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

Format: Hardcover
Pub. Date: 1996-02-15
Publisher(s): Simon & Schuster
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From the bestselling author of the definitive book on D-Day comes the definitive book on the most momentous expedition in American history and one of the great adventure stories of all time.In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson selected his personal secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to lead a voyage up the Missouri River to the Rockies, over the mountains, down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, and back. Lewis was the perfect choice. He endured incredible hardships and saw incredible sights, including vast herds of buffalo and Indian tribes that had had no previous contact with white men. He and his partner, Captain William Clark, made the first map of the trans-Mississippi West, provided invaluable scientific data on the flora and fauna of the Louisiana Purchase territory, and established the American claim to Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Ambrose has pieced together previously unknown information about weather, terrain, and medical knowledge at the time to provide a colorful and realistic backdrop for the expedition. Lewis saw the North American continent before any other white man; Ambrose describes in detail native peoples, weather, landscape, science, everything the expedition encountered along the way, through Lewis's eyes.Lewis is supported by a rich variety of colorful characters, first of all Jefferson himself, whose interest in exploring and acquiring the American West went back thirty years. Next comes Clark, a rugged frontiersman whose love for Lewis matched Jefferson's. There are numerous Indian chiefs, and Sacagawea, the Indian girl who accompanied the expedition, along with the French-Indian hunter Drouillard, the great naturalists of Philadelphia, the French and Spanish fur traders of St. Louis, John Quincy Adams, and many more leading political, scientific, and military figures of the turn of the century.This is a book about a hero. This is a book about national unity. But it is also a tragedy. When Lewis returned to Washington in the fall of 1806, he was a national hero. But for Lewis, the expedition was a failure. Jefferson had hoped to find an all-water route to the Pacific with a short hop over the Rockies-Lewis discovered there was no such passage. Jefferson hoped the Louisiana Purchase would provide endless land to support farming-but Lewis discovered that the Great Plains were too dry. Jefferson hoped there was a river flowing from Canada into the Missouri-but Lewis reported there was no such river, and thus no U.S. claim to the Canadian prairie. Lewis discovered the Plains Indians were hostile and would block settlement and trade up the Missouri. Lewis took to drink, engaged in land speculation, piled up debts he could not pay, made jealous political enemies, and suffered severe depression.High adventure, high politics, suspense, drama, and diplomacy combine with high romance and personal tragedy to make this outstanding work of scholarship as readable as a novel.

Author Biography

Stephen E. Ambrose is the author of numerous books, including the New York Times bestseller D-Day and multi-volume biographies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. He is founder of the Eisenhower Center and President of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans. He lives in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and Helena, Montana.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 13
Acknowledgmentsp. 17
Youth 1774-1792p. 19
Planter 1792-1794p. 30
Soldier 1794-1800p. 38
Thomas Jefferson's America 1801p. 51
The President's Secretary 1801-1802p. 59
The Origins of the Expedition 1750-1802p. 68
Preparing for the Expedition: January-June 1803p. 80
Washington to Pittsburgh: June-August 1803p. 93
Down the Ohio: September-November 1803p. 108
Up the Mississippi to Winter Camp: November 1803-March 1804p. 121
Ready to Depart: April-May 21, 1804p. 133
Up the Missouri: May-July 1804p. 140
Entering Indian Country: August 1804p. 152
Encounter with the Sioux: September 1804p. 165
To the Mandans: Fall 1804p. 176
Winter at Fort Mandan: December 21, 1804-March 21, 1805p. 191
Report from Fort Mandan: March 22-April 6, 1805p. 202
From Fort Mandan to Marias River: April 7-June 2, 1805p. 211
From Marias River to the Great Falls: June 3-June 20, 1805p. 230
The Great Portage: June 16-July 14, 1805p. 241
Looking for the Shoshones: July 15-August 12, 1805p. 251
Over the Continental Divide: August 13-August 31, 1805p. 268
Over the Bitterroots: September 1-October 6, 1805p. 284
Down the Columbia: October 8-December 7, 1805p. 297
Fort Clatsop: December 8, 1805-March 23, 1806p. 313
Jefferson and the West: 1804-1806p. 332
Return to the Nez Perce: March 23-June 9, 1806p. 343
The Lolo Trail: June 10-July 2, 1806p. 359
The Marias Exploration: July 3-July 28, 1806p. 369
The Last Leg: July 29-September 22, 1806p. 385
Reporting to the President: September 23-December 31, 1806p. 396
Washington: January-March 1807p. 412
Philadelphia: April-July 1807p. 421
Virginia: August 1806-March 1807p. 429
St. Louis: March-December 1808p. 435
St. Louis: January-August 1809p. 450
Last Voyage: September 3-October 11, 1809p. 461
Aftermathp. 466
Notesp. 475
Bibliographyp. 493
Indexp. 497
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.


Preparing for the Expedition

January - June 1803

A week after Congress appropriated the funds for the expedition, Jefferson began writing his scientific friends. The message was the same in each case: the expedition has been authorized but is still confidential; I have chosen Captain Lewis to lead it; Lewis needs advice and instruction. The letters made it clear that Jefferson intended the recipients to provide advice and instruction without cost to the government.

Lewis's schooling began during the period from New Year's Day to the Ides of March. Lewis was still living in the President's House, conferring with Jefferson as often and for as long as Jefferson's schedule would allow. Beyond the conferences and the practical lessons in the use of the sextant and other measuring instruments, which took place on the lawn, Lewis studied maps in Jefferson's collection.

