Plotting a Continent With Bravery and Optimism


By Stephen E. Ambrose

Simon & Schuster

474 pp., $27.50

'Oh yeah, Lewis and Clark."

That might be the reaction to another look at one of America's classic tales of heroism. But Stephen Ambrose tells the familiar story with a zest for detail and a feel for the humanity of Meriwether Lewis and his patron, President Thomas Jefferson, that make the history sing and sigh, groan and breathe.

If you think you already know the tale, think again. If you've heard about it but never read much about it, here's the chance to go along on an epic journey that helped mold not only a new nation, but the American character itself, with its manifest strengths and frailties.

The frailties come to light most obviously in the schemes Lewis and Jefferson cooked up to involve the Indians of the upper Missouri River and the Pacific Northwest in a commercial empire based on the fur trade. The idea was to get across to the tribes that their new "father" in Washington could be both very generous and very strict with "his red children." And American intentions were conveyed in just those patronizing terms, both by Lewis on the trail and by Jefferson when chiefs from the Mandans, Hidatsas, Osage, and other peoples visited the US capital at Lewis's behest.

But one of the strengths of this book is its facility for letting readers view events and attitudes from the perspective of its times. The rhetoric, and the motives, grew from the history and the boundless optimism of the new country that had fought its way to independence on the eastern shore of North America.

Displacing native peoples was already an ingrained habit. Jefferson, to his credit, had an intense interest in and high regard for the continent's Indian inhabitants. As distinct from the black slaves he and Lewis, both Virginians, grew up among, the Indians could learn to become genuine "citizens," in the President's view.

But Jefferson and his messenger of empire, Lewis, had little capacity to appreciate that the Indians had a history too, which taught them to be suspicious of white men coming with an offer of friendship and a desire to foster reconciliation among all tribes. The latter purpose, a foundation stone of the commercial enterprise Lewis and Jefferson envisioned, flew in the face of generations of hostilities between rival tribes.

So Lewis and Clark pushed up the mighty river, towing along not only tons of trade goods, food, rifles, and shot, but a burden of misconception as well. The latter included, not least, some profound geographic confusion.

Jefferson had been convinced that Lewis would find the fabled all-water northwest passage to the Pacific. That hope was dashed in the jagged, snow-mantled Bitterroot Range of the Rockies. It was a clawing, gasping trip from the end of the upper Missouri to the first tributaries of the Columbia. Only the guidance of a wizened Shoshone, "Old Toby," got the small party of explorers through.

The varied contacts with native peoples - often friendly, sometimes exasperating, only once violent - make up one fascinating thread in Ambrose's narrative. On this subject, there is no romanticizing. Captains Lewis and Clark clearly appreciated, for instance, the contributions made by the Indian woman Sacagawea. But their own words in her praise are few, perhaps constrained by the male dominance of that day.

Another theme is the scientific significance of the journey, always a key motivation for Jefferson. Lewis was superb in this regard, constantly gathering speci- mens, jotting down field notes, and taking celestial readings at all hours of the night to establish location (a critical undertaking in those largely mapless days). Encounters with such phenomena of nature as the grizzly and the Great Falls of the Missouri, Ambrose sparklingly describes.

The chief threat to the expedition's success is the brilliant, energetic, temperamental, and enigmatic figure of Meriwether Lewis himself. This is largely his story. William Clark is here as faithful friend and skilled colleague, but Lewis is central. A scholar who had trouble with spelling and grammar, an insightful leader of men who crumbled under larger responsibilities once the three years of exploration were over - he was both magnificently confident and consumed by self-doubt. Most puzzling, Lewis couldn't get himself to organize and write the powerful history he'd lived. He committed suicide at 33, weakened by alcohol and burdened by failure.

The reader familiar with the story knows that end is coming, which makes Ambrose's vibrant, colorful retelling of the journey only more engrossing. It's a tale to make one ponder where we've been, how far we've come, and what moves men to extraordinary feats.

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