"Tom Elpel has done things his way. In less than a month he'll be floating the Missouri River in a hand-made canoe built from a Douglas fir tree. Elpel won't stop until he reaches St. Louis. That's 2,300 river miles. He predicts it'll take him and a handful of friends about six months to get there.
Along the way the group hopes to eat fresh road kill, plus forage, hunt and fish. Elpel sees traveling in the opposite direction of the iconic trip made by the 1803 explorers Lewis and Clark as a journey of rediscovery. It will enable him and his group of five to reconnect with the land and reconnect with its inhabitants."
-- Susan Dunlap, The Montana Standard
Montanan plans to canoe entire Missouri River
Lewis and Clark Expedition
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the Corps of Discovery
By Thomas J. Elpel
4,000 miles by foot, canoe, and horseback...
Little was known about North America west of the Mississippi river at the beginning of the 1800s. It was known that the Missouri River flowed east across the continent, merging with the Mississippi en route to the Gulf of Mexico, while the Columbia flowed west from a similar latitude as the Missouri and spilled into the Pacific Ocean. It was hoped that there might be a navigable water route with a low portage connecting these two rivers to facilitate commerce across the continent.
It was believed that any mountains at the headwaters between the two rivers would be gentle hills like the Appalachians of the East, easy to portage across. It was also believed that there might be mastodons roaming the West, or perhaps a tribe of Indians of Welch descent, based on English mythology. In short, nobody knew what was out West two hundred years ago, except the Native Americans who lived there.
From 1804 to 1805 the Corps of Discovery, commanded by co-captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, traveled more than 4,000 miles by foot, canoe, and horseback, traveling from Saint Louis up the Missouri River, across the Rocky Mountains, down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean... and all the way back. It was an eclectic group, with the two captains, plus thirty-one other men, including soldiers, hunters, boatmen, French trappers, Clark's slave York, and Sacagawea with her infant child, plus Lewis' dog Seaman. Their story became one of the world's great exploration adventure stories, documented in great detail in the journals of Lewis and Clark and the men.
This page includes reviews of books related to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, some I read before and some during our five-month journey in a dugout canoe down the 2,341-mile Missouri River portion of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
There are hundreds of books and videos documenting the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Individuals retracing their story can dive as deeply as desired with their multi-volume journals, but might instead choose a more friendly novel to tell the tale. I greatly enjoyed reading The Way to the Western Sea by David Lavender and Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose.
For those with special interests, there are Lewis and Clark books covering specific topics, such as the medicine, clothing, or plants of the expedition.
Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson,
and the Opening of the American West
A #1 New York Times Bestseller by Stephen E. Ambrose
Stephen Ambrose has a way of telling a story. He doesn't embellish anything, but brings together the facts in a way that brings a story to life. Undaunted Courage probably isn't a story you would read to your kids, but for the adult reader it is immensely captivating and hard to put down.
Ambrose dives into the background behind the expedition, illustrating Thomas Jefferson's lifelong desire to explore the West, as well as the circumstances that led to the Louisiana Purchase. He also covers the story of Meriwether Lewis in detail from birth until death, giving less coverage to William Clark, whom Lewis invited along to co-captain the trip.
The main emphasis of the book is on the act of preparing for, and then journeying across the continent and back. Ambrose shows how the expedition repeatedly encountered obstacles of nearly insurmountable size, then overcame them, only to encounter even greater obstacles farther along the trail. He reveals the personalities behind the men and their ups and downs along the way, as well as their day to day story and the near disasters that could have put an end to the expedition. Undaunted Courage is a must-read for anyone with even a mild to moderate interest in the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Exploring Lewis and Clark
Reflections on Men and Wilderness
by Thomas P. Slaughter
Lewis and Clark wrote more than a million words in their journals of the Expedition, most of which are largely accepted as facts and observations. Author Thomas P. Slaughter takes the reader to a deeper level to investigate hidden biases and agendas that skewed Lewis and Clark's perceptions and influenced the narrative of their journals.
Slaughter shows how Lewis and Clark were influenced by other explorers of their time and wrote in a style to subtly self-glorify their accomplishments. For example, sometimes they referred to individual members of the expedition by name, but mostly the journals vaguely refer to "the men" or "a man," without names, a literary style to maintain focus on the two captains as the central figures of the expedition.
On multiple occasions Lewis and Clark wrote about how they were now the first white men ever to explore westward beyond a certain point... only to find disconcerting evidence that others had preceded them.
Slaughter examines interactions with the tribes and the clash of worldviews that made it so difficult for Native Americans or the Expedition to comprehend each other's realities. As the author points out, many of the goals described by Lewis and Clark could have been interpreted as a spiritual quest by the tribes, who would not have otherwise understood the culture and beliefs of western civilization that would drive men to be the first to cross the continent.
While most books focus on what the explorers did, Exploring Lewis and Clark shines the light on why they did it. That makes this book potentially more insightful than any other book about the Expedition.
Feasting and Fasting with Lewis & Clark
A Food and Social History of the Early 1800s
by Leandra Zim Holland
What did the Lewis and Clark Expedition live on?
Fresh bison on the High Plains, dried salmon in Columbia River country, dog and horse when necessary, vegetables offered by Indian hosts, portable soup, and salt pork carried from Philadelphia. Leandra Holland's narrative about what the expedition members ate on their journey makes this book a rich treat as well as a solid reference for historians, researchers, and re-enactors. Extensive illustrations and a sprinkling of authentic recipes help to trace the expedition's daily life, their food preparation, and their preservation and storage methods. A detailed index, separate recipe and menu index, and item-by-item appendices of food groups further assist food lovers and Lewis and Clark buffs.
Plants of the Lewis & Clark Expedition
by H. Wayne Phillips
The purpose of the Lewis and Clark Expedition wasn't merely to search for an overland water route, but also to record for science the new plant and animal species the Corps discovered along the way. Thomas Jefferson was a botanist and helped train Meriwether Lewis in the science of collecting and documenting new species. Although the botany aspect of the story is usually overlooked in narratives of the expedition, the reality is that Lewis spent a very large portion of his time out collecting and recording samples, even writing in the boats while the men worked to tow the expedition forward. He collected and described hundreds of plants that were new to science, which have been brought back to light in Wayne Phillips' book, Plants of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
The book has excellent color photos of the plants Lewis recorded, along with descriptive text to identify the plants, plus tidbits from the journals detailing where they encountered each species, how the plants were used, and other events that were happening at the same time. I would not suggest it as a first book for learning plants, but more as a useful perspective on the botanical aspect of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Lewis & Clark
Tailor Made, Trail Worn
Army Life, Clothing, & Weapons of the Corps of Discovery
by Robert J. Moore, Jr and Michael Haynes
Our ideas about the clothing worn by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition consists of stereotypes fabricated by artists and playwrights in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Erroneous images are so pervasive in the literature that the silhouhette of Lewis and Clark used by the National Park Service shows Lewis wearing a tricorn hat and Clark wearing a coonskin cap, neither of which they had. This image is posted on most of the official Lewis and Clark literature as well as along thousands of miles of roads marking the Lewis and Clark Trail!
Fortunately, the truth about what the Corps of Discovery wore on the expedition has been revealed in the meticulously researched, beautifully illustrated Tailor Made, Trail Worn.
The authors point out that the Corps of Discovery was an army expedition with military law, military discipline, military clothes, and military standards for dress and hair styles. Lewis and Clark made little note of such things in their journals, because nobody writes about the mundane things in their journals, that everybody knows already. They wrote about the new things they saw and did.
However, the clothing and equipment the Expedition started with is well-documented, and there are plenty of journal entries covering the switch from army clothes to buckskin clothes and moccasins along the way, while saving their dress uniforms for ceremonies with the Indians. There are also clues from the journals suggesting that the Corps kept their hair cut and their faces shaven to army standards, at least as often as circumstances permitted.
In addition to the reprints of historical drawings and paintings, much of the best artwork throughout the book, including the cover image, is the original work of co-author Michael Haynes.
Or Perish in the Attempt
Wilderness Medicine in the Lewis & Clark Expedition
by David J. Peck, D.O.
Lewis and Clark lived in a time before it was known that bacteria and viruses existed and could cause disease. Western medicine was based on philosophy rather than science, and the prevailing philosophies of the day called for lots of bloodletting as well as purging with cathartics (powerful laxatives)--treatments which often did the patient more harm than good. Those who survived the treatment were said to have been "cured", when in fact they often recovered in spite of their care, rather than because of it.
In his book Or Perish in the Attempt doctor David J. Peck focusses on the medical aspects of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He suggests possible diagnosis based on modern medicine for injuries and ailments described in the Lewis and Clark journals, contrasting how those problems were cared for on the expedition with how the same kinds of problems would be cared for by modern medicine. In each case he points out how the care administered by the expedition would have either helped, harmed, or had no effect on the well-being of the patient. More than anything, the Expedition was blessed with an immense amount of luck, according to Peck. Along with the medical insights, the book provides a conscise, easily readable overview of the entire Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Coast and back.
One criticizm I have of the book is that Doctor Peck seems overly impressed with the quality of modern medicine in comparison to the medicine of two hundred years ago. It was commonly--and correctly--believed back then that the doctors were worse than the diseases. However, the majority of people I know share the same belief today, and with good reason. Up to 300,000 Americans die each year from diseases contracted in hospitals, while probably hundreds of thousands more die from complications of prescription-happy doctors who give patients pills for many ailments that could be better treated with improved diet and excercise. Our medicine will probably look as archaic two hundred years from now as the medicine of the Lewis and Clark Expedition appears to us now. Nevertheless, I thought the book was a delightful read, and I could hardly put it down.
Day-By-Day with the Lewis & Clark Expedition
1804 to 1806
Compiled by Barbara Fifer
Day by Day with the Lewis & Clark Expedition is a calendar, but not today's calendar. It is a calendar of twenty-eight months, covering May 1804 through September 1806, detailing the events of each day in a concise paragraph within each calendar square.
Photos, illustrations, and captions accompany this beautifully formatted calendar. Hang it on your wall and look at it every day. The daily events of Lewis and Clark are probably a lot more interesting than your own day to day life! With the calendar you can join them in your imagination, while reminding yourself that it is still possible to break free from ordinary reality to live out the adventures of your own making.
William Clark and the Shaping of the West
by Landon Y. Jones
When possible, I prefer reading books more or less "on location," so paddling the Missouri River was the perfect setting for catching up on some Lewis and Clark-themed books that have been on my reading list for a long time.
William Clark and the Shaping of the West was an exceptional and riveting book, which introduced the backdrop of William Clark's life through the exploits of his older brother George Rogers Clark. While I am fairly well versed in the history of the West, I feel more ignorant of American history east of the Missouri River. In particular, Landon Jones details the many act of Indian removal to systematically displace Native Americans from eastern states, sending them West of the Missouri. Jones shows how William Clark and the Clark family were deeply involved in Indian removal, even when William was otherwise friendly to the natives. The book lays out the facts without judgement right up to the very end where Jones simply points out that in today's world, William Clark's actions would be considered ethnic cleansing. It's a gut-wrenching read, but an essential one to better understand American history and the dark side of some of our greatest heroes.
A Novel of Lewis and Clark
by Richard S. Wheeler
Richard S. Wheeler was a Montana author who died in 2019. I was unaware of his work until Norman Miller of the Missouri River Paddler's group suggested it to me. One of the rewards of paddling the Missouri River was that we had a great deal of mostly uninterrupted reading time. Turning pages was just as satisfying as covering miles down the river. Sometimes there was an opportunity to do both together.
Eclipse is a work of historical fiction about Lewis and Clark. I brought the book on our five-month expedition, but didn't crack it open right away because I've heard the Lewis and Clark story so many times that I wasn't ready to go through it again until I ran out of other books to read. Then came the pleasant surprise, the story actually starts at the very end of their expedition to the Pacific Coast and back. I found it immediately entrancing, and read the entire book in a couple days. The book is written in first person narrative form, switching back and forth between Lewis and Clark. Like all historical fiction, I found myself debating the accuracy of the portrayal, but still considered it a great read.
by Steven T. Gough
Author Stephen Gough gave me a signed copy of Colter's Run a decade earlier, and I finally had the opportunity to give it the attention it deserved, reading it while paddling the Missouri River. Colter's Run is a work of historical fiction about the life of John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition who spent the next several years trapping beaver in what later became Montana. He was the first westerner to see the thermal features of what later became Yellowstone National Park, and he had several harrowing encounters with the Piegan Blackfeet near present-day Three Forks, Montana.
This was the first book I read on our expedition because we launched from Three Forks. We even camped at Coulter Campground at Gates of the Mountains, where I read much of the book. Colter's Run was a good read, written in first-person narrative form. It is challenging to get into the mind of someone who has been dead for two centuries, so I was occasionally distracted debating whether or not it was an accurate portrayal of Colter's character. I think it would be difficult to write a book of historical fiction like this that is 100% convincing, but Steven Gough did exceptionally well. Ever since he published the book he has been working to get the story picked up as a motion picture. It may yet happen!
His Years in the Rockies
by Burton Harris
There are very few historical references about John Colter's life, but this 1952 book compiles the available information into one comprehensive work. This text was obviously the source for much of the factual information behind the narrative in Stephen Gough's Colter's Run. Gough's book is easier to read, and I probably would have gotten lost with Harris's book if I hadn't read the other first. It was enlightening to see the connections between fiction and nonfiction.
Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery
Lewis and Clark on the Jefferson River
Jefferson River Canoe Trail