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Undaunted Courage: The Pioneering First Mission to Explore America's Wild Frontier

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'This was much more than a bunch of guys out on an exploring and collecting expedition. This was a military expedition into hostile territory'. In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson selected his personal secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to lead a pioneering voyage across the Great Plains and into the Rockies. It was completely uncharted territory; a wild, vast land ruled by the Indians. Charismatic and brave, Lewis was the perfect choice and he experienced the savage North American continent before any other white man. UNDAUNTED COURAGE is the tale of a hero, but it is also a tragedy. Lewis may have received a hero's welcome on his return to Washington in 1806, but his discoveries did not match the president's fantasies of sweeping, fertile plains ripe for the taking. Feeling the expedition had been a failure, Lewis took to drink and piled up debts. Full of colourful characters - Jefferson, the president obsessed with conquering the west; William Clark, the rugged frontiersman; Sacagawea, the Indian girl who accompanied the expedition; Drouillard, the French-Indian hunter - this is one of the great adventure stories of all time and it shot to the top of the US bestseller charts. Drama, suspense, danger and diplomacy combine with romance and personal tragedy making UNDAUNTED COURAGE an outstanding work of scholarship and a thrilling adventure.

592 pages, Paperback

First published February 15, 1996

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About the author

Stephen E. Ambrose

119 books1,939 followers
Stephen Edward Ambrose was an American historian and biographer of U.S. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon. He received his Ph.D. in 1960 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In his final years he faced charges of plagiarism for his books, with subsequent concerns about his research emerging after his death.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,912 reviews
Profile Image for Karen.
152 reviews37 followers
April 23, 2008
The oddest little historical fact that has stayed with me from reading this book is the squirrel migration. At the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition, there were apparently so many squirrels in this country, that the squirrels migrated seasonally like birds. Lewis and Clark witnessed them in large numbers swimming south across the river on which they were traveling. It was such a surprising and delightful little piece of information I had never known about before. It gives the reader a window into how different the country was at that time from today. It's difficult to imagine how different.

The little reference to squirrel migration encapsulates why this book was so interesting to read. Ambrose presents the Lewis and Clark adventure with little quirky details that make it come alive.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,498 followers
November 18, 2015
This is an expansion of my past micro-review reflecting on a read from 2008:

Very satisfying read about the Lewis and Clark expedition, with a focus on Lewis and his relationship to Jefferson. To me it's great because of Ambrose's ability to render a great story while marshalling his skills in making sense out of the myriad of known historical details and context. He brings alive so many of the times the expedition almost met disaster due to bad judgments or naive approaches toward Native American tribes they encountered. His love of Western history shines through as does his personal experience with the Missouri River from so many camping trips with his family. The flaws of both men are not neglected. I cried at the end over the events surrounding the suicide of Lewis.

My mind comes back to this book due to a recent read of a history by Howe on the 30-year period after this exploration (“What Hath God Wrought”). While the Lewis and Clark expedition experienced a welcoming response from most tribes, with essentially only one violent incident associated with a theft, the U.S. relations with the eastern tribes deteriorated to the point that President Jackson spearheaded the near-complete removal of most Indians east of the Mississippi River to Oklahoma Territory in the period 1830-35. Soon afterward, the U.S. acquired lands in the west even larger than the Louisiana Purchase as spoils of the Mexican War of 1846-48. As the settlement of the west proceeded and greed for land and resources married the national vision of dominion under the banner of “Manifest Destiny”, all tribes of the west were subjugated and placed on reservations. Everyone knows this history. The point is the story told in “Undaunted Courage” captures such a haunting state of hope and innocence.

The book is among my top ten of all time because of its handling of a subject in a way that really impacted my imagination and outlook. It reads like a novel, one with an important quest, abundant adventure and wonder, and a story of a remarkable friendship and partnership between Lewis and Clark. Compared to Clark, the Virginian Captain Lewis was more diplomatic and trusting of Indians, more of a naturalist, and less a fan of slavery and less capable in organizational details and finances. Lieutenant Clark, who Lewis considered equal in authority on the mission, was less articulate and more attuned to military hierarchy. He was more wary about trusting Indians due to his Kentucky militia experience in fighting Indians. He was a great hand at navigation, mapping, hunting, and organizational management of the expedition. He brought his slave York along as a valet, but came to accord him more respect and roles of responsibility in the superb teamwork of the “Corps of Discovery.” Another delightful element of Ambrose’s account is bringing all to bear that he could of the story of Sacagewea and her essential role in the success of the expedition. A teenaged Shoshone woman and wife of a French Canadian trapper, she served as a guide and translator, defusing much wariness over many first encounters with Indian tribes on their journey. It was amazing how she gave birth to a son on the trip and managed with aplomb to bring the infant along on the harrowing excursion over the mountains and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Coast.

Ambrose excels in portraying the perspectives of this band of travelers, their wonder over the beauty and vastness of this wilderness and their awe and special challenges in encounters with many tribes for the first time. Their separation from the rest of the world for more than 20,000 years made some of them essentially aliens, yet recognizably human with a sophisticated culture and successful way of life. Others had knowledge of Europeans from encounters with French trappers and mountain men, and, beyond the mountains, with Spanish missionaries, from whom horses were adopted and disseminated. The threat of the white man was more in the way of their weapons and trade goods giving advantage to one tribe over the other. Little did they realize that the expedition’s demonstration of a path into the west and a way over the mountains to the Pacific opened the door to a major invasion of settlers who would want the lands and resources for themselves. Even before that happened the diseases from the Europeans, especially smallpox, would devastate all the tribes due to their lack of resistance. Already at the time of Lewis and Clark’s wintering with the Mandans in 1804 that tribe had already been decimated from small pox.

