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

By McCleskey, Turk | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

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


McCleskey, Turk, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. BY STEPHEN E. AMBROSE. New York, London, and Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 1996. 511 pp. $27.95.

EXPANSIONIST Virginia's reconnaissance of North America took almost two centuries to complete. Acting on orders from President Thomas Jefferson, captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark fulfilled Captain John Smith's ambition of 1608 when they reached the Pacific Ocean in November of 1805. Like Smith's memoir of his Chesapeake survey, Lewis and Clark's saga included energetic, if sometimes misguided, Indian diplomacy set among natural marvels, physical hardships, determined leadership, and sustained good fortune. The expedition's journals and associated records fill thousands of manuscript pages and offer expedition participantsmembers and spectators alike-an unusually rich opportunity to speak for themselves. Those voices have thrilled generations of American readers and more recently have inspired adventurers to retrace parts of Lewis and Clark's trek up the Missouri River, across the Rocky Mountains, down the Columbia River, and back again. Such an intersection of copious documentation and popular interest presents historians with a challenge: to coax a wide readership toward new lessons about this essential American journey.

Stephen E. Ambrose accepts the challenge, but with little success. His version of the Lewis and Clark expedition represents itself as a deeply researched and carefully documented narrative, but on closer scrutiny, Undaunted Courage only repackages other people's work. Adding nothing substantially new, Ambrose uncritically skates across the preceding literature. He repeats without skepticism nineteenth-century antiquarian tales that as a boy Meriwether Lewis preserved his family from hostile Indians and himself from a charging bull (pp. 24-25). Most of Ambrose's citations do point to more reputable scholarly sources, but not always precisely. Indeed, Ambrose's debt to his predecessors leaves him open to charges of sloppy paraphrasing, as with this wanly cited echo of Dumas Malone (emphasis added): "In a country of vast estates, without cities or public transportation of any kind, with plantation seats far apart, riding was not a matter of sport or diversion but of necessity... Good horsemanship was taken for granted among the gentry" (Ambrose, p. 30). Malone wrote: "In a country without large settlements and where plantation seats were far apart, riding was not a matter of occasional diversion but of daily necessity, and good horsemanship was taken for granted among the gentry" (Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, vol. 1: Jefferson the Virginian [Boston, 1948], p. 46).

Another unattributed borrowing appears on the following page (p. 31), but most of Ambrose's mishandling of evidence involves carelessness rather than misappropriation. An enumeration of Lewis's Virginia landholdings outside his native Albemarle County appears without reference (p. 32). Ambrose accurately characterizes Virginia's elite as land hungry but offers as support the incorrect assertion that George Washington owned more than 63,000 acres in transAppalachia during the colonial era (p.

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