Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery: An Illustrated History

By Carter, Edward C., II | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery: An Illustrated History


Carter, Edward C., II, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery: An Illustrated History. By DAYTON DUNCAN. Preface by KEN BURNS. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. xx, 250 pp. $40.00.

ON 4 and 5 November 1997, for two hours each evening, millions of PBS viewers watched director and producer Ken Burns's and writer and producer Dayton Duncan's visually stunning, essentially historically accurate, compelling documentary film on the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-6. The book under review is the companion volume to the film of the same title. The overnight ratings of Lewis & Clark were amazing, the second highest PBS ratings since Burns's Civil War; on the West Coast in Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco, nearly 20 percent of television owners watched the documentary. The phenomenal success of Stephen E. Ambrose's Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (New York, 1996), with hard- and soft-cover sales approaching the one million level, may have heightened audience awareness of the epic journey. Together the film and Undaunted Courage demonstrate that the deep interest in and sense of identification with the Corps of Discovery traditionally found in the American Northwest is spreading throughout the nation. With the expedition's bicentennial just over the horizon, the companion volume would seem to be a good addition to one's popular history collection whether accompanied by the PBS video version or not.

Lewis & Clark, visually a handsome book, effectively tells the story of the expedition's origins, execution, conclusion, and short- and long-term influences. This task is accomplished through twelve topical chapters interspersed with three interpretative essays by William Least Heat-Moon (the Corps of Discovery's interaction with and debt to the Indians), Stephen E. Ambrose (Meriwether Lewis's and William Clark's stalwart friendship and cooperation that shaped and guided the success of the expedition), and Erica Funkhouser (the identification of Sacagawea's true, great contributions). Duncan's felicitous chapter texts feature appropriate quotations from not only the journals of the two captains, but also sergeants John Ordway, Patrick Gass, and Charles Floyd and Private Joseph Whitehouse, and, of course, the great enterprise's commander in chief-that astute politician and visionary-President Thomas Jefferson. Many chapters also contain well-crafted essays on such germane topics as a day on the Missouri River, natural history observations, encounters with various Indian tribes, and the character of the new frontier. Especially charming is the minibiography of Lewis's "Very Active, Strong, and Docile" Newfoundland dog, Seaman, which accompanied the party to the Pacific Ocean and most likely back to St. …

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