Westward Ho!

Odd that on a day where the QotD asks for your favorite fiction book, that I’ve been inspired to write about one of the few non-fiction books that I read last year.

The book is “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen Ambrose (who also wrote “Band of Brothers) – it is a history of the Lewis & Clark expedition.  I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, I typically like to use books for escapism and entertainment.  This book however is a great read, and anyone that’s curious about why America is the way it is should read it.

President Jefferson had commissioned the exploration of the Louisiana Territory, which the United States had bought on the cheap from Napoleon in 1803.  Jefferson was a renaissance sort of guy and he wanted multiple things from the trip in terms of commerce, politics and scientific discovery. 

  • He wanted to find a way for American traders to be able to get all the way across the continent by water, most likely via the Missouri and Columbia Rivers.
  • He wanted to bring the Indian tribes in the region into the American sphere of influence.
  • He wanted the expedition to catalog the flora, fauna and geography of the west and report back.

In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and a group of ~40 men set off from Saint Louis (hence the whole Gateway to the West shtick) up the Missouri.  By all of Jefferson’s goals, the expedition was somewhat of a failure.

Water route:  Yeah, the Rockies were kind of a drag especially when they realized they were going to have to CARRY ALL THEIR STUFF ACROSS THEM!!

Indian diplomacy:  The Corps of Discovery (as the expedition was known) made a few friends, passed most without incident, but were unable to sway either of the likely powerful enemies (Sioux and Blackfoot mostly) to the American way of thinking.

Scientific discovery:  Here they were remarkably successful.  Clark’s map of the upper Missouri was one of the most important strategic assets for the US in the years following the expedition, and Lewis made countless descriptions of plants and animals unknown to Anglo-Americans.  Unfortunately, Lewis never quite got around to publishing his findings (which frustrated Jefferson to no end).

Recently, there was an article in Slate that said that L&C didn’t really matter all that much because everything that they did was more or less inevitable, which is like saying its no big deal that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in July of 1969, because someone would have done it soon after anyway.  That sort of reductionist analysis doesn’t begin to address how amazing their story was.  Those guys went 4000+ miles out to Oregon and back (over 2 years and 4 months), and they lost ONE GUY.  They were in strange territory, couldn’t speak most of the languages, had to scavenge for food (or rely on natives for bartering and occasionally charity).  Similar expeditions up much less imposing rivers all had to turn back early for various reasons.  Lewis and Clark rocked.

Oh – so why am I thinking of them today??  Because the Beloved and I are about to set out on our own Expedition of Discovery.  We’re beginning her move from Santa Fe back to San Diego and I’m flying out tomorrow, and we’re going to take a long weekend, drive us back in her car with her dog, and enjoy the trip through the Southwest.  Some comparisons between their expedition (L&C) and ours (B&B = Betz and Beloved):

Lewis: Botanist, naturalist, diplomat, journal-keeper.
Me: Biochemist, project manager, blogger.

Clark: Cartographer, Outdoorsman, Navigator, Redhead
Me: Redhead

L&C time and distance: 4200 miles in 28 months
B&B time and distance: 900 miles in 3 days

L&C transportation: canoe, pirouge, horse, foot
B&B transportation: 2003 BMW 325

L&C steady companion: Seaman, a Newfoundland
B&B steady companion: Eutaw, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever

L&C mountains to cross: Bitterroots
B&B mountains to cross: Superstitions 

L&C chancy encounters: Sioux and Blackfeet in upper Plains
B&B chancy encounters: Aliens near Roswell, NM

L&C Pacific destination: Fort Clatsop, Cape Disappointment, Oregon
B&B Pacific destination: Dog Beach, Del Mar, California

I’ll be off the grid starting midday tomorrow until Sunday, so I hope everyone has a good end to the week!

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10 thoughts on “Westward Ho!

  1. I'm going to have to pick that one up for Steve and I. I had never really been into American history at all until I met him. Living near DC helps one along. Another really good historical book that reads like a novel is "Manhunt". They are supposed to be making a movie about it with Harrison Ford too.

  2. HA! I love your list of comparisons. Great post; it made me smile.
    I started reading Undaunted Courage a few years ago, but it didn't hold my attention. I think it might have something to do with not being American, but I'm not sure. Because I LOVED Crazy Horse and Custer, also by Stephen Ambrose.

  3. Hannahbanana — you know, I thought that Undaunted Courage was really slow to get going as well. Ambrose takes a lot of time with the foundation for the trip. But once they get on the Missouri, its a fascinating tale.
    Janie — is Manhunt about the search for Booth after Lincoln's assassination?

  4. When I was in grad school at UNC and would drive back to my folks' house in NJ, I would always get off of 95 and go north on US-301 once I got past Richmond (I just liked that drive better…). There are a couple of Booth historical markers right along that drive. :)

  5. I started listening to the audiobook of this a while back but never finished it. I guess something more exciting came along. But I definitely must get back to it. I think they had only gotten to Missouri by the time I quit so the best part was yet to come.

  6. I also love this book and the absolutely amazing adventure it describes. Ken Burns did a gorgeous documentary on the Lewis and Clark expedition called, "The Journey of the Corps of Discovery." It is one of the most fascinating and beautiful films; if you havent seen it, I think you would love it. Whenever I think of Lewis and Clark, another great explorer comes to my mind – Shakelton, His expedition to be the first to reach the South pole was also a "failure" but his amazing adventure and leadership in surviving mind boggling setbacks make him one of my biggest heroes. The book "Endurance" chronicles his expedition and is a GREAT read.

  7. I can see that we'll have to Netflix the L&C documentary. That sounds great. Before a couple years ago, I had never heard of the Shackelton expedition — what an amazing story — and you're absolutely right about the similarities. Great comparison!

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