Disclaimer: The views expressed below are entirely my own. Other people reading this work of non-fiction may have a completely different take on it and find my conclusions to be erroneous. But they can write their own blogs, this one relays my experience and my interpretations. Also, the book is 484 pages long, so in my attempt to condense and summarize, I may have to leave out specific details out of necessity. This does not mean that I did not read this book thoroughly, I did. I felt compelled to write this review . . .
The book is: “Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West,” written by Stephen E. Ambrose.
I give Ambrose credit for his research and thoroughness with telling this story, however, at first blush, I must point out the obvious bias the author demonstrates towards Meriwether Lewis. All throughout the book, the author describes Lewis’s effort to get William Clark recognized and share equal stature with himself. For example, the War Department turned down the request to give Clark an equal rank with Lewis and only approved a Lieutenant’s rank for Clark as opposed to a Captain’s rank. Yet Lewis and Clark decided not to tell their men this and addressed each other equally as Captains. They served as co-equal partners commanding the expedition. This was emphasized over and over again.
Yet despite the constant dialog throughout of Clark’s equal status, the author noticeably leaves Clark’s name out of the title of the book. It is, however, the author’s book and he is obviously free to choose the title, I just picked up on this smack-you-the-face contradiction between the title and what’s conveyed in the text between the covers. Hard to miss that one.
But before I venture too far with my criticisms, I do want to point out what I consider to be remarkable about the book and the personalities described therein.
There is no doubt that the trek across the American West by these individuals is remarkable. Round trip, it was some 8000 miles. These guys were tough. Lewis frequently walked the banks of the Missouri River while his men navigated via keelboat, canoes, and pirogues, using paddle, pole and wind, and the expedition averaged some 20 miles per day going up-river. Lewis kept pace with the vessels by simply walking, and I remember at least one mention of hiking some 35 miles in a day.
That’s tough by my standards.
The men endured various illnesses and treatments with the completely wrong medicines, and all survived except one man. They also endured times of food shortages and serve weather. Lewis even survived being shot in the ass by one of his own men with a .54 caliber Army issue bullet. Whether this was accidental or on purpose no one knows as the shooter denied having shot his Captain.
Sacagawea, a Shoshone, joins the group as the 15-year-old wife of a French-Canadian named Toussaint Charbonneau, who had won her in a bet from the Hidatsa, who had, in turn, captured her in a raid on Shoshone encampment. She was six months pregnant at the time and would give birth to her son during the expedition. She would also provide her knowledge on food sources and serve as a translator to the Shoshones and assist the bargaining for Shoshone horses to cross the Continental Divide and the Bitterroot Mountains. Clearly, she endured more than the men, yet little credit is given to her, and the author notes that she received no payment for her services as did the men. (The party procured horses from the Nez Perce on their return trip as well as collecting some of their previous ones).
Back to the successes of the adventure.
While no continuous water route was found to the Pacific coast as was sought, the party encountered many First Nations Peoples, promoted peace between the tribes (albeit arrogantly and with no understanding of the cultures and customs), and they did “find” the overland route to connect the Missouri breaks with the Columbia River and mapped out the territory. I’ll get back to that word “find” in a little bit.
Lewis is credited as being a planter, soldier, ethnographer, botanist, zoologist, geographer, astronomer, cartographer (that was really Clark), linguist, woodsman, and explorer. Basically, he is portrayed as a God-like figure who most probably carved out the entire basin for the Pacific Ocean with his bare hands after swallowing a dozen buffalo in one bite for lunch. Oh, please excuse my sarcasm. On page 482, the author finally backpedals and states: “His talents and skills ran wider than they did deep.” And he points out that his best quality was actually leadership. (Footnote 1) .
In a footnote on page 404, the author credits Lewis by stating: “He had discovered and described 178 new plants, more than two-thirds of them from west of the Continental Divide, and 122 species and subspecies of animals.” I take strong issue with the word “discovered.”
