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Lewis And Clark: The 10 Best Books

February 2024
3min read

For such an iconic American subject, the literature of the Lewis and Clark expedition is surprisingly sparse, probably because the journals themselves, until the Moulton edition made them widely available, were so difficult to find in a complete authoritative form. We do not have too many books about Lewis and Clark; we have too few. Here are the 10 best.

Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Definitive Journals of Lewis and Clark (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001).

If you want Lewis and Clark whole, this is the edition to buy. Moulton spent more than two decades pulling the pieces together and did a masterly job. If you don’t want the atlas volume or the herbarium or the index volume, which are available only in hardcover, volumes 2-8, which contain the journals of Lewis and Clark, can be had in paperback. So can volumes 9-11, which contain the journals of Patrick Gass, Joseph Whitehouse, John Ordway, and Charles Floyd.

Anthony Brandt, ed., The Journals of Lewis and Clark (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2002).

For an abridgment I have to recommend my own, which corrects the sometimes impenetrable spelling and grammar of the original in an effort to make the journals accessible to a modern reader. It’s an appetizer, not the whole meal, but for those who have to eat and run, this is, I do humbly believe, the best choice.

Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

Ambrose’s book deserves a lot of credit for the current enthusiasm for Lewis and Clark, and it’s the best account we have of their voyage of discovery. Which does not mean it’s the best account possible. Ambrose’s research is sometimes sketchy, and he’s quick to pass judgment. But he tells the story well, and the book is a good introduction to the study of Lewis and Clark.

James P. Ronda. Lewis and Clark Among the Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984).

This remains the best analysis we have of the encounters between Lewis and Clark and the various Indian tribes they met along their route. Those who think Lewis and Clark could do no wrong will not be pleased by the critical stance Ronda takes toward them for their naivete about the trading relationships among the tribes and the even worseinformed efforts the explorers made to bring peace among them. These were, after all, warrior societies. But the criticism is fully justified, and this is a solid, thoroughly researched book.

Paul Russell Outright, Lewis and Clark: Pioneering Naturalists (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1969).

Lewis and Clark discovered 300 species of plants and animals new to science, and this book lists them all and fills in the background to these discoveries for the first time. It’s still the bible of the subject and a fascinating account of the explorers as naturalists. Lewis was a particularly brilliant one.

Donald Jackson, Thomas Jefferson & the Stony Mountains: Exploring the West From Monticello (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981).

The late Donald Jackson was the greatest of all Lewis and Clark scholars, and this, one of his best books, places the two men firmly in the context of Jefferson’s vision of Western expansion and the destiny of the United States. If Lewis and Clark were always assessing the new territories they were exploring as settlement sites, it was because Jefferson had ordered them to. Jefferson knew what he was about.

John Logan Allen, Passage Through the Garden: Levns and Clark and the Image of the American Northwest (Urbana; University of Illinois Press, 1975).

Allen’s book is basic to understanding what Lewis and Clark thought they were getting into before they left. It explains where geographical knowledge of the West stood in 1804, what the natural world west of the Mississippi was like and what it held. It is very helpful to understanding how Lewis and Clark reacted to what they found.

A. P. Nasatir, ed., Before Lewis and Clark: Documents Illustrating the History of the Missouri, 1785-1804 (St. Louis Historical Document Foundation, 1952, [paperback reprint, 2002]).

Lewis and Clark weren’t, of course, the first explorers into the Missouri River. It had been mapped all the way to North Dakota. This book prints all the documents describing these trips for the 20 years prior to the departure of Lewis and Clark from St. Louis. It’s history raw—and fascinating.

Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition , With Related Documents, 1783-1854 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962).

Even more fascinating is Jackson’s comprehensive collection of all the known documentation surrounding the Lewis and Clark expedition. Here are letters from Jefferson to Lewis and back again, reports on Lewis’s suicide, Clark’s despair of ever seeing the journals in print. It’s full of surprises. It’s also very hard to find, but a new paperback edition is reportedly on the way.

Brian Hall, I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company (New York: Viking, 2003).

If you like your history cooked, Brian Hall’s new novel about the expedition is quite faithful to the facts and does its best to interpret the characters of Lewis and Clark in fictional terms. It’s not a great book, but it’s the best of the recent crop of Lewis and Clark novels. Hall is especially good with Clark, No one will ever get poor Meriwether Lewis right. —A.B.

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