Book Review: Undaunted Courage (1996)


Undaunted Courage
by Stephen E. Ambrose
(Copyright © 2014 by Wil C. Fry.)

Full Title: Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the opening of the American West
Author: Stephen E. Ambrose
Year: 1996 (mine was 2005 trade paperback)
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN 978-0-684-81107-9
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◊ Summary

Undaunted Courage — a title that comes from Thomas Jefferson’s description of Meriwether Lewis: “Of courage undaunted” — is primarily about Meriwether Lewis the man, though of course most of what we know about the man is from his expedition with William Clark and others across the American northwest, so that expedition takes up at least 60% of the text. More, if preparations are included. Lewis and Clark’s trek was the first American expedition to cross what was then known as Louisiana, going from St. Louis all the way to the area of today’s Astoria, Oregon.

◊ What I Liked Least About It

I’m hard pressed to think of something I didn’t like about this book, which is rare.

◊ What I Liked Most About It

As with many non-fiction books I read, my favorite part is the sheer amount of information contained in it. The amount of research Ambrose must have endured is incredible.

Like many American school children, I learned in school that Lewis and Clark set out to find an all-water route to the Pacific Ocean and failed. Anything else I knew about the expedition was from the silly Chris Farley/Matthew Perry movie Almost Heroes (1998), which was about a lesser known (fictional) crew of men trying to beat Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. What I didn’t know could fill a book, and this was that book.

I did know that Clark brought his slave York on the journey, but not that L&C allowed York to vote in a couple of team decisions. I’d also heard of Sacagawea, but didn’t know that she was allowed to vote along with York and the other men. I didn’t know she brought an infant son on the journey. I didn’t know that Lewis was Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary before the expedition, that he was the governor of the Louisiana Territory afterward, or that he killed himself.

By all accounts, the “Corps of Discovery” (as the expedition team was called) underwent terrible hardships during their two-year journey, the details of which can boggle the modern mind.

(I did not know until after reading that Ambrose was accused of plagiarism — using passages from previous works without “appropriate” attribution, in this and other works. However, HBO recently announced a mini-series based on this book.)

◊ Conclusion

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in U.S. history. It was not difficult to read, told the story thoroughly from beginning to end, and was hard to put down.

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