The Louisiana Purchase was a seminal moment in American history. For a few million dollars, mere cents per acre, President Jefferson was able to effectively double the size of the United States and turn our already growing nation into a vast empire. Or, more realistically, there was the potential for a vast empire because the territory was an immense wilderness. We had to know what was out west first. That was where Lewis and Clark came in and what The Essential Lewis and Clark is about.
The Lewis and Clark expedition, also called the Corps of Discovery Expedition, took place from August 31, 1803, to September 25, 1806. On it, Lewis and Clark documented new animal species, contacted Indian tribes, saw the Pacific Ocean, explored and named new rivers, and documented whatever else they thought might be interesting or useful to the American nation, which had just purchased the Louisiana Territory.
To document those discoveries, Lewis and Clark kept journals of what they saw and what events transpired on their odyssey across the new territory. Those journals, which both Lewis and Clark kept, form the backbone of The Essential Lewis and Clark, which is a distilled aggregation of their two journals.
Summary of The Essential Lewis and Clark
In The Essential Lewis and Clark, the compiler, Landon Jones, doesn’t editorialize. Although there are occasional notes that add context as to where the expedition was at that point in time or what was going on outside of the events described in the journal entries provided, the book is almost entirely the unedited journals of Lewis and Clark.
Although selected down to the most interesting journal entries, The Essential Lewis and Clark gives the reader a look into the minds of both Lewis and Clark and helps one understand what happened on that mission.
The expedition experienced every emotion and dealt with seemingly endless circumstances. They traded with, fought with, slept with, and were guided by Native Americans. They acted as arbiters of justice for those Indians, at times sheltering abused women from abusive husbands. On their long and winding journey, the members of the expedition lived mainly off of the land. They shot buffalo, elk, antelope, “ground squirrels,” and all manner of other animals. They feasted and starved, lived off a land of milk and honey in some areas and barely made it through barren and frozen landscapes at other times.
The Essential Lewis and Clark is amazing in that the journal entries in it show, in a very quick and easy to read form, most of what the expedition experienced. When reading it, it’s hard not to get drawn into the stories told and imagining that you too are fording a previously unknown river, crossing a mountain range on horses you bartered with an Indian tribe for, hoping to successfully hunt your dinner, or survive an encounter with a terrifying and almost unkillable grizzly bear.
Lewis and Clark were excellent narrative writers and their stories give you a taste of what the expedition was like. You’ll learn what Indian tribes were peaceful and which were hostile, which wanted to trade and which freely gave horses to the expedition, which were guarded and which were helpful. You’ll learn about what the Louisiana Territory was like before it was settled and dominated by the transcontinental railroad; there were vast herds of tens of thousands of buffalo, thousands upon thousands of elk and “ground squirrels” everywhere, and vast plains of untouched grass.
But not everything about the territory was a paradise. The expedition had to deal with painful burs and thorns across the landscape, huge and unrelenting swarms of mosquitoes, inclement weather, subzero temperatures, and constant marching and paddling across vast stretches of prairie and river. They had to constantly travel and exert themselves while maintaining a watchful eye for hostile Indians and eating nothing but lean meat and roots. While some areas seemed like a paradise, much of the journey sounds hellish.
Lewis and Clark walk the reader through all of that in The Essential Lewis and Clark. By reading their journal entries, you’ll learn what parts of the untamed west were wondrous paradises full of game and what areas were frozen, barren, or otherwise horrible. The journals in The Essential Lewis and Clark tell the full story about what the group experienced, how they felt about it, and what decisions they made and why.
Why You Should Read The Essential Lewis and Clark
I think that the Lewis and Clark expedition was one of the most amazing events in American history. Yes, winning the American Revolution was remarkable and a miracle, as was the mission to put a man on the moon. But in terms of fully representing the American spirit of economic growth, relentless expansion, and untamed curiosity, I don’t think anything tops the Lewis and Clark expedition. The journals in The Essential Lewis and Clark are full of not only details about new species, plants, and geographical features, but also opinions on commerce and American expansion.
We need to remember that as we contemplate the future. Space is a vast frontier, as is the ocean. While little of the surface of Earth remains to be explored or settled, we need to remember the spirit and lessons of Lewis and Clark as we engage in future expansion and settlement. Commerce should be a major goal, not just scientific advancement. Whatever exploration or research we do should benefit America, not some vague “global community.” And, no matter what was said in Robots in Space, the human spirit of exploration will always be the driving factor, so sending our countrymen to explore the stars or seas will inspire us like nothing else can.
Furthermore, The Essential Lewis and Clark is a fun and interesting book to read. The journal entries are short- no more than a few paragraphs at most, so it’s easy to read a few days’ worth of journals without spending too much time doing so. And, as I said in my summary of the book, the content of those journals is just amazing. Hearing about what the territory was like and what it took to explore that territory is amazing and filled me with a profound sense of pride to be an American.
The Essential Lewis and Clark is quite short, so this review is relatively short. But that shouldn’t be viewed as a mark against the book; I loved it. From the vivid imagery to the patriotic tone, not to mention the opportunity provided within it to learn more about that amazing expedition, I loved reading the book and was disappointed when I finished it because I wanted to keep reading it.
Every story in it is absolutely amazing. I’ve said that already, but find it hard to convey the sense of wonder and amazement that the journal entries in the book created. So much of what they saw and did is almost incomprehensible and indescribable, yet Lewis and Clark manage to describe it in their journals. From the mundane aspects of it to the most difficult and impressive, such as crossing the Rockies, it remains hard to believe that the expedition actually took place and succeeded. But it did, and The Essential Lewis and Clark is a testament to that success. It’s quite inspirational.
I might be more attached than others because when I was younger I had the opportunity to take a NOLS trip in Wyoming and fell in love with the landscape out West. The jagged, snowy peaks of the mountains impressed me, and the fertile, dark green valleys filled me with a desire to live out West. The fishing, hunting, and hiking are all without par and the landscape is, I think, the most beautiful in the world. The Essential Lewis and Clark reminded me of that experience and of my love for the West.
Hopefully, if you read it, you’ll feel the same way about the West. That territory is beautiful and has become the “American Redoubt,” where individual rights are still respected and the government is a little bit smaller. Thanks to Lewis and Clark, it has been explored and we can live out there now. Perhaps we should.
In any case, The Essential Lewis and Clark is certainly worth reading. It’s fun, fast-paced, full of amazing and awe-inspiring details, and short enough that it’s not a major time commitment. Plus, much of it is about a slice of America that we need to keep in mind and many of the readers of this website might want to move to in the near future.
By: Gen Z Conservative