New evidence suggests it was Patrick Gass who carried William Clark's letter reporting on the expedition's return.
By James J. Holmberg
This article appeared in We Proceeded On, the official publication of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Inc. (Vol. 27, No. 3, August 2001)
While recently conducting research in the Draper Manuscripts (an absolute treasure-trove for anyone interested in the early west and those who settled it), I came across two letters of Lewis and Clark Expedition veteran Patrick Gass.1 A check of Gass sources did not mention these letters, and they apparently have not been previously cited.
Dictated to his son James W. Gass in December 1866 and January 1867, just a few years before his death, Gass was responding to queries by historian-collector Lyman Draper. Draper commonly composed a list of questions he wished a particular person to answer. If he could not personally interview the person, he sent the query to them. It was in this manner that Draper sent Gass such queries in November and December 1866. Their primary purpose was to gather information on George Rogers Clark and Daniel Boone, major focuses of Draper's research, but he asked the old explorer about other people and events as well.
In answering the questions, Gass provided interesting, important, and sometimes contradictory information. Some of the information is recorded elsewhere and can be found in published accounts. But some of the information has apparently never been published. One bit of this information bears directly on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It is the question of who carried the captains' letters eastward that reported the successful return of the expedition. The captains of course intended that William Clark's letter to his brother Jonathan near Louisville be published in a newspaper, while Meriwether Lewis's letter would continue on to Jefferson in Washington.
Who carried Clark's, and it may be assumed Lewis's, momentous letters eastward to the Falls of the Ohio? Did the regular post, as has always been assumed, or did members of the Corps of Discovery? Patrick Gass stated in those 1866 and 1867 letters to Draper that he carried Clark's letter to the Falls of the Ohio, recalling "I carried a letter from Capt. Clark . . . which I delivered to him [George Rogers Clark] at the falls of the Ohio, and which he published. it contained an account of the heavy snows on the mountains," and "in 1806 at that same place [Louisville] I delivered to him [George Rogers Clark] his Brother's [William's] letter."2
Did Gass serve as the courier for this letter (and one would assume Lewis's letter as far as Louisville) or was he embellishing the facts looking back to events many years in his past? An examination of the facts indicate that Gass may indeed have undertaken this mission for the captains.
In their letters, Lewis and Clark only mention that they are being sent by the post, with no mention of a name.3 In his journal entries for September 23 and 24, however, Clark provides a bit more information. In his entry for the 23rd he recorded that Lewis sent a note to Cahokia's post master John Hay requesting him to delay the departure of the mail eastward until noon of the following day, and on the 24th that George Drouillard had been dispatched to Cahokia to give their letters to the waiting post.4 Consequently, the assumption has always been that the letters were sent by the regular post rather than special courier. But were they? Both Clark's and Lewis's letters are lacking their address leaves.5 Therefore, conclusive evidence of whether the letters were actually carried by regular post or special courier is missing.
Clark's letter was written and delivered to his brother Jonathan and either it, or a copy of it, was carried to Frankfort by someone, where it was given to The Palladium newspaper for publication. Published on October 9, this was the first detailed printed account of the successful completion of the expedition. This account was subsequently carried in other newspapers, thus circulating the news throughout the nation and eventually abroad that the Corps of Discovery had returned, having accomplished its mission. The newspaper accounts give no indication of who delivered the letter to the Palladium, reporting only that it was received in the mail from an "obliging friend," General Clark having been "prevailed upon" to permit its publication to gratify the "impatient wishes of his countrymen."6 The letter was of course intended for publication, William Clark even went so far as to specifically mention that fact to his brother in another letter written on September 24, so Jonathan Clark did not have to be "prevailed upon" to much degree.7
It would seem that Gass made a significant error in misremembering for which General Clark the letter was intended. In fact, this has been a recurring problem among historians. Until the discovery of William Clark's September 24, 1806 letter in which he specifically mentions his September 23 letter and identifies brother Jonathan Clark, also a general, as the recipient, it had been assumed that George Rogers Clark, also a general and the much more famous one of the two, had been the addressee. It is possible that these two letters of Gass added to that erroneous conclusion. It was Reuben Gold Thwaites, in his edition of the expedition journals, who reprinted William's September 23 letter and listed George Rogers Clark as the recipient. Did he simply forget about General Jonathan Clark, and jump to the conclusion that General George Rogers Clark was the recipient; or did he read Gass's letters in the Draper Manuscripts, which he had access to, and logically conclude that the Hannibal of the West was the addressee because Gass stated that he delivered William's letter to him? Lacking sufficient evidence to change the recipient from George to Jonathan, but speculating that it may be the latter, Donald Jackson retained George as the questionable recipient in his masterful Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.8
But Gass's apparent error should not be judged too quickly. It is possible that he remembered correctly when he stated that he delivered the letter to George Rogers Clark. Was the sequence of events such, that although the letters were clearly addressed to Jonathan Clark, Gass, having met George Rogers Clark thirteen years earlier, and possibly encountering him in Clarksville (on the north side of the Falls of the Ohio and which place Gass would have reached first in coming overland from Vincennes) or Louisville, before he would have reached Jonathan's plantation southeast of Louisville, delivered William Clark's letters to George? He does not state that the letters were written to George Rogers Clark, only that he delivered the September 23 letter to him. Gass would have had every confidence in giving the letters to General George Rogers Clark that he would make sure that they were delivered to the addressee - his brother General Jonathan Clark. If Gass didn't place the letters in Jonathan's hands himself, then giving them to George to deliver was the next best thing. Looking back over an event more then half a century behind him, Gass can easily be excused for remembering who he delivered the September 23 letter to and not to whom it was addressed. This is especially true in the context of Draper requesting information about George Rogers Clark and not Jonathan Clark.