The mapping and documentation of Indian tribes, new animals and plants was an amazing geographical and scientific accomplishment. However, these successes could not sustain Lewis. He had trouble writing up the official account of the expedition and could not master the challenges of administration required in his appointment as Governor of the Louisiana Territory. Financial troubles and alcohol abuse appear to have contributed to his decline and the suicide inferred by Ambrose. Clark did better in reaping the rewards of his success, assuming a succession of positions in military and civilian administration. I was sad to see that despite his belief in Indian assimilation in white society he got tapped as Superintendent of Indian Affairs to implement a lot of the details of Jackson’s Indian removal policy. The impact of what Lewis and Clark accomplished is well respected these days. Do yourself a favor and read this book and gain some pride about being human. Read the book review Steve Sckenda for more articulate praise of the book. See the wonderful Ken Burns documentary if you get a chance (often posted as here to Youtube).
2 reviews1 follower
February 5, 2008
Lewis and Clark... the actual story.

This is the ultimate adventure. A bunch of dudes, in totally uncharted territory, trying to to make it there and back alive.

What I loved:

-it shows Indians both good and bad. Some Indians were incredibly gracious to the party. Others complete manipulative jerks. All of them wanted guns, all of them wanted tobacco, and all of them really really wanted whiskey. And they gave away their women for anyone to boink. I had too romantic a view of indians before this book... it enlightened me.

-It shows how Jefferson was a man who wanted an American empire very, very badly. How he foolishly thought he could manipulate the Indians. And the utter insensitivity and disrespect white men had for indians.

-Also, I am supremely jealous - they traversed the land before any airplane had ever flown over it, any car driven through it. Lewis gives gorgeous portraits of the land as he passes through... did you know the great plains were once filled with game, and it was only the hunting and destruction the settlers brought that forced them to the mountains where they live today? Good stuff.

And Ambrose is a superb writer - this one will not put you to sleep like any history textbook.
Profile Image for Michael O'Brien.
293 reviews80 followers
July 16, 2014
This is one of the best books on exploration and great explorers I have ever read. As a kid growing up in the Pacific Northwest, there were numerous reminders via place names of these explorers named Lewis and Clark (Clark Fork, Lewiston, historical markers of their route, etc). Given the ruggedness of the terrain, I knew that these men must have been made of very tough stuff and resourcefulness then. And Ambrose clearly shows what Lewis and Clark were up against --- indeed, the mission to put a man on the moon had far more logistical, technical, and scientific support than did Meriwether Lewis and William Clark undertook their mission to find a route from the Eastern United States to the Pacific via the newly obtained Louisiana Purchase. After reading this book, I have an even greater respect for their courage, resourcefulness, and determination to do what they did. Highly recommend this book to anyone desiring to know more about the Lewis & Clark Expedition and/or the history of the American West.
397 reviews20 followers
March 13, 2023
This is agreat book. I really enjoyed learning about the triumphs and hardships. I highly recommend this book.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,694 reviews1,479 followers
July 16, 2014
First I want to thank Michael for suggesting I read this book. I really did like it. A definite four star read. Who doesn't know about the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803-1806, and of Sacajawea?! Years ago I had read Sacajawea, which I loved! Yeah, it is a door-stopper, but you don't want it to ever end. The two books did tell the same story about the expedition, but they focus on different people. Anna Lee Waldo’s book is historical fiction. It focuses primarily on Sacajawea and the expedition, Ambrose’s focuses on Lewis and the expedition. I put off reading Ambrose's book since I thought I would learn nothing new. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

You have to read this book even if you know about the expedition, because you have to get the full picture. What happened to Lewis AFTER the completion of the expedition? This is just as fascinating as the expedition itself, and it is not in the other book Maybe you think Ambrose’s will be boring because it is non-fiction? No, no, no! It isn't. It reads like fiction, just as Michael promised me!

Undaunted Courage is stuffed with facts, but interesting facts, particularly if you like natural science. History too. All the birds and animals they identified for the first time! The book is a compilation of so many other earlier books on the topic, but it is written with talent so it is never dry. (Except that I grew tired of hearing about how many words Lewis or Clark or another used to describe an incident or a discovery. Tell me, is 50 or 350 or 500 a lot of words? I don't know?!)

You definitely come to know the personality of Meriwether Lewis. I don’t want to give any spoilers. He is the central focus of the book - him and the expedition. Both!

I wish there had been more time spent on Sacajawea and on Lewis' black slave who followed him on the trip. Some things are simply not known; some of the journals are lost, but I feel more words could have been spent on these topics. (50? 100? Ha ha I am joking…) Also I want more on the whys of what happened afterwards, but I still think this is a marvelous book.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Barrett Whitener. He reads the book in a way to increase the listener's excitement. I didn't like this, but the author's words are exciting so how can I complain? The narrator kept the tone of the writing, and I didn't want a dry recitation of facts, so maybe I am simply too hard to please. Don't get me wrong - the narration isn't bad! It just could have been a teeny bit better.

You must have a good map if you listen to the audiobook. With a map you can find exactly where they are all along the whole trip! Maybe the paper book has maps and pictures of the nature specimens encountered. Pictures would be good, but I don't know if the paper book has them. Of course you can also turn to Google and Wiki. Have you seen a black Lewis Woodpecker? Take a peak: https://www.google.fr/search?q=Lewis+... Or Sitka Spruce or the Native American dress of the tribes encountered. As I said, the details are fascinating!

