Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Two Words and the Themes of American History

What I Learn By Reading About Lewis and Clark

As I read Undaunted Courage, one word kept drawing my attention. And as I thought about it, I came to understand a fundamental problem we as American’s need to face. The word was "friendly" matched with its opposite "hostile." The Corps of Discovery kept hoping the Indians they met would be friendly, or could be won over with trade goods, overawed by visiting Jefferson in Washington, or intimidated by the weapons the Corps brought with them. In turn they were wary of Indians that might prove more ready to attack then listen or trade. This is perfectly understandable from their POV. But what did "friendship" really mean? It meant accepting the terms dictated by the new people who called themselves American — certain trade relationships, territorial boundaries, and ultimately power relations. And none of those would prove to be good for the Indians. What the Corps saw as friendship might more accurately be called "capitulation."

So the Corps keeps hoping allies, friends, which with the long light of history we can see as vassels, clients, defeated nations. And that leads to the second word — "tragedy." Already when the Corps arrived on the Missouri the native nations had been devastated by smallpox. If the Indians had greater resistance, if they were still strong in numbers, they might well have been able to dictate better terms. They might have had a stronger hand in defining the bonds of "friendship." But they were dying already, creating power vacuums and clashes between Indian groups. They really did have no good choice — suicidal agreement, or suicidal war. Yes the "Americans" could possibly have treated the Indians betters – there were advocates for that from the start. We might have had an Indian Rights crusade alongside abolition and female suffrage. But that was very unlikely. The drive of poor Europeans for land was as blinding as the no-choice, choices of the Indians.

When we teach our history we emphasize hope and progress — America the land where you can reinvent yourself. And that is true. We as a nation have reinvented ourself in good ways. But then we tend to believe history is about progress, getting better and beter (certainly I think that way). The story of the Indians is a reminder is that history is also the story of tragedy — where there is no good answer, no hero, no villain, just people trapped by bad options and terrible choices. We need kids to realize that there is not always a right way, a happy ending. Sometimes there is loss, and sadness, and mourning the dead. That is what I learned from reading Undaunted Courage.


  1. says:

    Marc, This poignant post points to the importance of teachers (and writers) showing or investigating various points of view. We also need to help kids understand that most choices are not good or bad. Rather, they are good or better, bad or worse–shades of gray. By using history as a starting point, we can guide students into thinking about the long term, not just reading facts. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

  2. Exactly — not heroes and villains (except when appropriate) but flawed humans making difficult choices — as we all are, and do, today,