I first read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, the story of Meriweather Lewis and the Corps of Discovery expedition to the west, in the summer of 1996 when it was first published and I worked in Nebraska. In the aftermath of that first read, I made a trip to the place in Tennessee where Meriweather Lewis died. When I returned to work in Nebraska that fall, I explored every corner of Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota that the Lewis and Clark expedition visited. In the years after that first read, I’ve picked the book up to use bits and pieces of it in my teaching. The book is a rich and thoughtful account of the expedition, from the moment Thomas Jefferson first envisioned it to the point of its completion.
I picked up Undaunted Courage this month for a complete re-read as I taught my 7th grade History students about Jeffersonian America. I used bits and pieces from Ambrose’s rich narrative to guide our study of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The students are working on documents and artifacts from the expedition and together we are thinking about the discoveries Lewis and Clark made. For my classes, the book has been essential. For me, in the context of modern day, the book has been a timely reminder about leadership and big ideas in a time of when both notions are more important than ever.
From bear attacks to the triumph over adversity, the story of Lewis and Clark is distinctly American. Ambrose’s telling of the adventure is filled with admiration and rich details, the sort of story that makes you want to grab your backpack and hike the mountains of the American west.