Book Review: “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen E. Ambrose

The following is a review I wrote on Amazon.com about the book, “Undaunted Courage”, by Stephen E. Ambrose.

While the main purpose of this book is a biography of Meriwether Lewis, the author includes all of the influential characters, events, and setting of the early 19th century United States, starting with the third President, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s vision of America is a country stretching from sea-to-sea.  It is as if Jefferson had an almost divine image of America.  This is a special land, entirely different from the Old World in Europe, which is precisely why it was so important for the United States to lay claim to the continent, and effectively remove the presence of British, French, or Spanish military forces.

If Jefferson were alive today, I think he would not be pleased with the United States’ military presence in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.  Jefferson’s Republicans would likely have held an isolationist view of our sovereign nation even up to today.  Americans do not belong in the Middle East today any more than British and French forces belonged in North America in 1903.

I was surprised to learn that Jefferson had originally thought that American Indians could be “civilized”, and become active citizens of the United States, whereas African Americans could never fully “assimilate” in Jefferson’s views.  Throughout the journeys of the Corps of Discovery, Lewis and Clark presented each tribe with a special speech, to inform them that they “have a new father”, and invited their chiefs to visit Washington and meet Jefferson.

This story predates the Trail of Tears and other stories of American genocide against Indians.  However, one quote from the book puts an interesting perspective on the attitude of Americans’: “How can an Indian tribe lay claim to thousands of acres of land that they ride across twice per year?”  Although Jefferson intended confine American settlers to the land east of the Mississippi, and allow the Indians to keep all land west of it, history has shown that no executive power was able to stop the progress of American Pioneers.

The stories of Lewis’s activities had a familiar feeling to me.  For example, while preparing for the expedition, Lewis contracted a boat builder to construct a large “keelboat” to travel up the Missouri river.  The contractor was very slow, constantly drunk, and failed to show up many mornings.  It reminded me of contractors that I’ve dealt with in my business, who have no sense of the urgency required by the customer.

As an outdoorsman, I was captivated by the adventures encounted by the party in the wilderness, all documented with great detail and passion by the author.  I have traveled through the rugged rocky mountains, armed with the most sophisticated technology of the 21st century.  Even now, it is no easy endeavor.  However, this party of soldiers made their way up the rockies, navigating by compass and sextant, hunting with muzzleloader, camping without shelter, and sewing clothing from buffalo hides.  Lewis was in his late 20′s, the same age as I am now, and he was co-captain to a group of 30 or so army privates, and navigator in a wilderness that no white man had ever been in before.  These feats alone are truly amazing!

In addition, the author makes sure to mention the importance of Sacajawea during the trip.  The majority of the party was made up of young adult men: American soldiers trained in hunting and survival.  However, in the group was this teenage Indian girl, who spoke no English whatsoever, and had her baby with her the entire journey!  How did she feel to have traveled for two years with this expedition?

I strongly recommend this book to readers who have a thirst for history of early United States, and also for those who have a keen interest in wilderness exploration and survival.  Many of the hunting and survival skills practiced by Lewis’s hired hunter, George Drouillard, can still be applied by today’s big game hunter and survivalist.

This amazing book has turned me onto further reading about the politics of Jefferson and James Madison, and how the “original Republican party” was meant to shape this country’s future.  I look forward to learning more.

Undaunted Courage (cover)

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One Response to “Book Review: “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen E. Ambrose”

  1. PiedType Says:

    I share your fascination with the history of the American West. As I child, with my parents driving across the plains at 70 mph to the northern Colorado Rockies, I always had my nose glued to the window, imagining myself out there crossing those same miles on foot, on horseback, or in a wagon. In the mountains, I’m always thinking about the explorers who traveled through them with only the resources you’ve described. I am in awe of our ancestors and the difficulties they overcame in exploring and settling this country. (Actually, the word “settle” has connotations I don’t care for when I think of how the land and its original inhabitants were exploited and abused, but that’s another chapter.)

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