How the West Was Almost Lost
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A good general history that portrays the Lewis and Clark expedition and the expeditions of Zebulon Pike as parts of a larger struggle to establish power in western America.

Montgomery, a journalist known for his meditations on fishing throughout the American wilderness (Many Rivers to Cross, 1995, etc.), turns his talents to the nation’s earliest explorations beyond the Louisiana territories. In addition to retelling the story of Jefferson’s commissioning of Lewis and Clark to find a portage between the Missouri and Columbia rivers, Montgomery details Pike’s less familiar expeditions to the headwaters of the Mississippi and into Spanish New Mexico. The Lewis and Clark expedition and the Pike one are presented in opposition to each other: Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to expand US influence to the Pacific, whereas Pike’s journeys were ordered by General James Wilkinson in anticipation of the possible secession of the Louisianan territories (under Aaron Burr’s infamous leadership). Despite the disparate motivations behind the expeditions, Montgomery suggests that they both tried to conquer the territories through a spirit of aggressive adventure. This spirit earns the explorers the sobriquet of “gun-men.” The failures of Lewis and Clark to find a useful passage to the Pacific, and of Pike to incite a war with Spain, lead Montgomery to relate their stories in a bemused style. This tone deflates the cultural divinity imputed to the “gun-men” and suggests that the American West surrendered instead to the hard and unromantic work of the pioneers who would follow them.

Styled more as an adventure narrative than a traditional history, an enjoyable romp with Lewis, Clark, and Pike, along with an interesting introduction to the drama of Aaron Burr’s failed attempt to establish himself as emperor of the Louisiana territories. (6 b&w illustrations, 6 maps)

Pub Date: July 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-517-70212-6
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Crown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2000


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