Ken Burns Classroom

Patrick Gass

Ken Burns Film: Lewis & Clark

Collections: The New Nation (1750-1820s)

Subject: American History American West

Grade Level: 6-12

Illustration from A journal of the voyages and travels of a corps of discovery
Illustration from A journal of the voyages and travels of a corps of discovery : under the command of Capt. Lewis and Capt. Clarke of the Army of the United States during the years 1804, 1805 and 1806 by Patrick Gass. Philadelphia : Printed for Matthew Carey, 1810, p. 26. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.


Sergeant Patrick Gass was born to Irish parents in Pennsylvania on June 12, 1771. He joined the army in 1789, and by 1803 was serving under Captain Russell Bissell’s command at Kaskaskia, Illinois Territory. Gass was determined to join Lewis and Clark’s exploring mission, but Bissell denied his transfer, wishing to retain Gass for his woodworking and blacksmithing skills. Lewis interceded and enlisted Gass on January 3, 1804, after Gass had made a personal appeal to him.

Not among the original three sergeants appointed at Camp Dubois, Gass 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. He 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.

“This evening [Christmas Eve] 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.”

Gass’s simple notes, full of misspellings and the improper grammar of a marginally educated frontiersman, were destroyed upon the 1807 release of his somewhat more eloquent, but factually accurate, published journal, “arranged and transcribed…for the press” by a Pittsburgh bookseller and stationer named David McKeehan.

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.

As his most lasting literary legacy, Gass holds claim to popularizing the explorers’ proudly coined “Corps of Discovery” name, which was displayed in print for the first time on the title page of his 1807 published journal. He died April 2, 1870, at age 99 in Wellsburg, West Virginia.

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