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A member of L&CE treed by a grizzy bear from William Gass, Journal of Voyages and Travels of Corps of Discovery, 1810
A member of the Expedition treed by a grizzy bear from William Gass, Journal of Voyages and Travels of Corps of Discovery, 1810

Of Irish ancestry, Sergeant Patrick Gass was born in Pennsylvania, June 12, 1771. He joined the army in 1789, and by 1803 was serving under Captain Russell Bissell’s command at Kaskaskia, Illinois Territory. The Secretary of War instructed Captain Bissell to furnish Lewis and Clark “with one Sergeant & Eight good men.” Gass was determined to join the exploring mission, but Bissell denied his transfer, wishing to retain Gass for his craftsmanship skills.

Lewis interceded, and enlisted Gass on January 3, 1804, after Gass had made a personal appeal to him. Gass was not among the original three sergeants appointed at Camp Dubois. He was elected to fill the rank of sergeant by the vote of the men upon the death of Sergeant Charles Floyd on August 20, 1804.

Gass provides in his December 24 and 25, 1804, journal entries, a poignant reflection of the spirit of the holiday season at Fort Mandan, on the remote frontier of the northern plains. On Christmas Eve, Gass described the holiday observance: “This evening we finished our fortification. Flour, dried apples, pepper and other articles were distributed in the different messes to enable them to celebrate Christmas in a proper and social manner.” On Christmas Day, he wrote: “Captain Clark then presented to each man a glass of brandy, and we hoisted the American flag in the garrison, and its first waving in fort Mandan was celebrated with another glass. The men cleared out one of the rooms and commenced dancing, which was continued in a jovial manner till 8 at night.”

L&C in parley with group of Indians, from William Gass, Journal of Voyages and Travels of Corps of Discovery, 1810
Lewis and Clark in parley with group of Indians, from William Gass, Journal of Voyages and Travels of Corps of Discovery, 1810

Gass’s 1807 journal is a paraphrase version of his original field notes, which apparently were destroyed upon publication of the narrative. Acknowledging that he “never learned to read, write, and cipher till he had come of age,” Gass, upon his return, formed a partnership with David McKeehan, a Pittsburgh book and stationery store proprietor, for purposes of editing and publishing his journal. Gary E. Moulton, editor of the ongoing University of Nebraska Press publication of the Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, relates that McKeehan conceded “I have arranged and transcribed it for the press, supplying such geographical notes and other observations as I supposed would render it more useful and satisfactory to the reader.” To Moulton, “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.”

Sergeant Gass was a competent carpenter, a skill with which he served the expedition invaluably in the construction of its three winter quarters: Camp Dubois (Illinois), 1803-1804; Fort Mandan (North Dakota), 1804-1805; and Fort Clatsop (Oregon), 1805-1806. He also applied his talents toward the hewing of dugout canoes at Mandan, near White Bear Island (Montana), and Canoe Camp (Idaho), together with the fashioning of wagons to portage the canoes 18 miles overland around the series of falls of the Missouri (Montana). Gass and two others were chosen by Lewis to assemble Lewis’ “experiment,” his iron boat frame that failed due to lack of proper materials to seal the seams of its elk and buffalo hide hull covering.

On July 3, 1806, during the return trip from the Pacific, Lewis and Clark divided the Corps into three separate commands. With three men, Lewis traveled north to determine the source of the Maria’s River for the purpose of establishing the northern extent of the Louisiana Purchase Territory. Clark led a detachment that explored the Yellowstone River from near its source to its confluence with the Missouri. Gass was entrusted with the command of the remainder of the men to make the 18 mile overland return portage around the Missouri River waterfalls. All three parties were rejoined near the mouth of the Yellowstone on August 12, 1806. Proceeding on to the Hidatsa and Mandan Indian villages, Private John Colter, at his own request, was discharged to join a fur trapping party. On August 17, Toussaint Charbonneau, his wife, Sacagawea, and their son, Jean Baptiste were mustered out of the Corps. Gass, the only journalist to report it, states that as a parting gift to Toussaint, “the Commanding Officers gave him the blacksmith’s tools supposing they might be useful.”

As his most lasting literary legacy, Gass holds claim to popularizing the explorers’ proudly coined “Corps of Discovery” name, featured boldly on the title page of his 1807 published journal. Patrick Gass died April 2, 1870, at age 99 in Wellsburg, West Virginia.