I finished Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage today, after years of meaning to read the book and months of work at actually reading it. The book is now a classic piece of American history, the best popular look at the Lewis & Clark expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast in 1803-1806.
Though I could quibble with various aspects of Ambrose’s treatment of the history of the expedition*, overall I found the book to be a superb piece of history. Ambrose’s writing is clear and occasionally beautiful, he does a great job of mining the explorers’ journals and other primary sources, and above all he effectively conveys the terror and wonder of the expedition into lands that were unknown to Americans.
A few aspects of the expedition really stood out to me:
+ The colossal scale and reach of the Missouri River, which dwarfs the Mississippi in every way. (Why do we even care about the Mississippi again?)
+ The variety and number of the Natives along the expedition’s route. "Tribes" is such a misnomer. If the Native peoples were not nation states, they were at least nations.
+ The incredible, already diminishing complexity of natural life on the plains and in the mountains.
+ The difficulty of getting anywhere when the fastest mode of transportation was a horse or a sailing boat.
+ The naïveté of Americans’ views about their influence on the European colonial powers and Native nations. The reach of American foreign policy has exceeded its grasp at least since Jefferson.
+ The majesty and obduracy of the western mountains.
I pushed to finish the book now because some of my drive later this week will follow the explorers’ route west and see some of the mountains they saw. It’ll be cool to see things they saw, more than 200 years ago.