Their likenesses are engraved just outside Agnes Flanagan Chapel. We read their names multiple times a day on sweatshirts and in emails, and their pioneering spirit is the model that continues to drive us forward today. But do we really know Meriwether Lewis and William Clark? In “Undaunted Courage: The Pioneering First Mission to Explore America’s Wild Frontier,” Stephen E. Ambrose tells the story of the two leaders of the expedition that paved the way for our contemporary nation. The expedition was fraught with hypocrisy and arrogance but remains an important topic of study for any student interested in discovering the full impact of Lewis and Clark’s experiences.
Whether you are an avid history buff, or typically avoid the non-fiction aisle, “Undaunted Courage” will take you on a journey that is well worth your while. Ambrose covers Lewis and Clark’s experience from start to finish, offering critical insights into the intense political motivations that drove the expedition, fascinating discussion of the explorers’ contributions to science along with thrilling retellings of their many perilous near-misses. The romanticized narrative of the book itself is a testament to the lingering awe felt by many Americans who may, in their excitement, forget the highly questionable nature of the Lewis and Clark expedition and its horrific human costs. Short, journal-like chapters make it an easy in-between class read and, for more visual readers, the book also includes a healthy collection of maps tracing Lewis and Clark’s expedition.
“Undaunted Courage” is far more than a play-by-play of a long trek across North America; it also reveals the deeply human struggles faced by the two men and their team as they grappled with ambition, anxiety, depression and self-doubt — all emotions that many of us are facing as we embark upon journeys of our own (albeit of a more academic nature) during these trying times. What is central to their story, and to our Pioneer mindset here at Lewis & Clark, is that, whatever the obstacles, physical or otherwise, they persisted. They overcame.
Although at times Ambrose may seem to romanticize the adventures of these two controversial men, he never lets the reader stray too far from the nitty-gritty truths underlying the expansion of America. The explorers’ interactions with Indigenous peoples, without whom they certainly never would have survived their hubristic expedition, is emphasized in a way few past historians have dared to do. There are no attempts to mask the imperialistic designs Lewis and Clark had for the “uncharted” territory, even if those designs were accompanied by other motivations such as a more benign fervor for science. Ambrose refuses to overlook the roles of figures like York, Clark’s slave, and Sacagawea, an Indigenous teenage mother and prisoner of war who acted as a guide and translator to Lewis and Clark. Instead, he creates a powerful discussion about the idiosyncrasies of the so-called American Dream.
Lewis and Clark, two men credited with laying the foundation of the United States, were slave owners whose actions took European supremacy for granted even as they both ardently advocated the ideals of freedom and equality that permeated the post-revolutionary public opinion. They frequently relied upon deception and misrepresentation in their dealings with Indigenous peoples, and they pursued a nationalistic agenda in their attempts to manipulate the various tribes into conformity with the “American way.” All the while, they repeatedly resisted the influences of the common political mindset at the time that would have solely relied upon force and violence as a means of interaction with Indigenous communities. Presented faithfully by Ambrose, these many contradictions provide opportunities to reflect on our roots, both as a school and a country, and consider how we may take the initiative in forging a better way ahead.
Because we ourselves may be more confined than usual, this is the perfect time to accompany Ambrose on a journey with Lewis and Clark across the vividly described American Northwest, and, in the process, learn more about the spirit that drives our school. Why does the institution bear the names of such questionable figures as Lewis and Clark? According to the college website, the name was chosen “as a ‘symbol of the pioneering spirit that had made and maintained the College,’ thereby grounding the future of the institution in a heritage of exploration and discovery.” Certainly, this spirit is reflected in the curiosity, dedication and initiative of the LC student body. The fact that a significant association also exists between Lewis and Clark and oppression raises questions about the purity of this pioneering spirit. Ultimately, we make of it what we choose to. If we choose to comprehensively see the Lewis and Clark expedition for what it was and was not, we can take with us those sentiments that are worthwhile and leave behind those that are not. The story of Lewis and Clark serves as a reminder to check our own ambition and seek alternative perspectives on every situation. Just as the initial expedition was credited with laying the foundation of the United States we know today, let the Pioneers at Lewis & Clark College lay an even better foundation for the United States of the future.
“Undaunted Courage” is available in paperback and audiobook at Watzek Library, and can be purchased on Amazon for about $11.