And now for my real criticisms. What I said above was just a warm-up. 😊
Ok, so let’s go back to the beginning. On the very first page of text, in the introduction on page 13, the author states that Lewis was the “first” American to cross the Continental Divide. Ok, this is a joke right? The author totally ignores some 14,800 years of history that has been extensively documented of the First Nations Peoples’ occupation and travel across the Americas. In fact, the expedition had to rely on Indian guides to take them through the mountains on established Native trails. Had the guides not crossed these mountains first, they obviously could not have served as guides. (Footnote 2).
I will have to say, that I have never read the words “first” and “discovered” so many times in a single book attributing credit to a single individual, while completely ignoring the actual people who encountered these plants and animals and made the journey through these mountains and up and down these rivers for centuries prior to the colonists’ arrival on the East Coast.
The proper term for Lewis, in these contexts, should be the “first white, European, colonist,” or perhaps “imperialist,” of English descent, who did whatever it was Lewis did after so many others had before him – including, perhaps, French trappers and Spanish explorers.
Lewis and Clark’s travels were also probably preceded by the British traders based up in Canada that were frequently mentioned because of the desire to shut the North West Company out of business. But I get it, first “American.” Right. There are only three times that I remember the author saying the “first white man” to have done or experienced something.
I will give credit to the fact that Lewis drafted lengthy descriptions of the animals and plants encountered and putting that into writing in the English language may have been a first. The First Nations’ Peoples largely relied on storytelling and hieroglyphics but were probably more insightful as to the beneficial relationships and usefulness of the natural resources. The Native populations also practiced conservation, while the Europeans preferred mass slaughter and harvested resources into extinction, but I suppose that’s another story for another day. (Footnote 3).
Included with Ambrose’s litany of Lewis’s “firsts,” is claiming that he is the first American to kill a Grizzly Bear (p. 247). Lewis, with his superiority complex, pays no attention to the warnings from the First Nations Peoples about showing this Spirit some respect and how difficult it is to kill one. Instead, Lewis assumes that if these individuals had trouble killing a grizzly, it must be because of their primitive and inferior skills and weapons. He soon learns just how wrong he is about engaging in such combat as the Bears show no fear and go on the offensive even when shot multiple times. His men are seen running away from the Grizzly on more than one occasion. (Footnote 4).
There is nothing short of continuous denigration of the First Nations Peoples by Lewis with the constant over-lording references to their new “Father” or “White Father” referring to Jefferson (a prominent slaveholder). Lewis is plagued with an extreme inflation of his own self-importance as he talks down to the tribes and believes he can command them with his pronouncements. He also never misses a chance, as “ethnographer” to insult the Native populations, even those Nations who provided him with food and assistance. Never. Even if he has extended a compliment, it is followed by an insult.
On page 357, after describing an instance where Lewis nearly let his anger override his judgment regarding the “Chinookans,” where Lewis may have torched a village if a few goods that had been pilfered had not been recovered, Ambrose states:
To modern eyes, this looks suspiciously like racism, just as Lewis’s resolve to burn down the village raises images of the U.S. Army in the Indian wars and in Vietnam. But if one means by racism a blind prejudice toward native Americans, based upon false but fully believed stereotypes, Lewis was no racist. When he talked about Indian ‘nations’ he meant the word just as he applied it to European peoples. He was keenly aware of the differences between tribes, a subject he wrote about at length and with insight. He liked some Indians, admired others extravagantly, pitied some, despised a few.
His response to native Americans was based on what he saw and was completely different from his response to African Americans. With regard to blacks, he made no distinctions between them, made no study of them, had no thought that they could be of benefit to America in any capacity other than slave labor.
But, despite his cold-blooded words and resolutions, and his hatred of the Chinooks, what stands out about his journey up the lower Columbia in the spring of 1806 is that he got through it without ever once ordering a man to put a torch to an Indian home, and no man ever fired a rifle at a native. “
I could easily point out the poor choice of words Ambrose uses in this last sentence distinguishing “man” from “native,” but I’ll laugh that one off. Despite Ambrose’s attempt to paint this white European arrogance as anything but racist, on pages 370-372, for a second time, Ambrose refers to Lewis’s statement made at Lemhi Pass in 1805, “that anything the Indians could do, he and his men could do.” “Even after seeing the Clastsops and Chinooks in their canoes, after seeing the Nez Perce ride their horses, he retained the notion of white superiority.” (Both tribes demonstrated vast superiority with their skills over the white imperialists.)