There is so much more I should tell you about this book. Jefferson's role was primary. What was the goal of the expedition? Purchase of the Louisiana Territory, what significance did thishave? What was achieved and what failed? How were Native Americans viewed in comparison to Blacks? The Republicans and the Federalists, how did their views differ? Please, read the book – EVEN if you already know about the expedition.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,535 reviews1,790 followers
August 28, 2019
I've been weighing up whether or not to read this again, that I feel some resistance to journeying up the Missouri to the pacific coast again in its company probably rules against it, perhaps I might have had a higher regard for it had I not first read Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization, which although it only touches on Lewis and Clark was I felt far more interesting in its discussion of the context of their mission - Jefferson's vision of America and ideas about the indigenous inhabitants of the continent. This by contrast feels more of a lash by lash account of how the soldiers on the mission were whipped for stealing whiskey on the difficult journey west. Although Lewis and Clark and their expedition are certainly fascinating I found this book to be readable but not particularly memorable. Also having later found out that Ambrose's use of evidence in his Eisenhower books was questionable, so I don't know if I can entirely trust him as a writer.
Profile Image for Bob Mayer.
Author 153 books47.9k followers
June 1, 2014
Perhaps I'm tainted by revelations about the author's techniques that were revealed late in his life. But also, understanding what really happened on this journey, makes me think that without the Native Americans, Lewis & Clark would have never made it over the mountains, never mind making it back.

They were incredibly lucky. And the author focuses primarily on Lewis.

It's a good over-view of the journey, pulling together various sources, but it seemed whenever Ambrose had to really get you into what these men experienced, he had a hard time and had to use the words of others. Having experienced the Rocky Mountains in winter at minus-60 and on many feet of snow during Winter Warfare training with 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) I have tremendous respect for what these men accomplished and went through. I'm not quite sure Ambrose understood-- he did mention the rafting trip he took.

But really, it wasn't like it was an uninhabited wilderness. They constantly needed Native guides to show them the way. That doesn't diminish what they did, but it does make me think of the whole thing a bit differently.

By the way, I drove the Natchez Trace Parkway recently on the way to New Orleans and have to admit the monotony could drive a depressed man to suicide!
Profile Image for SJ Loria.
445 reviews75 followers
January 16, 2012
To do list - Defend “pop history,” talk about America

I was on the phone with a history major friend of mine and I told him I had just finished Undaunted Courage. He chuckled and told me Stephen Ambrose is a “pop historian” who isn’t really worth reading. Well I asked him, when was the last time he had read a research paper or PHD thesis for fun? There exists a needless divide between academic writing versus accessible, interesting yet informative writing. The divide exists because of the attitude of people like my anonymous friend named after an African water dwelling mammal – if normal people can read it, well then it must not be sufficiently academic for the likes of me, a true intellectual. Instead of pretending to enjoy the esoteric research writing style I take my hat off to people like Ambrose who are able to express ideas in an intelligible and passionate way that is still understandable to most people. My favorite example of this would be Carl Sagan and Cosmos, but Ambrose is in a similar vein. He discusses big ideas and explains them in such a way that isn’t boring but instead enjoyable to read. He’s not writing to a handful of people who read peer reviewed journals, he’s talking to most people. What’s so bad about that?

Onto America and this book. The story of the actual expedition is incredible. There journey was basically like exploring a new planet as the expedition was cut off from communication with the outside world for 2 years. They had no idea what they were going to encounter or discover. The best minds at the time knew the continent was about 3,000 miles wide, in between the coasts they believed that the Rockies would resemble the Appalachia in size and that dinosaurs still existed (there is a paragraph about Lewis speaking with Caspar Wistar before heading off). They really were setting off on a journey of discovery, people didn’t know what was out there but they had sharpened a method of recording data and reporting it back to the various intellectual societies. With an immense desire to learn and record what they saw diligently, Lewis, Clark and their 30 some odd men set off. The astonishing sense of possibility and discovery at the time, the leadership displayed by the captains, the perseverance of the Corp of Discovery, the fascinating stories of encountering tribes who had never seen white people before, the discovery of plants and animals (sometimes more frightening than others), survival of hardship, etc, all incredible. Within this book there are several stories that can be extracted and discussed. Some of my favorites are seeing a Sioux war dance, encountering the grizzly bear, Shoshones tribes and their lack of guns, 8 year old boys exploring and hunting in the woods at night. There are several personalities that are a delight to consider and who are presented with enthusiasm.
This marks the second time I’ve read this book, and on my current America bender I read with a focus towards what makes America unique. What defines us, how did our soul begin to form? This book has a lot of information in those areas. I think the main things I walk away with are the sense of possibility, the joy of discovery, and the one I’d like to focus one – our unique leadership style of the passionate outdoorsman meets the quiet intellectual. Lewis embodies the American spirit in a body that Jefferson wishes he had (well, minus the suicidal part). He is intelligent, capable, a man of principle, a hard worker and a tough leader but a man who can get his hands dirty and would never ask a subordinate to do something he wouldn’t do himself, a man who inspires the best out of others – that’s the American spirit and leadership style to a t. Be able to get your hands dirty but still discuss Shakespeare.
America was the right place at the right time, you had men who gave birth to an idea and real estate to the west that allowed their ideals to take on different shapes that were appropriate to the circumstances as they traveled. America is an idea that evolves and takes on different shapes while adhering to her fundamental principles of equality, opportunity and hard work. It’s interesting to note that at the beginning of the country there was still division over the how we go about doing this (do you favor the businessman or the common man, do you pinch pennies or do you invest in the future), I wonder if we still have such an acute sense of possibility or frankly the kind of opportunities that were available to people during this time or even our grandparents. I digress, but here’s the point – America kicks ass. We did then and we do now. The “new order of man” was perhaps a bit more excited then but if we can retain their idealism as we explore increasingly populated terrain. That’s this generation’s Lewis and Clark campaign. How do we navigate the new frontier of a crowded, entrenched and entitled group of people? Will we achieve the same excellence? Is it something we can maintain? We shall see.

