So who was Patrick Gass anyhow?
Mr. Gass was born in 1771 in Falling Spring, Pennsylvania. That town is now part of Chambersburg. That much is clear, however, much of the rest of his life, other than his military service and the Voyage of Discovery period, has contradictory references as to where he was at any one time.
While he was still a young boy his parents moved to the vicinity of what is today Uniontown, Pennsylvania. In 1785 the family moved again, this time to Catfish Camp, later to be named Washington in Pennsylvania. In 1790 when he was near twenty he claims to have explored the Wellsburg area when it had but one house, the cabin of Alexander Wells.
In 1792, Gass claimed to have served as a soldier under a certain Captain Caton at the mouth of Yellow Creek, across the Ohio River from Mountaineer Resort. At that time he alleges that the area’s Indians were elated at having defeated Arthur St. Clair’s forces and hence were a significant threat. But that threat ended with the battle of fallen Timbers in August 1794. Apparently he did not fight in that action, but had been posted to Bennet’s Fort in the Wheeling Region.
After that, there is more certainty about his movements. In 1794 he signed on to become an apprentice to a carpenter and in 1795 he is said to have worked on a house in Wellsburg. However, the state of Pennsylvania has erected a historical marker related to James Buchanan’s childhood home which states: “James Buchanan, lawyer, statesman, diplomat, 15th President of the U.S., born in Stony Batter, lived here 1796-1807. Sgt. Patrick Gass, carpenter for winter quarters on the Lewis & Clark expedition, 1803-06, worked here as an apprentice, 1794-95. As Gass told stories of working to build that home it is more likely that he returned to his birthplace to become a carpenter, than remain in an area as sparsely populated as Wellsburg. This is further supported by his next military adventure: enlisting in the 19th American Regiment in late 1799 or early 1800, and serving in eastern Pennsylvania at Carlisle and York as well as Harper’s Ferry when the Regiment was disbanded He almost immediately re-enlisted for a five year term under a Major Jonathon Cass. In that command Gass eventually ended up as a non-commissioned officer at Fort Kaskaskia, in the Northwest Territory. This was where he joined with Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery.
A marker on the Lewis and Clark Trail at the Kaskaskia site relates:
“Lewis and Clark sought strong young men, familiar with the woods, good at hunting and able to endure a long, difficult journey. They found twelve candidates from the troops stationed here – more than any other place along their route.Expedition members recruited from troops at Kaskaskia
Sergeant Patrick Gass • Sergeant John Ordway • Private John Boley • Private John Collins • Private John Dame • Private John Robertson • Private Ebenezer Tuttle • Private Peter M. Weiser • Private Isam White • Private Joseph Whitehouse • Private Alexander Hamilton Willard • Private RichardWindsor
“On my arrival at Kaskaskia, I made a selection of a sufficient number of men from the troops…to complete my party.” Lewis correspondence to Jefferson.
The back story is that Lewis had an order for the area commander to provide a sergeant and eight others to the expedition. Gass volunteered but the commander of Fort Kaskaskia refused to permit it at first, likely because of his carpentry skills. Not to be denied Gass sought out Lewis and informed him of his desire to join the expedition. Lewis persuaded the commander of the fort to release him, and he joined the party as a private. A few months later one of the three Sergeants became ill and died. The group elected Gass to replace him. Gass served the expedition well. As a carpenter he was instrumental in the construction of the forts which provided winter shelter for the expedition. He built their canoes. On one occasion, on the return trip the Corps was split into three groups to explore different routes. This lasted for approximately six weeks. One group was commanded by Lewis, one by Clark and Gass was given command of the third group. More importantly, in a way, Gass also kept a journal of the trip.
In any event Sergeant Gass returned with the other members of the expedition to St. Louis on September 23, 1806. The men were mustered out. He travelled on to Pittsburgh and there in 1807 his journal was published in cooperation with David McKeehan a Pittsburgh printer. As Gass did not learn to read and write until he was an adult much of the printed work was probably done by McKeehan, but it is factually consistent with other reports and journals including the official report prepared by Lewis and published in 1814. For several years Gass’ journal was the only one in existence describing the journey.
Subsequently, Gass served at Fort Kaskaskia for an additional four years, He served at Fort Massac in Illinois, then in the assaults on Fort Erie and Lundy’s Lane in Canada in 1814, during the War of 1812. Near the end of that war he lost an eye, and was discharged, and according to one source retired to an obscurity from which he never emerged, except for one occasion when he was part of a delegation which visited the nation’s capital to petition Congress for pensions for soldiers of the War of 1812.
He apparently resided in Wellsburg for most of the rest of his life, and according to some reports like many an old soldier spent too much time drinking and telling war stories. Yet, at around age 60 he married a much younger woman, a certain Maria Hamilton aged 22, for whose father he had been engaged to perform some services. They had seven children during their fifteen years of marriage, before she passed away in 1849. Five of those children survived into adulthood. As for Gass he lived until age 99, and was the last surviving member of the expedition. He was buried next to his wife in 1870 in Wellsburg. There are several historical markers attesting to his efforts in Wellsburg and elsewhere on the Lewis and Clark Trail, in addition to the one at the Buchanan home.