To further cement this notion, if there were any doubt, when Lewis is describing his Indian plan regarding improving the American fur trade, Lewis states that it was “a scheme . . . the most expedient that I can devise for the successful consummation of [our] philanthropic views towards those wretched people of America.” (p.442) Lewis’s scheme was to run the British out and create trade-dependence with the Indians – subjugating them through capitalism in modernity’s tongue. (Footnote 5).
He even thought that to boycott the Sioux, the least susceptible to his pronouncements, would bring them begging to the great “white father.” Of course, this simple mindedness completely ignores the First Nations Peoples’ ability to survive the harshest of circumstances – those which the white Europeans on this very expedition would not have survived, except for the help of the native populations.
But before I stray too far from my original point, Ambrose’s attempt to paint Lewis’s racism as nothing more than white supremacy is what I believe is facepalm worthy. Seriously, Ambrose has such a man-crush on Meriwether Lewis that he tries to gloss over what he has painstakingly proven throughout his book. Lewis may have seen and written about differences between tribes, but he believed blindly that whites were superior to them all – that, my friend, is racist.
In perhaps another wave of ironies, Lewis’s and Jefferson’s Indian plan required a full-scale change of all First Nations Peoples’ cultures and lifestyles. It was predicated on “inducing the Missouri River and Rocky Mountain Indians to become trappers and traders” and to abandon a nomadic hunting and sustenance culture that included inter-tribal raids and conflict. In fact, a Hidatsa warrior drove this point home when asking Lewis what their nations would do for chiefs should peace be attained, because chiefs were selected based upon their heroic acts in battle. Bravery was the prime virtue in the structure of Indian politics.
Ambrose continues: “They would have to be conquered and cowed before they could be made to abandon war. Jefferson’s dream of establishing through persuasion and trade a peaceable kingdom among the western Indians was as much an illusion as his dream of an all-water route to the Pacific.” (p. 288)
Ambrose calls this a “great disappointment” that the “men of the Enlightenment” would accept because these men accepted facts, and Lewis, the great ethnographer, through his documentation helped to establish these facts.
Ok, so I found myself laughing at the concept of these men being “enlightened” in any fashion, and I backtracked to refresh my memory of what defined the so-called “Age of Enlightenment.” This “age” was defined as a European intellectual moment during the 17th and 18th centuries in which the use of “reason” was the predominant focus for humans understanding their universe to improve their condition; the goals of which included gaining knowledge, freedom, and happiness.
Another summation, pulled from the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica stated: “The great geniuses of the 17th century confirmed and amplified the concept of a world of calculable regularity, but, more importantly, they seemingly proved that rigorous mathematical reasoning offered the means, independent of God’s revelation, of establishing truth.” (Footnote 6).
So there you have it, these “men of Enlightenment” supposedly fully comprehended the social, cultural, and political structures of the First Nations Peoples and decided the inferior race needed to be conquered to promote commerce. And conquering meant destroying. “While Lewis and Clark had a great interest in documenting Indian cultures, they represented a government whose policies can now be seen to have fostered dispossession and cultural genocide.” (Footnote 7).
To sum up:
The expedition lasted from May 14, 1804, through September 23, 1806. Jefferson requested $2500 to fund the expedition but he granted Lewis authority to write unlimited “draws” so the total cost ended up being $38,722.25. That would represent a tremendous sum in today’s dollars.
For inexplicable reasons, Lewis hung onto his journals preventing their publication, and it wasn’t until 1814, five years after his death in 1809, that his journals were published having lost most of their relevancy as the frontier was no longer new and unexplored.
Lewis died on October 10, 1809, at the age of 35 from a horrendous suicide involving him shooting himself twice and cutting himself “from head to foot” with a razor. (p. 475). At the time of his death, he was suffering from alcoholism, opium and morphine addiction, syphilis, malaria, and quite apparently depression.