Jefferson talking about Lewis’ childhood, “he was remarkable even in infancy for enterprise, boldness and discretion. When only 8 years of age, he habitually went out in the dead of night alone with his dogs, into the forest to hunt the raccoon and opossum…”as a boy and young man, he went barefoot, in the Virginia manner. According to Jefferson, the young Lewis hunted barefoot in the snow. 24..30 (how cool is that?)
In the years following the revolution, life on the Virginia plantation had much to recommend it. There was the reality of political independence. There were the balls and dinner, the entertainment. There was freedom of religion. The political talk, about the nature of man and the role of government, has not been surpassed at any time or any place since, and at its best the talk could stand compared to the level in ancient Athens. 33
In addition, it seemed unlikely that one nation could govern an entire contient. The distances were just too great. A critical fact in the world of 1801 was that nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse. No human being, no manufactured item, no bushel of wheat, no side of beef, no letter, no information, no idea, order, or instruction of any kind moved faster. Nothing ever had moved any faster, and, as far as Jefferson’s contemporaries were able to tell, nothing ever would. 52
Jefferson believed in what he called “an empire of liberty.” “Our confederacy must be viewed as the nest from which all America, North or South, is to be peopled,” he wrote even before the Constitution was adopted, and as president he said that he awaited with impatience the day when the continent would be settled by a people “speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, and by similar laws.
In an age of imperialism, he was the greatest empire builder of all. His mind encompassed the continent. From the beginning of the revolution, he thought of the United States as a nation stretching from sea to sea. More than any other man, he made that happen…Thanks to Thomas Jefferson the United States would be an empire without colonies, an empire of equals. 56
Henry Adams described the American of 1801 in these words: “Stripped for the hardest work, every muscle firm and elastic, every ounce of brain ready for use and not a trace of superfluous flesh on his nervous and supple body, the American stood in the world a new order of man.” 58
It was a favorite saying of one of President Johnson’s twentieth-century success, 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. 81
Napoleon on the Louisiana purchase “The sale assures forever the power of the United States, and I have given England a rival who, sooner or later, will humble her pride. “ 101
His intense curiosity compelled him to study the world around him and the sky above him. 120
These young heroes were in great shape, strong as bulls, eager to get going, full of energy and testosterone – and bored. So they fought, and drank – and drank, and fought. 130
Lewis’ objectives, as given to him by Jefferson, were to establish American sovereignty, peace, and a trading empire in which the warriors would put down their weapons and take up traps…Relations with the Indians were important, establishing commercial ties with them was desirable, but the sin qua quo of the expedition was to return with as much information as possible. Put more bluntly, Lewis’ first objective was to get through, and whatever he had to sacrifice to do it would be sacrificed. 154
Their blood was up. They were Virginia gentlemen who had been challenged. They were ready to fight. 171
The soldiers meanwhile, enjoyed the favors of the Arikara women, often encouraged to do so by the husbands, who believed that they would catch some of the power of the white men from such intercourse, transmitted to them through their wives. One warrior invited York [Clark’s black servant] to his lodge, offered him his wife, and guarded the entrance during the act. York was said to be “the big Medison.” Whether the Indians got white or black powers from the intercourse cannot be said, but what they had gotten for sure from their hospitality to previous white traders was venereal disease, which was rampant in the villages and passed on the men of the expedition. [this happened in a few Indian villages] 180
He was ready, intensely alive. Every nerve ending was sensitive to the slightest change, whether what the eye saw or the skin felt or the ears heard or the tongue tasted or the fingers touched. He had the endearing sense of wonder and awe at the marvels of nature that made him the nearly perfect man to be the first to describe the glories of the American West. 216
Grizzly story! Chapter 18, 219
Lewis describing the White Cliffs in Montana “vast ranges of walls of tolerable workmanship, so perfect indeed that I should have thought that nature had attempted here to rival the human art of masonry had I not recollected that she had first began her work.” 228
Well-led men working together can do far more than they ever thought they could. Especially if they re in life-threatening situations – which was exactly where Lewis intended to lead them. He dared to do so because he knew that they had more in them than they thought, and he knew how to bring out the best in them. 273
Lewis’ journal upon turning 31 “This day I completed my thirty first year. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information for the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now sorely feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended…In the future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself. 280
Chapter 22 – Shoshones, Spaniards and the lack of guns – read this part if you want to see why guns are a tool of independence and with holding them makes the people better slaves, weaker individuals
Profile Image for CoachJim.
157 reviews87 followers
June 1, 2020
Undaunted Courage
by Stephen E. Ambrose

As the men paddled the last few miles to St. Louis, Lewis had cause to feel deep satisfaction, and could be forgiven a sense of hubris. He had completed the epic voyage. By itself that was enough to place him and his partner-friend in the pantheon of explorers. (page 404)

Lewis had every reason to be proud at this moment. He had formed a company of men to accompany him to explore uncharted areas of the North American continent. He left the Mandan village where he had wintered with a group of men (and 1 woman) who would travel to the Pacific Coast and back without losing anyone. (One member, a Charles Floyd, had died the previous fall prior to reaching the Mandan Village probably by a ruptured appendix.)

It is further commendable that Lewis, following the end of the expedition, worked to get his men the just rewards owed to them.

Lewis had been groomed by Jefferson for this trip by becoming Jefferson private secretary. While there he spent time learning scientific observation and becoming a better writer. While his journals required an editor and spell-checker, his writing allows us to experience his exploration of “the unexplored Missouri River, Rocky Mountains and Oregon wilderness, and to meet Indian tribes untouched by European influence.”

Thomas Jefferson did not want North America to become a continent of small independent countries with the rivalries and wars experienced by Europe. He saw the United States stretching from sea to sea. At the time of the Louisiana Purchase there were designs on this continent by the British, the French, the Spanish and the Russians.

An interesting part of this account is that the two Captains, Lewis and Clark, led this expedition jointly with no evidence of any disagreements. On a journey of this magnitude that is extraordinary. All the more so because as Ambrose states:

“For Virginians, taught rank-consciousness from birth, sensitive to the slightest slight, concern about rank, status, and position was as much a part of life as breathing.” (Pages 255-256)

There were a couple of takeaways for me from this book. One was the way in which these Europeans settlers depleted the land, whether is was over-trapping the beaver, or in over-planting Tobacco in Virginia. Another was the attitude towards anyone not a White European. Whether Africans or Native Americans their indulgent of superiority has destroyed cultures and to this day plagues our country with racism.