He also conferred with Albert Gallatin, a serious map-collector. Gallatin had a special map made up for Lewis showing North America from the Pacific Coast to the Mississippi, with details on what was known of the Missouri River up to the Mandan villages in the Great Bend of the river (today's Bismarck, North Dakota), and a few wild guesses as to what the Rockies might look like and the course of the Columbia. There were but three certain points on the map: the latitude and longitude of the mouth of the Columbia, of St. Louis, and of the Mandan villages (thanks to British fur traders)

By the time he finished studying with Jefferson and Gallatin, Lewis knew all that there was to know about the Missouri and what lay to the west of it.

The problem was that west of the Mandans nearly to the coast was terra incognita. And the best scientists in the world could not begin to fill in that map until someone had walked across the land, taking measurements, providing descriptions of the flora, fauna, rivers, mountains, and people, not failing to note the commercial and agricultural possibilities.

To make that journey required a frontiersman's expert knowledge combined with an understanding of technology and what it could do to make the passage easier and more fruitful. That was the positive side of Jefferson's choice of Lewis, who was in fact the perfect choice. Indeed, Lewis's career might almost have been dedicated to preparing him for this adventure. He knew the Old Northwest about as well as any man in the country, he knew lonely forest trails through Indian country, he knew hunting and fishing and canoes, he knew how to keep records, had adequate mathematical skills, and for two years had been privy to Mr. jefferson's hopes and dreams, his curiosity and knowledge.

Jefferson told Patterson that Lewis had the required frontier skills, to which "he joins a great stock of accurate observation on the subjects of the three kingdoms.... He has been for some time qualifying himself for taking observations of longitude & latitude to fix the geographical points of the line he will pass over." But he needed help, and it was Patterson's and the other scientists in Philadelphia's privilege and-not stated but clearly implied-duty to supply that help. Of course they were all delighted to do so anyway.

It was a favorite saying of one of President jefferson's twentieth-century successors, Dwight Eisenhower, that in war, before the battle is joined, plans are everything, but once the shooting begins, plans are worthless. The same aphorism can be said about exploration. In battle, what cannot be predicted is the enemy's reaction; in exploration, what cannot be predicted is what is around the next bend in the river or on the other side of the hill. The planning process, therefore, is as much guesswork as it is intelligent forecasting of the physical needs of the expedition. It tends to be frustrating, because the planner carries with him a nagging sense that he is making some simple mistakes that could be easily corrected in the planning stage, but may cause a dead loss when the mistake is discovered midway through the voyage.

For this expedition, planning was going on at two levels. The president was working on the first draft of his instructions to Lewis. It was becoming a long, complex document, for Jefferson was making a list of the things he wanted to know about the West. Since there was so much he wanted to know, far more than a single expedition could answer, he had to make choices. There was no mention of looking for gold or silver in the draft Jefferson was circulating, for example, whereas soil conditions and climate were included. Trade possibilities were prominent.

Taken all together, the instructions represented a culmination and a triumph of the American Enlightenment. The expedition authorized by the popularly elected Congress would combine scientific, commercial, and agricultural concerns with geographical discovery and nation-building. All the pillars of Enlightenment thought, summed up with the phrase "useful knowledge," were slithering in the instructions.

While Jefferson worked on the instructions, Lewis had his own planning to do. Jefferson would set the objectives, but it was Captain Lewis who would get the expedition there and back. The responsibility was his for deciding the size of the expedition, how it would proceed up the Missouri River, what it would need to cross the Rocky Mountains and descend the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean and return. The team would have to do this as a self-contained unit. Once the expedition left St. Louis, Lewis would be stuck with the decisions he had made during the planning process.

How many men? With what skills? How big a boat? What design? What type of rifle? How much powder and lead? How many cooking pots? What tools? How much dry or salted rations could be carried? What medicines, in what quantity? What scientific instruments? What books? How many fishing hooks? How much salt? Tobacco? Whiskey?

Lewis and Jefferson talked into the late evening about such questions. Jefferson thought it would be a good idea to carry some cast-iron corn mills to give the Indians as presents. Lewis agreed. They discussed the trade beads that were the currency of the western Indian tribes, and agreed that plenty would be needed. They made up lists of other items. Together, they concocted the idea of a collapsible iron-frame boat, one that could be carried past the falls of the Missouri, wherever that might be, and put together at the far end with animal skins to cover it, so that the expedition would be back in business on the water.

They talked about timing. Now that the appropriation was in hand, both men wanted to get started as soon as possible. With the coming of spring and the drying of the roads, Lewis wanted to be ready to go. He told Jefferson he hoped to be across the Appalachians by early summer. He intended to go to the post at South West Post, near present Kingston in eastern Tennessee, and there enlist his core group of soldier-explorers from the garrison. He planned to march them overland to Nashville, where he would pick up a previously ordered keelboat to float down the Cumberland River to its junction with the Ohio, not far above the Ohio's junction with the Mississippi.

He planned to be in St. Louis by August I and thought he might be able to proceed a good bit of the way up the Missouri before being forced into winter camp. In 1804, he expected to cross the mountains, reach the Pacific, make the return journey, and report back before winter set in.

Excerpted from Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West by Stephen E. Ambrose
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