The 10 Best Books on Lewis and Clark

Essential Books on Lewis and Clark

lewis and clark books

There are countless books on Lewis and Clark, and it comes with good reason, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery Expedition across a newly acquired western portion of the United States after the Louisiana Purchase.

“Boys, be ambitious. Be ambitious not for money, not for selfish aggrandizement, not for the evanescent thing which men call fame. Be ambitious for the attainment of all that a man can be,” William Clark remarked.

In order to get to the bottom of what inspired some of American history’s most consequential figures to explore the treacherous unknown, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best books on Lewis and Clark.

Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose

In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson selected his personal secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to lead a voyage up the Missouri River to the Rockies, over the mountains, down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, and back. Lewis and his partner, Captain William Clark, made the first map of the trans-Mississippi West, provided invaluable scientific data on the flora and fauna of the Louisiana Purchase territory, and established the American claim to Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

Ambrose has pieced together previously unknown information about weather, terrain, and medical knowledge at the time to provide a vivid backdrop for the expedition. Lewis is supported by a rich variety of colorful characters, first of all Jefferson himself, whose interest in exploring and acquiring the American West went back thirty years. Next comes Clark, a rugged frontiersman whose love for Lewis matched Jefferson’s. There are numerous Indian chiefs, and Sacagawea, the Indian girl who accompanied the expedition, along with the French-Indian hunter Drouillard, the great naturalists of Philadelphia, the French and Spanish fur traders of St. Louis, John Quincy Adams, and many more leading political, scientific, and military figures of the turn of the century.

Lewis and Clark: Across the Divide by Carolyn Gilman

Lewis and Clark: Across the Divide offers an expansive overview of the famed expedition, examining the lands traversed and the Native Americans the explorers met along the way, in a volume that includes more than four hundred photographs and illustrations.

The Fate of the Corps by Larry E. Morris

The story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition has been told many times. But what became of the thirty-three members of the Corps of Discovery once the expedition was over?

The expedition ended in 1806, and the final member of the corps passed away in 1870. In the intervening decades, members of the corps witnessed momentous events impact the nation they helped form, from the War of 1812 to the Civil War and the opening of the transcontinental railroad. Some of the expedition members went on to hold public office; two were charged with murder. Many of the explorers could not resist the call of the wild, and continued to adventure forth into America’s western frontier.

Engagingly written and based on exhaustive research, The Fate of the Corps chronicles the lives of the fascinating men (and one woman) who opened the American West.

The Journals of Lewis and Clark; edited by Bernard DeVoto

In 1803, the great expanse of the Louisiana Purchase was an empty canvas. Keenly aware that the course of the nation’s destiny lay westward – and that a “Voyage of Discovery” would be necessary to determine the nature of the frontier – President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition from the Missouri River to the northern Pacific coast and back.

From 1804 to 1806, accompanied by co-captain William Clark, the Shoshone guide Sacajawea, and thirty-two men, Lewis mapped rivers, traced the principal waterways to the sea, and established the American claim to the territories of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.

Together the captains kept this journal: a richly detailed record of the flora and fauna they sighted, the native tribes they encountered, and the awe-inspiring landscape they traversed, from their base camp near present-day St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia River, which has become an incomparable contribution to the literature of exploration and the writing of natural history.

The Character of Meriwether Lewis by Clay S. Jenkinson

Meriwether Lewis commanded the most important exploration mission in the early history of the United States. Clay S. Jenkinson takes a fresh look at Lewis, not to offer a paper cutout hero but to describe and explain a hyper-serious young man of great complexity who found the wilderness of Upper Louisiana as exacting as it was exhilarating.

Jenkinson sees Lewis as a troubled soul before he left St. Charles, Missouri, in May 1804. His experiences in lands “upon which the foot of civilized man had never trodden” further fractured his sense of himself. His hiring William Clark as his “partner in discovery” was, Jenkinson shows, the most intelligent decision he ever made. When Clark was nearby, Lewis’s leadership was stable and productive. When Clark was absent and thus unable to provide a calming influence on his mercurial friend, Lewis tended to get into trouble. Had Clark been with Lewis on the Natchez Trace, the governor of Upper Louisiana would not have killed himself. This book frames Lewis’s 1809 suicide not as an inexplicable mystery, but the culmination of a series of pressures that extend back to the expedition and perhaps even earlier.