The book is a very detailed, almost daily, account of their travels. This was quite the adventure and it is understandable that so many men wished to join the expedition, and that others traveled the route subsequently. For me this provided all I wanted about Lewis and the Corps of Discovery.
Profile Image for Max.
341 reviews296 followers
September 7, 2015
A grand adventure and Ambrose’s narrative invites the reader to join in. As we turn the pages we become part of Lewis and Clark’s journey into the unknown. What will the next turn of the river bring: violently cascading waters, pensive Indians eyeing their first white man, a foreboding mountain, a snarling beast. This book was fun because the reader, at least this reader, did not know what to expect any more than they did.

That these were brave, confident and resourceful men one has no doubt. As they approached the Rocky Mountains they had no idea of the difficulty they were facing and in many ways were fortunate. They took many risks which could have been disastrous: Traveling treacherous trails where their horses fell tumbling with their riders down the sides of steep mountains, canoeing down rapids so dangerous that they are off the charts in today’s rating system, leading small contingents in the country of the notoriously violent Blackfeet Indians and then confronting them. This and much more they survived. Providence was on their side and that was something they all clearly felt.

Beyond the adventure, we are fortunate today to have their descriptions of an unspoiled American West: the verdant plains stretching as far as the eye could see with ten thousand buffalo in a single herd, the ferocious grizzly bears probing and attacking, the remarkably diverse Indian tribes from hospitable to hostile. Sadly this world would not last. The Louisiana territory soon fell prey to greedy land grabbers and fur traders. The Indians traditional way of life was threatened leading them to war and their demise. Forests and plains teeming with wildlife were depleted of their bounty. Lewis himself was a tragic figure, a consummate woodsman and expedition leader, who self-destructed upon return to civilization. His fate was a symbol of the fate of the territory and people he discovered. He could prosper in the wild but not survive out of it.

Recommended as an adventure story, a look into a distant pristine American environment, and the native peoples who lived there before civilization destroyed them.
Profile Image for Linda Hart.
731 reviews137 followers
January 22, 2018
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's incredible trek West to discover an all water route to the Pacific Ocean is certainly one of the most American stories ever. Ambrose has written a detailed account of the courage, determination and resourceful self sufficiency displayed by these men and their companies to complete the expedition, giving great attention to the science, geography and their everyday life on the journey. This was a wonderful, informative and highly enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Ed.
862 reviews110 followers
June 17, 2009
This biography of Meriwether Lewis must have been a daunting task and Stephen Ambrose was certainly up to it.

The sections of the book covering the Lewis and Clark Expedition are as well written as anything Ambrose has done. I felt like I was there with the "Corps of Discovery", as they were named, seeing the incredible plains and mountains of the unexplored American West for the first time.

I am familiar with some of the country and have actually stood at Three Forks in Montana where the Missouri River is first formed and I can only imagine what it must have felt like and looked like for the explorers.

The book is, of course, not only a biography of Meriwether Lewis but also a view into the thinking and attitudes of Thomas Jefferson, in particular, and other luminaries of the time vis a vis the West, American Indians, the future of the U.S. and its eventual spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The story of Lewis' life is a glorious and sad chronicle as we share both his triumphs and his disappointments. The last chapter of the book, titled "Aftermath" is as beautifully written a eulogy as I have ever read. Ambrose must have taken Meriwether Lewis into his heart and shared that love with the rest of us. As he pointed out in his Introduction, he and his family fell in love with the country Lewis and Clark explored which helped provide him with the motivation to write Lewis' story. This fascination and familiarity with the geography of the plains and the mountains is obvious as Ambrose describes the land the explorers traveled through.

Some may find the detail Ambrose provides boring or unnecessary but I found that it enhanced my sense of immediacy and identification with people who had endured what they went through 200 years ago.

"Undaunted Courage" is a great bit of historiography and a great bit of writing also.
Profile Image for Dan.
189 reviews7 followers
November 20, 2009
What these men did was amazing. Still, this book takes longer to read than it did for Lewis and Clark to reach the pacific ocean.
Profile Image for Chris Gager.
1,946 reviews75 followers
September 5, 2019
Recently rescued/purchased at the local library summer book sale. Starting tonight?

I did indeed start last night and was reluctant to put it down. The author gives lots of history and background and there's plenty of quoting from the letters of many people. There's a lot about Jefferson and his friendship/alliance with Meriweather Lewis. Not much about Clark so far, but Lewis has indicated to TJ that there needed to be a co-leader and Clark has been introduced as a former well-thought-of colleague of Lewis'. I assume Lewis understood that there might be a need for redundancy in the leadership area. Lewis was for the most part a great planner and organizer, especially considering that much of the route was terra incognito. The ultimate fate(suicide) of poor Lewis was already known to me. He suffered from depression. I can relate.

Last night: Just when I was getting exasperated with all the quoting from letters, the author veered away into more straightforward story-telling. Much better, though a certain amount of quotage is helpful and inevitable. And ... the Discovery Lads are finally on their way up the wide Missouri after overcoming boatloads(har har) of obstacles, not least of which is the tendency of various expedition members to run off and get drunk regularly. From what I've read chronic (male)drunkenness was a bigger problem in the 19th century than it is today.

The lads have progressed up river pretty well with only one fatality so far. If memory serves it will turn out to be the only one - miraculously. The interactions with the locals are varied, but the common theme is that they're not that interested in words, colored beads and useless medallions, so much as powder, balls and whiskey. Smallpox is a terrible scourge. Winter camp will be coming soon.

It's winter in North Dakota - BRRRR! and a few new members have been added to the Corps of Discovery, including 15-year old and pregnant Sacajawea. She delivers in camp and another soul is added to the roster of trekkers.

