Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West
Why this book?
Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage is the only non-fiction book on my list, but it is as readable as a novel, and it is foundational for anyone interested in the history of the American West. In 2014, HBO announced plans to produce a six-part mini-series with Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, and Edward Norton as executive producers. I was really looking forward to that; however, filming was halted in 2016.
Undaunted Courage is a biography of President Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis. In 1803, Jefferson asks Lewis to lead an expedition up the Missouri River to the Rockies, through the mountains, down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, and back. This turns out to be an 8,000-mile journey through completely unmapped territory – a grand and dangerous quest.
An important goal of the expedition is to find a navigable waterway across America, from sea to shining sea. The impossibility of this task becomes clear when the expedition reaches the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana. At a book-signing event some years ago, the author imagined the words that must have escaped Lewis’s mouth when he saw those impassable, ten-thousand foot, sheer vertical peaks. Ever since then, when I look at the Bitterroots, I sometimes catch myself thinking, “Oh Sh**!”
Ambrose places the expedition, and Lewis’s life as a whole, within the broader context of America’s westward expansion and the government’s early “Indian policies.” The kindness with which the travelers are received by the Nez Perce and other tribes evokes a haunting sense of trust and hope. This aspect of Ambrose’s book was particularly interesting to me as I was researching my own book.
According to Nez Perce tradition, Lewis’s co-captain, William Clark, left a Nez Perce woman pregnant. The boy grew up, and at 72 years old, was captured by the US Army after refusing to relocate to a crowded reservation. Imagine how that old man felt, having done no wrong, to be imprisoned by his own father’s people.
Undaunted Courage is a work of outstanding scholarship and thrilling adventure. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in America’s westward expansion and the history of Montana.