Friday, June 12, 2015
Patrick Gass, chronicler of the Lewis and Clark expedition
Patrick McLene Gass barely could read or write. His language was better suited for the camp than the parlor, as they said 200 years ago. But his carpentry skills and ability to fight were useful in the Lewis and Clarke Expedition, in which Americans explored their new frontier after the Louisiana Purchase doubled the nation's size. And when he made it back, Gass would publish his journal a full seven years before the official journals.
Born on June 12, 1771, in Falling Springs, Pennsylvania, Gass would live to be 98. He was apprenticed as a carpenter, and worked in 1794 on building a home near Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, where he befriended Little Jimmy -- better known today as James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States.
Gass had already finished his first tour of military service in 1791 and 1792, serving in the place of his father who had been drafted into the Virginia militia to fight Indians. In 1799, Gass rejoined the army under General Alexander Hamilton as a war with France seemed inevitable. But the election of President Jefferson eased those fears, and Gass mustered out in 1800.
He rejoined the army in 1803 to fight Indians in Illinois. Gass was 5-foot-seven with dark hair and gray eyes. He also had a barrel chest.
When Captain Meriwether Lewis and his close friend Second Lieutenant William Clark formed their party to explore the lands of the Louisiana Purchase, they sought volunteers. It was like joining the original astronauts. This truly was uncharted territory, and at 32, Gass wanted to be part of the action. His carpentry skills made him an invaluable part of the party as he built the three winter camps for the group, as well as the canoes and wagons for the journey. After Sergeant Charles Floyd died from appendicitis on August 22, 1804, the men elected Gass to take his place as sergeant. On the return trip, he commanded the main party while the two officers each took a smaller party to make other explorations.
Each sergeant and officer on the expedition kept a journal. Gass was smart enough to have his published when they returned. His account was translated into German and French. However, the publisher of the journal, David McKeehan, likely rewrote the sergeant's work to smooth the rough edges.
Gary E. Moulton, editor of the ongoing University of Nebraska Press publication of the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, said, McKeehan’s elegant style was probably very different from that of a rough-and-ready frontier sergeant ... but there is no reason to think that the bookseller substantially altered the facts as Gass presented them ... The work agrees well with the captains’ journals.”
After publishing his journal in 1807, Gass returned to his unit in Illinois. Things went well until war with Britain broke out. He fought on the Northern Front, as the British invaded from Canada and the Americans invaded Canada. The Battle of Lundy's Lane was the bloodiest of these battles, and it cost Gass an eye.
After the war, Gass tried many occupations, but he mainly turned to the bottle. Likely it was post-traumatic stress which got to him. He loved to regale people with his war stories, particularly his role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Finally in 1829, a man named John Hamilton took the 58-year-old sergeant into his home in Wellsburg, which is now in West Virginia.. Gass fell in love with Hamilton's daughter, Maria. He was 60 and she was 20 when they married. They lived in a log cabin and she bore him seven children in 15 years. But she died at 36 from smallpox, and Gass at 76 was left to raise their surviving five children.
However, he never had to beg for food even though it was a constant struggle to care for his family. When the Civil War broke out, he tried to enlist again to fight the rebels. At 91, he made such a ruckus that officials had to escort him from the recruiting station.
He died on April 2, 1870, the last survivor of the Lewis and Clark expedition. If there is a Hall of Fame for NCOs, he belongs there. Just hold the induction ceremony at a camp and not in the parlor.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.