Time Before Now, June 1771 – Captain James Cook was sailing back to England aboard the “HMS Endeavor” after mapping the east coast of Australia. Benjamin Franklin was touring Ireland and British cartographer, John Spilsbury, was selling “dissected maps,” the first jigsaw puzzles, in his London shop. (Right)
June 12, 1771
On this day Sergeant Patrick Gass, the last living member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, was born in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
Joining Lewis and Clark at 23, Gass was already a skilled carpenter but nearly missed an appointment to the expedition because of it. When he wasn’t carpentering, he was soldiering.
By 1803, he was serving under Revolutionary War veteran, Captain Russell Bissell at Kaskaskia, Illinois Territory. When Lewis and Clark came calling, Bissell was ordered to provide the captains with a sergeant and “eight good men.” Eager to volunteer, Bissell denied Gass a transfer, reluctant to lose his carpentry skills. Gass, however, wouldn’t’ take no for an answer, appealing to Lewis who interceded on his behalf. (Above, drawing of Gass at 90)
Not from a military family, he was born in Falling Springs, Pennsylvania, present day Chambersburg. Reportedly spending much of his boyhood with his grandfather in Northern Maryland, Gass joined the Virginia militia by his eighteenth birthday. He returned to Mercersburg in south central Pennsylvania and apprenticed as a carpenter. He first got into the business of contributing to history there, helping to build the childhood home of the future president, James Buchanan. (Right, it became a restaurant and hotel)
He promptly went back to soldiering in 1799 with the threat of war with France, serving under General Alexander Hamilton and back in the military again by 1803, just in time to head west with the expedition.
Gass didn’t start out as a sergeant. He was selected by the members of the corps to fill the vacancy of quartermaster left by the tragic death of Charles Floyd, (left) August 20, 1804. Gass was either too modest or didn’t consider it worthy to mention his promotion in his journal.
His selection was a wise choice, however. His skill as a carpenter put a roof over their heads both at Fort Mandan and Oregon’s Fort Clatsop, and provided alternate means of transportation throughout the trip with dugouts, pirogues and wagons.
Early 20th century depiction of Fort Clatsop
In addition to the two captains, Gass, Floyd, Ordway and Whitehouse all were asked to provide written records for posterity, but Gass got his journal to the printers first. Sensing he was unsuited for the task of editing the document, he engaged a lawyer turned printer named David McKeehan. Under their agreement, Gass was to receive 100 copies of the book and retain the copyright while McKeehan would own the remainder. Copies were sold by subscription in Pittsburgh for a hefty price of $1 each, about $20 today.
It’s unclear how much profit Gass realized from the bargain. The timing for McKeehan was auspicious but it ignited a public flap between Meriwether Lewis (left) and McKeehan. After sending McKeehan several threatening letter, the ex-lawyer admonished Lewis in the press and stated he planned to ignore the threats.
Lewis apparently believed the captains had a proprietary interest in the journals. Private Robert Frazer received $300 from Lewis and Clark (about $6,000 today) reportedly to withhold publication of his journals. Frazer had received special permission to publish but ended up only issuing a broad prospective of his travels which included the Missouri River, the western mountains and the Columbia River.
Lewis died three years later, however, and responsibility for publishing the journals fell to Clark. He, in turn hired up-and-coming Philadelphia financier, Nicholas Biddle, (left) to edit the material. The illustrated Gass account was already in its seventh printing, reprinted in England and translated into French and German, by the time Biddle got his version to the printer in 1814.
Illustration from Gass journal, “Canoe strikes a tree”
Gass remained in the military after returning east, finally discharged after losing an eye in the Battle of Lundy’s Lane during the War of 1812. Despite his skill as a carpenter, he failed to settle into any full time vocation other than soldiering, drifting from one endeavor to another.
At age 60 he married Maria Hamilton, age 20, or perhaps just 16. The mother of seven surviving children, Maria died of measles at 36, leaving Gass a single father and a widower for his remaining three decades. He died April 7, 1870, at Wellsburg, West Virginia, age 98, the last surviving member of the expedition. Whether he or McKeehan was responsible for the phrase “Corps of Discovery,” the title has endured as an insightful summery of one of the nation’s most historic journeys.
Fort Mandan Historic Site and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, Washburn, N.D. a faithful reconstruction of the winter quarters Patrick Gass built in the winter of 1805-06. The original fort was destroyed by fire before Lewis and Clark’s return in 1806 but the reconstruction which includes the fully furnished quarters is just steps away from its historic location. In addition, the recently remodeled interpretive center displays a collection of artifacts from the Lewis and Clark journey plus new exhibits on North Dakota’s history.
Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center
Fort Mandan is open 9 to 5 daily from April through September, closed October through March. The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center is open April through September from 10 to 5, Tuesday through Sunday. Winter hours, October through March, are 9 to 5 Monday through Saturday. Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for students. For more information go to fortmandan.com, call (701) 462-8535, e-mail email@example.com or write Interpretive Center, PO Box 708, Washburn, ND 58577-0708.
In accordance with CDC guidelines, the park is undergoing a phased reopening. For the most current information, go to the website listed above.
© Text Only – 2020- Headin’ West LLC – All photos – public domain and fair use.
*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable. When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.