Sergeant Patrick Gass
Patrick Gass, the Corps of Discovery member who outlived all others, counting his years for just short of a century, was born on 12 June 1771 in Falling Springs, Pennsylvania, to a family of Irish lineage. His parents, Benjamin and Mary McLene Gass moved the family around several times in the first years of Patrick's life, finally settling in western Maryland.
From 1777-1780, Patrick went to live with his grandfather, allegedly for his education, but he claimed that he acquired his entire education of reading, writing, and ciphering in a 19-day period after he had already reached adulthood. He was later described as having language "better suited for the camp then the parlor," which was excused because of his many years as a soldier.
He joined the military shortly after his parents had moved to Catfish Camp from which he often journeyed across roadless lands in order to buy salt, iron, and other sundries in Hagerstown and Mercersburg, PA. These experiences cultivated his restless and adventurous personality, and in 1792 at 21 years of age, he went to fight the Indians who often attacked settlers in the western frontier of the colonies. He served at Bennett's Fort in Wheeling and in August, General Anthony Wayne led an offensive that virtually ended confrontation with the Indians in the area.
In 1794, Gass returned to Mercersburg and became a carpenter's apprentice for two years. During that time, he worked on a variety of projects, including James Buchanan, Sr.'s home. During that project, Gass became acquainted with "little Jimmy," the future president of the United States. Near the end of his apprenticeship, the 1796 Peace at Greenville jumpstarted settlement in the western territories. Gass worked as a carpenter until 1799 when a threat of war with France developed. Gass immediately re-enlisted in the 10th regiment under General Alexander Hamilton, but received his discharge in June, 1800 when the tension with France dissipated.
As soon as he could, Gass re-enlisted and in May, 1801 joined Captain Russell Bissell's company which was stationed at Kaskaskia, Il. In 1803, when Bissell's company was contacted to send recruits to join Lewis and Clark, Gass volunteered, along with John Ordway and Charles Floyd. While on the trip, Gass maintained a journal, but his poor education hindered his ability to write and express the events of the day well on paper. He joined as a private, but was promoted to sergeant after Charles Floyd died.
When the expedition returned in 1806, Gass's friends encouraged him to publish his journal. Understanding that he lacked the skill to edit and make the composition comprehensible for the general reading public, Gass approached a schoolteacher, David McKeehan, to prepare the record for printing. McKeehan agreed, and the pair decided that Gass would receive 100 copies of the final work, and own the copyright. The balance of the printed editions would belong to McKeehan. Zadok Cramer published the book. Markets and timing proved kind to Mr. McKeehan, as the country was excited to read about the newly returned expedition and the discoveries and knowledge the explorers brought back. The Gass edition of the Lewis and Clark Journals enjoyed several printings within the United States as well as translations into German and French, and printings in England. The editions printed from Clark and Lewis's papers would not be published for another seven years.
After publishing his journal, Gass returned to military service in Kaskaskia, where he was stationed before joining the Corps of Discovery. He served as the assistant commissary for the until 1812, when Britain's harassment of American Merchants finally culminated in the War of 1812. Gass fought in several battles of that War, including that at Lundy's Lane, where a splinter from a falling tree cost Gass one of his eyes. He rejoined the fighting in 1814 and fought in Pittsburgh and Niagara to protect the country against a potential invasion from Canada.
Gass was discharged during the Spring of 1815 at Sachett's Harbor, a little more than a month after America and Britain agreed on a peace at the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in February, 1815. He traveled to Wellsburg, then to Pittsburgh, finally settling in Mansfield. Unfortunately, Gass's adventurous nature did not agree very well with settled life, and he took to drinking and regaling any who would listen with war stories and his experiences with Lewis and Clark. He tended ferry for some time in 1815, then worked in a brewery. Gass used his experience as a carpenter to help John Brown build a Baptist meeting house, and then found work hunting stray horses and working at a mill. Gass's father died in 1827, leaving Patrick a negligible inheritance to survive on.
In 1829, the 58-year-old Gass moved in with a man named John Hamilton. Gass fell in love with Hamilton's 20-year old daughter, Maria, and they married in 1831. Maria bore Gass seven children in 15 years, but one died in infancy, and another died of smallpox. The family moved to Brooks County, and Maria herself died of the measles in 1846, leaving Gass to raise five children by himself. Gass had earned 160 acres and $96 a year as his pension from the army, but he lost the land because he did not pay his taxes nor cultivate it, and $96 a year was hardly enough money to provide for his family. In 1856, Gass called a meeting to lobby for better pensions for soldiers and the families of dead soldiers who fought in the War of 1812, but the army rejected the resolutions that the group created.
While Gass never had to beg, he often struggled to feed his family. He was so intensely patriotic, that he offered to fight for the United States in 1858, when he was 87 years old. Patrick Gass died at 99 years old on April 2, 1870.
Jacob, John G. Life and Times of Patrick Gass. Wellsburg, VA: Jacob & Smith, 1859.