Historical marker remembers local explorer and soldier

January 14, 2004|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Two centuries after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out from St. Louis, Mo., to explore the Louisiana Purchase, a key member and chronicler of the Corps of Discovery has been honored with a historical marker at his birthplace.

Patrick Gass rowed, rode and walked across the continent from 1803 to 1806 and lived long enough to see its coasts united by the Transcontinental Railroad. His journal was published in 1807, before the official account by the expedition's co-leaders.

The stone house in which Gass was born in 1771 and lived the first 10 of his 99 years still stands along Franklin Farm Lane on land purchased by Franklin County in 1808. The building, now empty, was added onto in 1811 to become the county's alms house for the poor, said Murray Kauffman, a local historian instrumental in getting the house placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in the 1970s.


On Tuesday, a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission roadside marker was unveiled at the site.

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," said County Commissioner G. Warren Elliott, quoting a Chinese proverb. "I know Patrick took his first steps here along the banks of the Falling Spring, the western edge of the frontier when he was a child," he said.

Dr. Harry Haddon, who with Kauffman lobbied for the state marker, said Lewis picked Private Gass because of his carpentry skills, which were put to good use constructing dugout canoes and winter quarters.

Gass might have remained a private but for the death of Sgt. Charles Floyd in 1804, apparently of appendicitis. Gass was appointed sergeant in his place.

His importance to the expedition was demonstrated on the return from Oregon when the party was split into three groups to explore a wider area. Lewis and Clark each headed one, with Gass in command of the third, Haddon said.

Gass gained a level of fame afterward, publishing the first account of the expedition.

On Dec. 25, 1804, at Fort Mandan in what is now North Dakota, Gass wrote that the men were issued flour, dried apples and other rations "to enable them to celebrate Christmas in a proper and social manner ... Captain Clark then presented to each man a glass of brandy, and we hoisted the American flag in the garrison."

In 1806, Meriwether endorsed Gass' Army pension application, citing the "manly firmness which he evinced in every necessary occasion, and the fatigues and painful sufferings incident to that long voyage."

The book did not make Gass rich and he was back in the Army during the War of 1812, losing sight in one eye to a British bayonet at the battle of Lundy's Lane in Ontario, Canada, according to Paul Ambrose, president of the Chambersburg-based Kittochtinny Historical Society.

Haddon said Gass was 60 when he married a woman 40 years his junior in a union that produced seven children. He was the last survivor of the expedition.

"It's my hope that this marker will not be the end of your interest and study of Patrick Gass," said John Robinson, director of the commission's Historical Marker Program.

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