As thee trekkers approach the Rockies they are facing various obstacles. In one day Lewis is confronted by a Grizzly bear, some unruly buffalo bulls and a rattlesnake. Meanwhile the Corps has some difficulty now in following the "true" Missouri's course. Somehow they manage to do it, though they will eventually learn of shortcuts to the Columbia and will explore some of those on the way back. Jefferson's instructions were explicit about following the Missouri to its source, so Lewis tried to stick to that course on the way west.

And now the Corps of Discovery in the Rocky Mountains and being aided by the Shoshone Indians, the native tribe of Sacagawea's origins. Her reunion with a brother and a friend are touching and indicate how the expedition seemed to be aided by good fortune along the way. This despite all the physical trials they endured. Lewis was the ideal leader and considering everything to this point he's done a helluva job. It did help to be lucky, though. On to the Pacific!

So, the lads have made it to the stormy and foggy mouth of the Columbia, where they spend the winter. No snow to deal with and no other white men are mentioned. So far no ships either. There are the challenges of getting enough to eat, day-to-day boredom, and sickness. Plenty of syphilis, apparently. The local elk population must have declined precipitously from the hunting pressure, and quite a few dogs were consumed as well. The white men showed very little interest in fishing for their food, though they liked the fish they bought from the natives. Reminds of the behavior of the Norse settlers in Greenland and Labrador. Something about fishing that was unmanly ... or something. Tonight they will begin the trek back, which will include side trips to explore shortcuts they couldn't/didn't take on the way out.

Almost done now as I'm skip-skimming through Lewis' unfortunate post expedition life, brief as it was. Though the man's personality and assets served him well for the most part as the leader of the Corps of Discovery, the complicated demands(love[or lack thereof], career, publishing) back home in the USA apparently were too much for Lewis' psyche. I haven't reached that sad ending yet but I will tonight. In terms of book evaluation, it seems to me that it would have been a better to sum up the post expedition years in a much shorter space than the author takes. Interesting as it all may be to a true historian, it's nothing but anti-climax and sadness.

- p.s. the guy(Lewis) just drank too much - another depressed boozer it would seem.

Finished last night with the sad ending of a remarkable life. Seems like Meriwether Lewis wasn't able to handle life-after-celebrity. He went to pieces pretty quickly in St. Louis after he returned as a territorial governor. Feuding with a bureauocrat didn't help. It's tough to win such battles. The circumstances of his death evoke comparisons with the end of Vincent Van Gogh's life.

- 4.25* rounds down to 4*.
Profile Image for Tony Dutton.
40 reviews2 followers
December 6, 2022
First class history book and what revelations about life in those days
Profile Image for PJ.
42 reviews1 follower
August 2, 2014
Perhaps I would have liked this book better if I had known what to expect ahead of time. First and foremost, this book is not the fast-paced adventure story of the Lewis and Clark expedition that I was hoping to read. It is an academic biography of Meriwether Lewis, with particular focus on the expedition (likely because that is the best-documented part of his life).

Academic: The narrative is good in places, but lacks rhythm overall. Ambrose relies far too much on extended, direct quotes from the journals of Lewis and (to a lesser degree) Clark. The part of the book I enjoyed most starts around page 320 until the end, which somewhat coincides with the portion of the journey to the Pacific during which Lewis wrote nothing in his journal as well as Lewis's life after the expedition ended. Further, Ambrose seems to have felt compelled to include exhaustive detail at the great expense of flow. I don't really care what you ate for lunch and dinner if it doesn't contribute to the story. And if such details derail the story it's a less forgivable sin.

Biography: Don't expect Clark or any other members of the expedition to be given equal (or fair) treatment. The focus of the book is Meriwether Lewis. And in the interest of making this a "complete" biography of Meriwether Lewis, the expedition does not even begin until page 140. So you see, perhaps my disappointment in this book stems largely from the desire to read an adventure, not an academic biography, and the adventure did not even begin until nearly 30% of the way through the volume. And even then, as described above, the adventure was robbed of much of its excitement due to the writing style. Seriously, how can you make an adventure of this magnitude boring? A journey thousands of miles across the continent into the unknown with but meager provisions and stout hearts. It shouldn't even be possible. Ambrose found a way.

The story is in there, though, and for better or for worse it is a simply incredible tale. The telling may be lacking, but I find the accomplishment of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery fascinating and it stirs my imagination. Perhaps there is a book out there that tells the story I was hoping to read. Undaunted Courage has merit, but it is not without its significant disappointments.
183 reviews2 followers
January 8, 2019
I didn't get very far in this book. It seems very oriented toward a white male perspective. There seems to be no acknowledgement by the author that Lewis and Clark's journey laid the groundwork for presidents after Jefferson to commit genocide. In fact, the author portrays the trip as laying the groundwork for the spread of liberty. It may have been personally courageous for Lewis and Clark to travel as they did through territory uncharted by their culture, and I think it's fine for historians to explore their personal bravery. However, I also think it is the job of responsible historians to deliver a complete context of the narrative they're studying, which includes some perspective besides just the white male perspective.
Profile Image for  stanley cox.
50 reviews
September 16, 2019
Best book I ever read. This book wet my appetite to enjoy more reading and I’ve been an avid reader since. Sorry I couldn’t have given it more stars.
Profile Image for Mike.
1,107 reviews150 followers
June 1, 2012
Undaunted Courage gets 4.5 Stars. Stephen Ambrose brings a special passion to this tale of exploration. Ambrose relates in the foreword, his lifelong fascination and exploration of the Lewis and Clark adventure. I like how he brings all the characters, Lewis, Clark, Jefferson, various Indian chiefs, members of the “Corps of Exploration” and many other participants to life. Perhaps Ambrose exaggerates some events but he tells a riveting tale. The Lewis and Clark expedition was as significant to that age as Apollo 11 was to the Space Age. And the nation was just as taken with it. If history was taught with this much passion and excitement, school would be much more fun.

