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Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West

Book Review

September 1, 1996


David S. Dahl Regional Economist
Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West

By Stephen E. Ambrose
Simon and Schuster
496 pages

With Undaunted Courage on the best seller lists this summer and receiving rave reviews, another review might seem redundant. But this book is very relevant to "the region" because it is about the Ninth Federal Reserve District. Meriwether Lewis wound through district states as he sought an all-water route to the West Coast.

I began reading Undaunted Courage on a plane en route to Montana, and wish I had completed it before my trip. Ambrose tells the reader how to reach many of the sites Lewis and Clark visited, making the book an excellent travel guide, particularly for Montana. Lewis' description of the White Cliffs on the Missouri is one of the classics of American travel literature, according to Ambrose, and he describes how you can view them today.

Thomas Jefferson had a vision "of the United States as a nation stretching from sea to sea." But knowledge of the country between the Mississippi and Pacific Ocean was meager. When Jefferson became president in 1801, he believed "that the mammoth, the giant ground sloth, and other prehistoric creatures would be found along the upper Missouri; that a mountain of pure salt a mile long lay somewhere on the Great Plains; that volcanoes might still be erupting in the Badlands of the upper Missouri; that all the great rivers of the West—the Missouri, Columbia, Colorado, and Rio Grande—rose from a single 'height of land' and flowed off in their several directions to the seas of the hemisphere," according to Lewis and Clark scholar Donald Jackson, whose work is cited by Ambrose.

Late in the 18th century Jefferson was involved with several ill-fated attempts to confirm these beliefs. Then in 1802 Alexander Mackenzie, a Scottish fur trader, gave an account of his trip to the Pacific Coast across Canada that "galvanized Jefferson into manic activity," writes Ambrose. He concurrently was negotiating the Louisiana Purchase—that part of North America lying between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, including the Ninth District states of Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Jefferson chose Capt. Meriwether Lewis "to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as by it's course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregan, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce."

Most of Undaunted Courage is an excellent, chronological narrative of how Meriwether Lewis and his co-commander Capt. William Clark led their Corps of Discovery to fulfill this mission. Moreover, he lets the explorers tell their own story as Ambrose quotes liberally from Lewis and Clark's journals.

When the expedition shoved off from Fort Mandan in the spring of 1805, Lewis wrote: "Our vessels consisted of six small canoes, and two large perogues. This little fleet altho' not quite so rispectable as those of Columbus or Capt. Cook, were still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those deservedly famed adventurers ever beheld theirs; and I dare say with quite as much anxiety for their safety and preservation. we were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden."

It was "one of the great adventures, and one of the great explorations, of all time," says Ambrose, and much of it occurred in the Ninth District. Among their many feats was successfully shooting the Short Narrows on the Columbia River in heavy dugout canoes. "By the standards of today's canoeists, this was a Class V rapid, meaning it could not be run even in a modern canoe specially designed for whitewater," Ambrose points out.

During his presidency Jefferson sent out three other expeditions to explore the waterways of the Louisiana Purchase, particularly the Mississippi and its southern tributaries, but they were forced to turn back for a variety of reasons. "Their failure illustrates how lucky, how good, and how well led the Corps of Discovery had been," Ambrose writes. Although Lewis and Clark failed to discover the all-water route to the Pacific that Jefferson sought, they acquired considerable geographic and scientific information which stimulated interest in the West.

Finally, Undaunted Courage provides one bit of trivia for The Region's readers who are students of the history of central banking: Nicholas Biddle, president of the second Bank of the United States, according to Ambrose, "magnificently" edited the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition.