Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Published in Great Plains Quarterly 16:3 (Summer 1996). Copyright © 1996 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


A summer ago I canoed down the Missouri River, along the wild pristine White Cliffs of Montana, with the Lewis and Clark journals in hand (the De Voto abridged edition). Like many others, I have felt strongly the pull of that famous expedition, the nostalgia for a lost West without cities, dams, or overgrazed pastures, when Indians still defined the place. But I was not prepared to like this retelling of the story, with its hagiographical and militaristic title spliced to its Wallace Stegner-ish subtitle. Was this to be Meriwether Lewis as the Colin Powell of another day? Or as the original of John Wesley Powell? Either way, I was nervous that this book might set popular western history back a decade or more. My fears were excessive. Ambrose has written an honest and at times moving and insightful book about an important man and moment in our history. It is not highly original nor does it represent painstaking new research, but it is a book that gives the public a feeling for the moral ambiguity in America's sense of mission and for the flaws that may be found even in our most celebrated achievements.