Now there are some facts that were never conveyed in any history class I have ever sat in.
Feature Photo: It seemed appropriate to include a pic of the Pacific Coastline in light of the subject matter, an expedition to the Ocean and back. And even more appropriate to include one of Cape Disappointment – right around the bend from where the Columbia River greets the Ocean – the ultimate objective of the expedition. I had a hard time deciding which pic to post because this area is so beautiful. Wish I could have seen it in 1806.
Footnote 1: Indeed, Lewis had received training in these fields through President Jefferson and Jefferson’s associates, but his weaknesses are revealed when he must hire experts to prepare his journal for publication. Something he delays and that doesn’t occur until after his death. BTW, he never hired an editor, which would have been the wisest thing he could have done given his and Clark’s own limited proper grammar, usage, and spelling of the English language.
Footnote 2: In fact, there is other evidence of ancient tools being found in Meadowcroft Rockshelter Pennsylvania dating back to 19,000 years old, which could support a theory of early European migration.
Footnote 3: I will use, for the most part, the terms “First Nations People” in place of “American Indians” when describing those living in the Americas prior to the mass European invasion, because there are those who like to contest the terms “indigenous” and “native” because the first people here migrated from Asia on the West Coast, and possibly, although not confirmed, from Europe on the East Coast. DNA evidence confirms the migration from Asia all the way down through North America to Argentina in South America. And the well-preserved remains found in Monte Verde, Chili date back to 14,800 years.
Footnote 4: To put some of my remarks in context, Ambrose is frequently quoting from Lewis’s or Clark’s journals, so they are speaking in the first person. So when I refer to certain remarks, it is not from an inference by Ambrose, it is because Lewis and/or Clark are directly speaking through their writings.
Footnote 5: We see how well this political plan worked between the US and China., where the US thought the introduction of capitalism to China would destroy Chinese Communism and make China dependent on the US.
I point out a basic defect with “American History” as taught in this country, which is plagued with bias and inaccuracy. I use for example the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War. Do you think most people in this country actually know the history of this war? When did it start and when did it end? (April 19, 1775 through September 3, 1783.) Most people I talked to seem to think the war either started or was over when the Declaration of Independence was issued on July 4, 1776, and they know absolutely nothing, correctly, about the events leading up to the war.
They also don’t know the history behind who became the country’s first president. George Washington was the first president under the US Constitution, which was adopted on June 21, 1788 and which created the executive branch of government. Washington was elected February 4, 1789. Technically, the first “President” following the Revolution was John Hanson. He was the first President of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation and he served from November 5, 1781 until November 3, 1782. He’s even the guy who established Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November, although we know the history behind that has been blurred considerably. Hanson was one of eight men appointed to serve one-year terms under the Articles of Confederation before the Constitution was ratified. See The John Hanson Story.
While some might believe such details are unimportant or irrelevant, I believe knowing the true history, and the surrounding circumstances is essential to understanding how this county’s government functions. Or if it’s in a state of dysfunction. Just like it’s important to know this country was born out of slavery and genocide. It’s convenient to ignore those facts, like the men of the “Enlightenment.”
Rabbit Hole 2:
I have a couple of pet peeves regarding The Declaration of Independence that are appropriate to address in this rabbit hole. In the list of grievances the colonists delineated begins with the statement:
“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
It then lists 27 grievances, the last of which reads:
“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
Chew on that uninformed bias for a while. Why would the First Nations Peoples feel their independence was declared in this document? And who perpetrated genocide on who?
My next peeve is that people simply do not actually study their own county’s history or read and understand the country’s significant documents. I don’t know how many times I hear people saying that the United States Constitution guarantees us the rights to pursue “life, liberty and happiness.” In fact, the Constitution says no such thing. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution state that governments cannot deprive any person of “life, liberty, or property” without due process of law. This is by no means a guarantee, and “happiness” is no where to be found in the document that sets out the supreme law of the land.
“Happiness” is included in the Declaration of Independence in the sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration does not set out enforceable law. Sorry folks. You’re responsible for your own happiness. It is not law and is not the government’s responsibility. 😊