000 square miles of newly acquired land west of the Mississippi River, the young nation needed to fully understand what was beyond its former borders. Over the two decades prior to the Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson had invested considerable time and political capital in finding a river route to the Pacific Ocean. He commissioned the U.S. Army’s Corps of Discovery in 1803 and placed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in command with a clear mission: “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by [its] course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean … may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce.”

The expedition departed from St. Louis on May 14, 1804 and eventually reached the mouth of the Columbia River on November 7, 1805 before boarding their canoes on March 23, 1806 to return home. Though they were technically 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean at their western most point on the Columbia estuary, they had accomplished their mission in a year and a half. 

The sheer scale and difficulty of the journey that lay ahead – an expedition into an unknown world without the benefit of motorized travel – boggles the mind. They faced almost insurmountable odds: weather, wildlife, unforgiving landscapes and waterways, sickness, and starvation. Throughout their journey they would encounter both hostile and friendly Native Americans, including a young Shoshone woman, Sacagawea, who would assist the expedition through some of their darkest hours.

The most incredible parts of “Undaunted Courage” depict an adventure almost beyond imagination, and adventure through an untamed and sublimely beautiful American West. In many cases, the expedition’s accounts described Indigenous tribes, wildlife species, and landscapes that had never before been revealed to science. While the discovery of many of these tribes and species would unfortunately often lead to their destruction as the U.S. expanded into its new territory, the Lewis and Clark journals are an invaluable chronicle of North America’s natural and human histories.

It is impossible to read “Undaunted Courage” without feeling a deep sense of nostalgia for a wilder America. The book leaves the reader with a profound wanderlust to visit the iconic places the expedition traveled through. While so much has obviously changed in the two centuries since the expedition, it is inspiring to know we can still visit these places to retrace the route of the Lewis and Clark to better understand our history, our people, and the vast landscape that still shapes our nation’s character.

“Undaunted Courage” should be required reading for every American who cares about this country’s history, its diverse peoples, and its vast lands that still hold wildness and adventure for those willing to seek it out.