Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West
by Stephen Ambrose
This non-fiction work is superb. Reading it many years ago motivated me to read informative historical novels like A.B. Guthrie’s excellent narratives set in the Yellowstone,
Having reread a large section of “Undaunted Courage” this past year, I
offer this book review, which cannot do justice to the work’s many qualities. Idaho
I was enthralled with the book’s six maps. I referred to all of them frequently to make clear to me the time-progression, geographical location sequence of events that are such an important component of the telling of the Lewis and Clark Expedition accomplishment. If I were younger and had the financial resources to indulge myself, I might be tempted to follow the route the Corps of Discovery took from
Louis, Missouri, to ,
and back, taking numerous pictures and maintaining a daily diary. Fort Clatsop, Oregon
“Undaunted courage” describes best the greatest attributes of the two captains and their exceedingly well-disciplined, resolute men. Delving into the unknown stirs some element of fear in any person. Imagine yourself signing onto an expedition that intends to take you more than a year into diverse land not previously explored, boats to be poled up the Missouri River, portages to be undertaken because there had to be – if not falls – rapids too violent to ride, mountains to cross over passes not yet known, overland transport between the end of the Missouri River and some unknown tributary of the Columbia River the difficulty and duration of which you would learn only when you had to deal with it. And what of the lack of food, the prospect of starvation, especially in the mountains, after you have left the bison-filled plains east of the Continental Divide? And what of the Indians? Your expedition – though heavily armed -- will be vastly outnumbered by any tribe it encounters. If any tribe wishes to exterminate you, it can. You must pray that you captains have the skill to prevent this. Pray that each tribe’s human universal avarice is satiated sufficiently to receive from it tolerance of your temporary presence. Finally, will you be able to stand the rigors of your daily labor, which will require you to consume 6,000 calories of food. Will you succumb to dysentery, influenza, sexually transmitted diseases caught from intercourse with native? Lewis or Clark would be your doctor. The remedies to be used would be whatever they are able to concoct.
There are particular scenes in this book that rival in excitement and wonder the best scenes written by a skilled novelist. Here is one example.
Lewis and Clark needed to find the Shoshones just east of the Continental Divide. The Shoshones, they had been told, had many horses -- horses the expedition needed to cross the Rocky Mountains to find the
horses Lewis and Clark hoped to obtain through barter. They had reached the three forks that become in
western Montana the Missouri
River. They had chosen to
follow the most westerly fork – the Jefferson River
– hoping to encounter friendly Shoshones.
They had been unsuccessful. Game
had become scarce. Lewis divided the
expedition into two groups, both of which headed west overland. Eventually, Lewis sighted an adolescent brave
on a horse from a distance of several miles.
Lewis hailed him, but the brave fled.
I will allow Stephen Ambrose to narrate the rest.
On Tuesday morning, August 13, 1805, Lewis set out early, headed west on a plain, heavily and recently used Indian trail that fell down a long, descending valley. …
At nine miles, Lewis saw two Indian women, a man, and some dogs. When he had arrived within half a mile of them, he ordered Drouillard and the two privates to halt, unslung his pack and rifle and put them on the ground, unfurled a flag, and advanced alone at a steady pace toward the Indians. He hailed them, using a word he believed meant “white man,” but actually meant “stranger” or “enemy.” The man hurried away.
Lewis’s men rejoined him.
After less than a mile, topping a rise, they came on three Indian women, one a twelve-year-old, one a teen, and the third elderly, only thirty yards away. At first sight, Lewis laid down his rifle and advanced on the group. The teen ran off, but the old woman and the child remained. Seeing no chance of escape, they sat on the ground and held their heads down; to Lewis it looked as though they had reconciled themselves to die.
He approached and took the elderly woman by the hand, raised her up, said,“tab-ba-bone,” and rolled up his shirtsleeve to show her his white skin. … Drouillard and the privates joined him. From their packs he gave the woman some beads, a few moccasin awls, a few mirrors, and some paint. His skin and the gifts, and his friendly attitude were enough to calm her down.
Through Drouillard’s sign language, he asked her to call the teen back, fearing that otherwise the girl might alarm the main body of Shoshones. The old woman did as asked, and the teen reappeared. Lewis gave her some trinkets and painted the “tawny cheeks” of the women with some vermillion. When the Indians were composed, Lewis told them, through Drouillard, that he “wished them to conduct us to their camp that we were anxious to become acquainted with the chiefs and warriors of their nation.” They did as requested, and the group set off, the Indians leading.
After two miles, the long-anticipated and eagerly sought contact took place. Sixty warriors, mounted on excellent horses and armed for war with bows and arrows plus three inferior rifles, came on at full speed. When they saw Lewis’s party, they halted.
… The Indians were overwhelmingly superior. It would have been the work of only a moment for them to overwhelm Lewis’s party. …
But rather than assuming a defensive position, Lewis laid down his rifle, picked up his flag, told his party to stay in place, and, following the old woman who was guiding, advanced slowly toward he knew not what.
A man Lewis assumed was the chief rode in the lead. He halted to speak to the old woman. She told him that these were white men “and exultingly showed the presents which had been given.” This broke the tension. …
The chief advanced. Saying “ah-hi-e, ah-hi-e,” which Lewis later learned meant, “I am pleased, I am much rejoiced,” the chief put his left arm over Lewis’s right shoulder and applied his left cheek to Lewis’s right cheek, continuing “to frequently vociferate the word ah-hi-e.”
This first meeting between Shoshones and Americans went better than Lewis could have dared to hope. He had been exceedingly lucky. The war party had ridden out in response to the alarm given by the man who had fled earlier that day. The Shoshones expected to find Blackfeet and might have attacked without pause save for the old woman. Had Lewis not met her, and had she not responded so positively to his appeals and gifts, there might well have been a firefight.
There is great irony in this incident. Ambrose criticizes Lewis for not having Sacagawea accompany the party. She was one of two young Shoshone girls that had been captured by a Hidatsa raiding party four years earlier at the Three Forks. A French Canadian trapper, Toussaint Charbonneau, won the two girls from their captors in a bet. Both girls became Charbonneau’s wives. Lewis had signed Charbonneau on as a member of the expedition because of the girls’ knowledge of the Shoshone language. Sacagawea, turned fifteen, was the wife chosen to accompany him. Why had Lewis decided not to include Sacagawea in his scouting party? Ambrose wrote:
The captains shared a hubris, that they could handle Indians. They believed they needed Sacagawea’s interpreting ability only to trade for horses, not to establish contact. … it would seem that the captains allowed their self-confidence, and perhaps their male chauvinism, to override their common sense.
The great irony is that the chief who in friendship placed his cheek against Lewis’s cheek happened to be Sacagawea’s brother.
If you enjoy American history and have not read it, “Undaunted Courage” should be at the top of you “To Read” list.