Lewis and Clark’s Brilliant Failure: An Exploration of the Famous Expedition

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Duration 01:05:27

Emory University

Patrick Allitt has been a professor of American History at Emory University since 1988, where he teaches courses on American intellectual, environmental, and religious history, as well as Victorian Britain and the Great Books. After earning an undergraduate degree at Oxford and a Ph.D. in American history at the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Allitt held postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard and Princeton. He is the author of seven books, including his most recent: A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism.



In 1803, President Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to find a straightforward water route to the Pacific Ocean.  No white Americans had yet visited the Rocky Mountains, so the two leaders of the Corps of Discovery had no idea how high and wild its ranges were.  They envisioned paddling up the Missouri River to its headwaters, carrying their canoes over a gentle ridge, and putting them into the headwaters of the Columbia River on the other side, before floating down to the Pacific shore.  Instead, their three-year journey – from 1804-1806 — exploded that fantasy, subjecting them to grueling hardships.  Neither were they able to fulfil Jefferson’s hope that they could pacify all the Native Americans they met, converting them into allies of the “Great White Father” in Washington.

Despite these disappointments, Lewis and Clark did a brilliant job as mapmakers, explorers, anthropologists, botanists, and diplomats: achievements for which we still honor them today.  By the end of Professor Allitt’s lecture, you will better understand who these brave explorers were, how they set about their venture, the most important decisions they made, and the crises they faced together.  You’ll also learn about their return to the “states” after three tough years, by which time many contemporaries assumed they had died somewhere along the trail.


Discussion Questions:

  1. How did Alexander Mackenzie’s journey influence Jefferson, Lewis, and Clark?
  1. How had the lives of the plains Indians changed in the century before Lewis and Clark’s arrival?
  1. Which winter tested the Corps of Discovery most: Fort Mandan or Fort Clatsop?
  1. Discuss Lewis and Clark’s leadership style and their distinctive strengths.



Recommended Readings:

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, by Stephen Ambrose

The Journals of Lewis and Clark – edited by Bernard DeVoto

Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns

Thomas Jefferson, by Joyce Appelby and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (ed.)






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Corwin May

Really enjoyed this

This held my attention all the way through. The professor was very well spoken and clearly knew his material. He included a lot of interesting details you don’t learn about in school.

2 years ago
Robert Chesson

Excellent summary well presented.

Not so much of a review of the talk but just a plug for Steven Ambrose’s excellent book on L&C Undaunted Courage. Easily one of the best accounts of the Corps of Discovery. Exciting, informative and very human. Their depression over the winter at Ft Clatsop (knowing they had to retrace their journey to get home). Meriwether Lewis is a bit of a tragic figure who never was able to overcome his melancholy (probably chronic depression) after the success of the Corps; he died young, possibly by sucide. Clark on the other hand had a very successful post Corps career

2 years ago
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