Patrick Gass was a native son of Franklin County, but the impact of his life stretched far beyond the borders of the county and Commonwealth.
“Before he died on April 2nd, 1870 at the age of almost 99 years, great cities had been built and untold wealth found in the land he had helped discover. During the War of 1812 he fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the campaign on the Canadian border, and at the age of 63, after a lifetime spent in the service of his country, he married a girl of 20, whom he survived many years. Born before the Revolution, he lived to see this country grow from the original thirteen colonies to 38 states; he voted at the election of 18 presidents from Washington to Grant who served during his lifetime. Four great wars…the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican and Civil were fought, in addition to numerous Indian battles. It is little wonder that Patrick Gass led such an adventurous life, for he was born June 12th, 1771, at Falling Springs, not far from the present town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, then on the Western frontier of civilization,” the introduction to a 1958 edition of Gass’s journal reads.
As a youth, Gass’s family moved around a lot due to his father’s wanderlust. He began his military career in 1792 as a militia member serving under General Anthony Wayne (for whom Waynesboro is named) and fighting Indians in at Bennett’s Fort in Wheeling, VA.
Following his stint in the military, Gass moved to Mercersburg and became a carpenter’s apprentice. While there, he worked on the home of James Buchanan, Sr., and came to know Buchanan’s son who would become the President of the United States.
Gass joined the army in 1799 and served under General Alexander Hamilton until 1800. He rejoined the army in 1803 and while serving, he volunteered to travel with Lewis and Clark on their expedition. Gass served as a carpenter on the journey and was promoted to sergeant. He helped build winter quarters, dugout canoes and wagons on the journey. He even commanded a large portion of the expedition for a short time while Lewis and Clark led smaller side excursions.
During the journey, Gass maintained a journal. His language was rough and difficult to read at times because of Gass’s limited education so he had a schoolteacher, David McKeehan, edit it for publication. The journal became a great primary source of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The journal was published the year after Gass’s return in 1806.
He was the first person from the expedition group to publish his story. The book sold well in the United States and was also translated into German and French for foreign editions.
A few years after he returned, Gass fought in the War of 1812. Gen. Andrew Jackson drafted him to fight Creek Indians in the South. “But this assignment did not suit Gass. He wanted to hear the roar of the big guns, and he was released when he accepted a cash bonus of $100 to enlist in the regular army for five years,” according to Gass’s journal introduction.
By 1814, he was at the Niagara frontier, though his unit arrived a few hours late to participate in the Battle of Chippewa.
“However, Gass saw plenty of fighting during the next few weeks. He received his baptism of fire from the big guns he wanted to hear at Lundy’s Lane on July 25th. He was one of the gallant 300 who, led by Colonel James Miller, charged and captured the British battery after a desperate hand-to-hand struggle during the night,” according to the journal introduction.
Gass lost an eye during this battle. Though legend has it that he lost it chopping wood later, he presented a petition to the U.S. Congress in 1851 seeking a pension based on the fact that he lost his eye in battle.
When the Civil War broke out, the 91-year-old Gass tried to enlist in the Union Army. He was so insistent about it that he had to be removed from the recruiting station, according to the Wisdom of History by Rufus J. Fears.
When Gass died in 1870 in Wellsburg, WV, he was the last member of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Here’s the link to the story at the Chambersburg Public Opinion.