|Patrick Gass was the main
carpenter on the Lewis and Clark expedition. He
also is credited with popularizing the name Corps of Discovery.
Image courtesy of Meryl Wieder.
An old saying
claims that anyone can tear a building down, but it takes a carpenter
to build it. In Patrick Gass the Corps of Discovery had its carpenter.
skills were invaluable throughout the expedition. He oversaw and
led the construction of all three of the Corps' winter quarters:
Camp Dubois, Fort Mandan, and Fort Clatsop. His records of those
forts, chronicled in the journals he kept, were particularly detailed.
have missed the expedition were it not for Meriwether
Lewis' pulling rank. Gass was stationed in 1803 under Capt.
Russell Bissell in Kaskaskia in the Illinois Territory. Secretary
of War Henry Dearborn had instructed Bissell to furnish Lewis
with one sergeant and eight good men. Gass volunteered, but Bissell
denied him, not wanting to lose his best noncommissioned officer.
Lewis used the authority given by Dearborn to enlist Gass anyway.
Born in 1771
in Pennsylvania of Irish descent, the gray-eyed, dark-haired Gass
found himself in a leadership role rather quickly on the expedition.
When Sgt. Charles Floyd died of a burst
appendix on Aug. 20, 1804, the captains ordered a vote of the
men for a new sergeant. Gass received the most votes, 19. On Aug.
26 Lewis appointed him sergeant. The short, barrel-chested Gass
was known for conversation "better suited for the camp than
limit his carpentry skills to the forts the expedition opened.
He also was skilled at making canoes. He made dugout canoes from
trees around Fort Mandan, White Bear Island at the Great Falls,
and Canoe Camp in Idaho. At the Great Portage he created wagons
to carry the canoes the 17 miles around the falls. Gass and two
others also assembled "The Experiment," Lewis' iron
frame boat that he had carried from Harpers Ferry, VA. Though
the boat failed to last a day at the falls, the captain showed
his faith in Gass by choosing him to put it together.
greatest legacy came after the expedition. The captains had asked
all the sergeants to keep a journal. Gass did so dutifully, though
he said he "never learned to read, write, and cipher till
he had come of age." No matter. Unlike Lewis, Gass quickly
went to work publishing his journals upon his return. His journal
the next year, the first published from the expedition, was a
paraphrased version of his original field notes. Of the journals
published from the members of the Corps of Discovery, Gass' is
considered the easiest to read. Some of that is owed to Gass'
editor, but the rest to his journalistic style of simply reporting
the facts. For instance, his entry from April 30, 1805:
embarked at sunrise; had a fine morning and went on very well.
We passed through a handsome Country, with a rich soil, and
the prairies rising beautifully on both sides of the river.
We went 24 miles and encamped on the North side. Captain Lewis
killed a large elk here."
of the Corps of Discovery, Gass gets credit for popularizing the
name. It was featured boldly on the title page of his 1807 published
went on to fight in the War of 1812 under Gen. Andrew Jackson.
He was discharged after losing an eye in an accident. He also
was the longest living member of the Corps. He married at the
age of 60, had a number of children, and settled in Wellsburg,
WV, where he died in 1870.
paid tribute to his savvy sergeant in a letter to President Jefferson
about the men of the Corps. About Gass he wrote of the sergeant's
"ample support . . . manly firmness . . . the fortitude with
which he bore the fatigues and painful sufferings." Lewis
said Gass had Lewis' "highest confidence" and that the
sergeant was entitled to "the consideration and respect of
his fellow citizens."
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