William Clark and the Shaping of the West by Landon Y. Jones

Between 1803 and 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark co-captained the most famous expedition in American history. But while Lewis ended his life just three years later, Clark, as the highest-ranking Federal official in the West, spent three decades overseeing its consequences: Indian removal and the destruction of Native America. In a rare combination of storytelling and scholarship, best-selling author Landon Y. Jones presents for the first time Clark’s remarkable life and influential career in their full complexity.

Like every colonial family living on Virginia’s violent frontier, the Clarks killed Indians and acquired land; acting on behalf of the United States, William would prove successful at both. Clark’s life was spent fighting in America’s fifty-year running war with the Indians (and their European allies) over the Western borderlands.

The struggle began with his famed brother George Roger’s western campaigns during the American Revolution, continued through the vicious battles of the War of 1812, and ended with the Black Hawk War in the 1830s. In vividly depicting Clark’s life, Jones memorably captures not only the dark and bloody ground of America’s early West, but also the qualities of character and courage that made him an unequaled leader in America’s grander enterprise: the shaping of the West. No one played a larger part in that accomplishment than William Clark.

Lewis and Clark Among the Indians by James P. Ronda

“Particularly valuable for Ronda’s inclusion of pertinent background information about the various tribes and for his ethnological analysis. An appendix also places the Sacagawea myth in its proper perspective. Gracefully written, the book bridges the gap between academic and general audiences,” Choice noted in a review. The author of this necessary installment to the ever-budding index of Lewis and Clark books, James P. Ronda, holds the H. G. Barnard Chair in Western History at the University of Tulsa.

Sacajawea: Guide and Interpreter of Lewis and Clark by Grace Raymond Hebard

This remarkable study rescues from undeserved obscurity the name and reputation of Sacajawea – a true Native American heroine. The volume also unravels the tangled threads of her family life and traces the career of her son Baptiste (the “papoose” of the Lewis and Clark expedition). It also describes her personal traits, the significant services she rendered during the expedition and while she acted as counselor to her own people, discloses the true meaning of her name and describes her “lost years” among the Comanches. The text is enhanced with 21 illustrations, including a map, and 6 appendices containing testimonies by Indian agents, missionaries, teachers, and Shoshone tribespeople.

Encyclopedia of the Lewis and Clark Expedition by Elin Woodger

This wide-ranging hallmark among books on Lewis and Clark provides a complete reference to the great American expedition they embarked upon, covering all major elements, from the preparatory work initiated by President Jefferson in 1801 to the corps’ return from the Pacific Ocean in 1806. Containing more than 360 informative A-to-Z entries, as well as an extensive chronology with mileage markers, an introductory essay, lists of sources for further reading following each entry, a bibliography, a subject index, a general index, 20 maps, and 116 black-and-white photographs, the Encyclopedia of the Lewis and Clark Expedition details a fascinating and important event in American history.

Mountain Man by David Weston Marshall

In 1804, John Colter set out with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on the first US expedition to traverse the North American continent. During the 28-month ordeal, Colter served as a hunter and scout, and honed his survival skills on the western frontier. But when the journey was over, Colter stayed behind. He spent two more years trekking alone through dangerous and unfamiliar territory, charting some of the West’s most treasured landmarks.

Historian David W. Marshall crafts this captivating history from Colter’s primary sources, and has retraced Colter’s steps – experiencing firsthand how he survived in the wilderness (how he pitched a shelter, built a fire, followed a trail, and forded a stream) – adding a powerful layer of authority and detail.

After Lewis and Clark by Robert M. Utley

In 1807, a year after Lewis and Clark returned from the shores of the Pacific, groups of trappers and hunters began to drift West to tap the rich stocks of beaver and to trade with the Native nations. Colorful and eccentric, bold and adventurous, mountain men such as John Colter, George Drouillard, Hugh Glass, Andrew Henry, and Kit Carson found individual freedom and financial reward in pursuit of pelts. Their knowledge of the country and its inhabitants served the first mapmakers, the army, and the streams of emigrants moving West in ever-greater numbers. The mountain men laid the foundations for their own displacement, as they led the nation on a westward course that ultimately spread the American lands from sea to sea.

Along the Trail with Lewis and Clark by Barbara Fifer

Follow the journey of the Corps of Discovery from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello through the Midwest and the Rockies, to the Pacific Ocean and back with this detailed chronicle of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The third edition of the classic guidebook features accessible text that combines the historical sites and color maps that merge the past and present in a user-friendly and entertaining way.


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