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The CorpsEnlisted Men and Engages
Robert Frazer
Thomas Proctor Howard
 

Patrick Gass

(1771 - 1870)
Private, then Sergeant, U.S. Army

Expedition Carpenter & Last Survivor


atrick Gass must have been a likeable fellow. On August 22, 1804, two days of Sgt. Charles Floyd died and at present Elk Point, South Dakota, the captains held a nominating vote for his replacement. Certainly all the twenty-five enlisted men of the permanent party voted, and possibly the captains included the return party's six men. Gass received nineteen nods, a majority of either 76% or 61%. A few votes, quantity unrecorded, went to George Gibson and William Bratton. Four days later, Gass was officially promoted to sergeant. Lewis wrote:

the Commanding officers are still further confirmed in the high opinion they had previously formed of the capacity, deligence and integrety of Sergt. Gass, from the wish expressed by a large majority of his comrades for his appointment as Sergeant.

Meriwether Lewis must also have liked the Pennsylvania-born Irishman. A year later,1 when Gass erred in a way likely to bring a display of Lewis's quick temper, the captain wrote indulgently, even cheerfully,
Sergt. Gass lost my tommahawk in the thick brush and we were unable to find it, I regret the loss of this usefull implement, however accedents will happen in the best families, and I consoled myself with the recollection that it was not the only one we had with us.

Gass, a career army man since 1799, had deeply wanted to join the expedition when Lewis arrived in his post, Fort Kaskaskia in "the Illinois." His own commander, Capt. Russell Bissell, turned him down, so Gass took his request directly to Lewis, who talked Bissell into it. Gary Moulton speculates that Bissell may not have wanted to lose a skilled carpenter like Gass2 which made him even more valuable to a group that faced making two, and eventually three, winter cantonments.

Gass already had served in the U.S. Army Rangers after enlisting in 1799 a guerrilla-fighting unit that exists to this day. British Gen. John Burgoyne, who faced the first Rangers during the Revolutionary War, described them as "the most famous corps of the Continental Army, all of them crack shots."3

The private had not enlisted in the army until he was twenty-eight years old, and became the expedition's third-oldest army member, after John Shields (b. 1769) and William Clark (b. 1770). Possibly Gass's carpenter training came from a pre-enlistment apprenticeship.

He did not learn to read and write until he was a grown man, but he did keep an expedition journal as was required of all sergeants. Unless he later reconstructed the portion predating August 1804, Gass had been keeping that journal since the expedition started out on May 14. His was the first of any to see print, in 1807, but sadly for those who savor the other journals' rough-hewn orthography and grammar, the text was rewritten into formal prose. Perhaps because it reminded Lewis that he was failing to produce his own book, the captain raised a public fuss. He exchanged and published angry letters to the book's publisher, and probable rewriter, David McKeehan of Pittsburgh. Lewis's argument that Gass's book was unauthorized led McKeehan to charge Lewis with demanding to be "him who commands and dispenses favors." McKeehan's fury went so far as to suggest that perhaps Cruzatte's shooting of Lewis was no accident.4

Six other publishers soon picked up the book, with Mathew Carey in Philadelphia adding what Moulton labels "quaint and highly imaginative scenes from the expedition."5 As was usual at the time, publishers rather than author profited from the work. Gass's journal was the only authentic account of the expedition until Nicholas Biddle and George Shannon's edition of the captains' journals came out in 1814.

Gass no doubt was carpenter-in-charge for building Camp Wood, Fort Mandan, and Fort Clatsop. In fact, only in his journal with some added information in John Ordway's do we read the dimensions and layout of Mandan. At the Great Falls of the Missouri, Lewis assigned carpenter Gass and blacksmith Shields to craft and fit the interior wooden braces of the iron boat, once they located suitable wood to use. In October 1805, on the Clearwater River in Idaho, Gass and three others repaired a canoe that split and dumped the stock of trade goods. While the "merchandize" dried out on the 10th, they went to work and, "at 1 oClock She was finished Stronger than ever" (Clark).

When faced with their decision at the mouth of the Marias River, about which fork was the true Missouri, the captains first sent Gass and two men up the Missouri while Ordway and two others went up the Marias. Gass marched only 6.5 miles, Ordway 10, and neither found the expected large, single waterfall. These forays changing no one's mind, the captains then made their own separate and lengthier treks.

Despite his duties as sergeant, Gass sometimes joined the expedition's hunting trips. He experienced no outstanding adventures on the journey, and no major injuries or illnesses, but slipping in a canoe and falling back onto the gunwale invalided him off the Jefferson River in Montana and into Lewis's advance party that located the Shoshones in August 1805.

Gass stayed in the army after the expedition, until he lost an eye in an accident during the War of 1812. He worked at many jobs for years, first in Ohio then in future West Virginia. Still at bachelor at age sixty, he accepted a building-construction job from a man named Hamilton, at Wellsburg, and soon eloped with Maria, the family's only daughter. She was twenty, and her parents had objected to Gass's attentions. The couple settled in a rented log cabin and farmed. They had seven children, six of whom survived to adulthood. When their last child was a baby, Maria died during a measles epidemic. She was only thirty-six. Patrick was now seventy-five, but he raised his other children alone.6 Until nearly the end of his life, he walked four miles into Wellsburg to pick up the mail. The end came when he was ninety-nine years old, the expedition's last survivor.7

--Barbara Fifer; 05/06

1. On August 2, 1805.

2. Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 13 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001), 10:xiv.

3. Website of the U.S. Army Rangers, www.ranger.org/ accessed 5-12-06.

4. Moulton, 10:xvi.

5. Moulton, 10:xvii.

6. Larry E. Morris, The Fate of the Corps: What Became of the Lewis and Clark Explorers After the Expedition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 182-83.

7. Morris says Gass was "fourteen months short of one hundred." p. 184.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program.

Robert Frazer
Thomas Proctor Howard


 
From Discovering Lewis & Clark ®, http://www.lewis-clark.org © 1998-2014
by The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, Washburn, North Dakota.
Journal excerpts are from The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary E. Moulton
13 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001)