Meriwether Lewis gets the lion’s share of coverage but Clark gets a fair share of attention. Lewis is the reason it came to be known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, offering Clark co-command of the party and always giving him an equal share of the credit. This is amazing because the War Dept made Lewis Captain while only commissioning Clark as a Lieutenant. This was kept secret by Lewis and Clark and the men in the command regarded both as “captains”. The task given to the captains by Jefferson was to explore the Missouri River and more.

Final instructions issued by Commander-in-Chief Jefferson instructions to Captain Lewis put exploration and commerce ahead of agriculture. “The object of your mission,” Jefferson wrote, “is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it’s course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregan, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce.” Good maps were essential to commerce, so Jefferson’s orders read, “Beginning at the mouth of the Missouri, you will take careful observations of latitude & longitude, at all remarkable points on the river, & especially at the mouths of rivers, at rapids, at islands, & other places & objects distinguished by such natural marks & characters of a durable kind.” Jefferson admonished Lewis to write his figures and observations “distinctly & intelligibly” and to make multiple copies. Jefferson instructed Lewis to learn the names of the Indian nations, and their numbers, their possessions, their relations with other tribes, their languages, traditions, monuments, their occupations—whether agriculture or fishing or hunting or war—and the implements they used for those activities, their food, housing, the diseases prevalent among them and the remedies they use…”

Lewis was the perfect person to head the expedition. He was a natural leader of men but he was also a true man of the Enlightenment. He was a botanist, mineralogist, ethnologist, geographer, astronomer, navigator and so much more. He lived and learned with Thomas Jefferson in the “President’s House” for two years before going to Philadelphia to learn more skills for the trip. Ambrose highlights the many key decisions that Lewis had to make that ensured success. But Ambrose doesn’t hide Lewis’s faults. His attitude toward the Indians and slaves are fully explored—Lewis doesn’t fare well here.

I was particularly struck by how involved Jefferson was in this event. Jefferson envisioned an empire stretching from sea-to-sea. It was interesting to see this advocate of strict construction of the Constitution throw that principle to the wayside when necessary. This proposed expedition was highly political and Jefferson’s opponents made every attempt to sabotage or screw with the proposal to explore the Louisiana Purchase. I had not realized the territory considered under the Louisiana Purchase was so extensive, basically any territory bordering a river or stream that entered the Mississippi or the Missouri Rivers.

Ambrose gives plenty of buildup to the launch of the expedition but his account of the travails and excitement on the trip is riveting. The various tribes are candidly described, some are admirable, some detestable, some are friendly, some passive and some fierce. The attitudes of the white men towards the natives are generally arrogant and condescending. Lewis gives his standard speech about the “Great White Father” at every stop and thinks that he can “make peace” among the warring tribes. The Native American tribes run the gamut from ones who would steal everything to ones who would share whatever they had. Interestingly, many braves would share their women with the explorers, believing that having sex with the whites would transfer power to them through the women. This practice had unfortunate side effects, which are described. Life was a challenge and Ambrose relates the curse of mosquitoes, malaria and many other maladies endemic to the age.

I can’t recommend this book enough; I was unable to put it down. The tragedy of Lewis’ end explains why we simply don’t know enough about this seminal event. He committed suicide a few short years after returning and he never published the much sought after books on his trip. The account of the expedition was not published until much later, reducing the impact. I am now off to learn more about Indian history from the time of this expedition to the end of the 19th century.

Jefferson’s tribute recounted at the end of the book sums up how unique Lewis was:

“Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness & perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from it’s direction, careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order & discipline, intimate with the Indian character, customs & principles, habituated to the hunting life, guarded by exact observation of the vegetables & animals of his own country, against losing time in the description of objects
already possessed, honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding and fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves, with all these qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body, for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation confiding the enterprize to him.”
Profile Image for Cinda.
Author 30 books11k followers
August 30, 2018
Whenever I travel, I like to read something related to the area I'm visiting. I took a trip down the Columbia River from Richland, WA to Astoria. A historian on board gave lectures about Lewis and Clark, so I picked this book up. Whenever I read history, I'm amazed at how unschooled I am. I had a vague notion of what these explorers did and where they went, but Ambrose provided the context and framework I needed. I've been reading a lot of Revolutionary War era history lately. After reading Hamilton and Washington and The Hemingses of Monticello, it's interesting to see various historical characters as walk-ons in this story. One reason I like to use different POVs when I write is that it allows me to present characters through the eyes of others. Ambrose doesn't mince words when he feels that the explorers make poor decisions.

The book did slow down after (spoiler) the Discovery Corps returns to St Louis. But I recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about this period in American history.
Profile Image for Susan.
94 reviews
March 18, 2008
I have really enjoyed reading the notes made by Merriweather Lewis, and his relationship with his partner, William Clark. These were two men who really had "undaunted courage" and faced new challenges unknown to all others as they daily across this vast continent and to the Pacific Ocean and back again. This book tells about the relationship of these two men, apparently without conflict, or little, if any in the course of their exploration. In reading this book you can also learn about the many tribes of Indians and they way Lewis/Clark viewed them: savages, uneducated, and definitely in need of their way of life to better them. It actually always makes me sad to read the way that these marvelous people were treated as people of little worth when in reality it was us who took their land and their possessions from them. History is always a fascinating read and I think any one interested in learning more about our history would find this really a "good read."
Profile Image for Barnabas Piper.
Author 11 books889 followers
August 7, 2017
Ambrose is as clear a historical writer as there is. The account of Lewis & Clark's preparation and then journey is outstanding. The lengthy description of what happened after was less so, but mainly because I was not interested in their publishing disputes and the like. Over all, this is a wonderful account of one of the most significant adventures in American history.
Profile Image for Ted Tyler.
173 reviews
June 6, 2019
This old Eagle Scout was captivated by every moment of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Ambrose relies almost exclusively on the journals of L&C and their men as he makes this epic journey come to life. After completing the book, I can't help but feel that Captain Meriwether Lewis has become an old friend. You spend a lengthy amount of time immersed in his musings and reflections. I admire him for being both a skilled leader, an avid outdoorsman and a dedicated scientist. He truly is one of the most significant figures in American history. His leadership impressed me the most. While most people think of the expedition as the Lewis "AND" Clark expedition, Captain Lewis was technically the sole commander. But to his credit, he realized his shortcomings as a leader and knew that he needed to share command with another skilled leader. Congress refused to grant Lieutenant Clark a captain's promotion, but Lewis publically and privately called Clark "Captain." Their men never realized Clark's predicament. Lewis led his men well, caring for them at all costs, but also opposing them when he felt that his decisions were right. They rarely disobeyed his orders, and they had great cohesion as a unit. Unfortunately, the book cast light on the way that the expedition dealt with the Native Americans. While most of the direct behavior towards the tribes was not so awful, the superiority complex is painfully obvious when the journal entries are read. It's tragic foreshadowing when you realize just how America's Native American Policy would play out over the next 150 years.

When the journey concludes, there is still about 60 pages that deal with the aftermath. My heart aches for Lewis, who is never quite the same after he finishes his arduous journey. He is crushed by the loss of identity and purpose. His works are never published because he procrastinates the editing process and is trapped in a losing battle with alcoholism. Clark settles down in St. Louis, gets married, and becomes successful at nearly everything he does. Some of the other men settle down, some write their own memoirs, and then others travel out again. This journey ranks as definitely the most important American exploration journey, and among the most significant world exploration journeys. A great read!
Profile Image for Linda.
851 reviews32 followers
July 29, 2016
Even though practically everyone I know read this book when it was first published in 1996, I didn't give it a glance because "I already knew the story!" Oh me of little consequence and great ignorance.

I grew up in Fort Benton, Montana, and as a youngster had spent countless hours in the children's room of the Carnegie Library under the statue of Sacajawea, choosing books, dawdling, daydreaming; I stood at Decision Point (in a tiny patch of poison ivy - argh!) where Lewis and Clark had to determine if the Missouri or the Marias was the route to follow; moving to Cut Bank, Montana in my 20s, I trekked to the locations of Camp Disappointment and the Fight Site, besides which, now the Rockies are practically in my backyard; in June 2005, along with the author's daughter and other interested persons, I walked the trail of Lewis' June 1805 diary description of the great falls; numerous road trips along the Columbia Gorge to visit family in Portland and the Oregon coast rounded out the beauty of the last part of the Lewis & Clark expedition; a visit to St Louis, Missouri, in 2012 took me to the beginning of the adventure ... this little corner of American history was in my very being.

Finally, summer of 2015, a trip to my own town library where I bought a dog-eared copy of Undaunted Courage for one thin dime opened up the journey to me ... and did I ever learn a lot! I'm glad I own the copy as I know I will reach into it again and again.

Maybe the most memorable moment of the book came as I traveled with my brother (he drove, I read) from Idaho to Washington and I was reading the 25th chapter "Down the Columbia" as we wound our way in and out and around the river of the same name. Same trip, a week later I attended an outdoor wedding, the venue overlooking the Columbia. I experienced the same feeling that I have felt all my life along the banks of the Missouri and the Columbia, that of an observer, looking out on the memory of this little band of explorers as they paddled down rivers into unknown territory and into history books and into my heart.
Profile Image for Kurt.
557 reviews54 followers
August 28, 2016
Reading this book probably made me a lifelong Lewis and Clark fan. Since reading this book shortly after it was published I have been inspired to more thoroughly study the history of this expedition and even to trace its paths. I am actually writing this review on the 200th anniversary of the expedition's crossing of the continental divide. For years I had planned to be on Lemhi Pass on this date to commemorate the event. But, as often occurs, events conspired against me, and instead I am home writing this review. A few weeks ago, however, I did get the opportunity to travel the Lolo Trail where I visited several Lewis and Clark sites (including the trail itself). It was a great trip. My life has changed for the better because of this book. The story is presented in a way that is very readable yet with enough detail to really convey the experiences of these courageous men.
Profile Image for Scott Middleton.
167 reviews5 followers
October 29, 2012
"Undaunted Courage" tells an unforgettable tale with a degree of minute detail that reduces the journey of Lewis & Clark to a level of excitement on par with the user manual and warranty for a fiberglass canoe. Indian fights, harrowing escapes, sexual misconduct, and hilarious misspellings occasionally lighten the mood, but more often than not I found myself wading waist-deep through pages of botanical observations, astronomical measurements, and repetitive schoolgirl adoration of Thomas Jefferson. I was motivated to sift through the dense mess only due to my fascination with the actual expedition and the thought that, if the Corps of Discovery portage over the Rocky Mountains, surely I can manage to make it through this book without succumbing to tears.
Profile Image for Jason Pettus.
Author 12 books1,269 followers
December 23, 2015
I've always had a particular fascination with the Lewis & Clark Expedition, because of being born in raised in St. Charles, Missouri, the town where the expedition technically launched; so I'm glad I've finally had a chance to read this influential overlook at the trip by famed historian Stephen E. Ambrose. This is pretty much what you would expect from such a book, so I don't have too many analytical things to say about it; it's well-researched and well-written, especially when it comes to the heartbreaking details about Meriwether Lewis's mental problems later in life and his eventual suicide. Strongly recommended.
Profile Image for David.
16 reviews1 follower
July 25, 2007
I'm almost done with the book. Great. New insights. Learned about who Sakajewea (sp?) was and actually think she is a bit over rated. But that is beside the point. I learned a lot about Thomas Jefferson, the politics of the time, the trip to the Pacific and back (naturally), and the way this country was.

Interesting factoids contained in the book:
Squirril migration
Eating Dogs, Horses, roots and enjoying them

Enjoy. It is a great book!
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