It is also interesting to note that although Gass could have, and probably did, read the newspaper accounts which reprinted William Clark's September 23 letter, what he remembered about the letter sixty years later was that it discussed the "heavy snows on the mountains." Having experienced this obstacle firsthand, it is easy to understand why Gass would remember it. But it also must be noted that Clark mentioned the snow in the mountains twice early in his letter. He went on to relate a multitude of other information, but someone seeing the first page of the letter or being told what it was about after a brief glance, may well conclude that it was about the heavy mountain snows and the hardships and obstacles they presented.
Thus, on September 24, Lewis and Clark's letters seemingly began making their way to the east by regular post. But did they? Until Gass reported in these two letters that he carried the letters (at least Clark's letter) to the Falls, there was never any evidence to doubt the apparent facts as mentioned by the captains. However, with this information before us -- information apparently never cited before -- a scenario can be developed in which Gass, and possibly other expedition veterans, served as the couriers. In fact, the only information that really contradicts this claim is made by Gass himself. Was the following the possible sequence of events?
On September 23, as the Corps is bathed in the warm greetings of the residents of St. Louis, the captains already were thinking of sending reports eastward announcing their return. Lewis inquires as to the post schedule and, learning that it will be leaving from Cahokia that day, promptly sends a note to postmaster Hay at that place requesting him to delay its departure until the following day. The courier is not identified. Was he one of the veterans of the expedition? Then, on September 24, Lewis and Clark, having written letters to the president and Jonathan, respectively, dispatch them to Cahokia by Drouillard. Upon their arrival, the post leaves with these momentous letters for Louisville.
Who might that courier eastward have been? Would it not stand to reason that the captains would prefer one of their own men; someone they had confidence and trust in who had proved themselves over almost three years on a much more difficult journey? George Drouillard as a candidate comes immediately to mind, but evidence from two sources causes him to be discounted. Gass, in both his letters to Draper, places Drouillard in either St. Louis or Kaskaskia (thus offering contradictory recollections), and therefore not coming eastward. On September 29, Joseph Whitehouse recorded the sale of his anticipated expedition land warrant to Drouillard.9 Assuming this was done within a few days of the expedition's return, but not before or immediately after its return, this would place Drouillard in St. Louis after the crucial September 24 or 25 dates. Even if Drouillard had gone downriver to Kaskaskia and possibly on to his home area of Cape Girardeau and Fort Massac, this would seem to keep him in St. Louis until after the courier or party carrying the letters left for Louisville. To speculate a bit further, it would stand to reason that some of the Kentuckians -- also highly trusted by the captains -- would have welcomed the opportunity to journey homeward sooner than the main party left for Louisville after settling necessary affairs in St. Louis.
This possibility actually leads to the next bit of evidence that Gass and possibly other expedition veterans were dispatched as couriers to Louisville. Gass's biographer, J. G. Jacob, reported that his subject traveled overland from St. Louis to Vincennes where he waited for the captains and their party. However, the captains changed their route and did not go through that town.10 Upon learning this, "Mr. Gass, with a couple of companions, proceeded to join them at Louisville."11 Did Jacob leave out some additional information, or did Gass neglect to give him all the details of this trip eastward? If Gass remembered in 1866 and 1867 that he had delivered William Clark's letter to General Clark at the Falls, why wouldn't he have done so in the 1850s when discussing his exploits with Jacob? Did he; and Jacob failed to include the entire sequence of events in his hero's tale? This detail seems too important to be forgotten.
In the over sixty years since those events, had Gass forgotten where he exactly delivered the letter, and to whom? This seems unlikely. Not only was he relating these events to Draper less than ten years after he did so to Jacob, but frontiersmen of the caliber of Gass and others rarely forgot the places they visited. They could remember with remarkable clarity events in their distant past, often providing an amazing amount of detail. Therefore, it seems unlikely that Gass would have reported to Jacob that he only went as far as Vincennes and less than ten years later report to Draper that he delivered Clark's letter to Louisville. Gass could have sent the letters by regular post from Vincennes with a greater degree of security than if they were sent from Cahokia, but venturing further to Louisville to deliver them himself, and possibly from there send Lewis's letter on its way to Washington, would have been more desirable.
If Gass and companions did go as far as the Falls, why then were they waiting for Lewis and Clark in Vincennes? A plausible explanation is a practice commonly in use at that time. When anticipating a significant arrival, the waiting party would sometimes venture forth some distance to meet the travelers. This was something William Clark himself considered doing in 1802 while awaiting his brother Jonathan and family's arrival from Virginia, and something William's father-in-law George Hancock did do in November 1809 upon their visit to Julia Clark's family.12 Therefore, it would not have been unusual for Gass to deliver the letters to the Falls -- to George Rogers Clark in Clarksville or Louisville -- and then return westward to Vincennes to await the arrival of the main party. Lewis had stated that they intended to go by way of Vincennes, so Gass and those with him had no reason to think the party would not pass through that town on their way to Louisville. Once reunited with the captains' party, they would then be part of the triumphant arrival of a portion of the Corps of Discovery that had left three years earlier. One must expect that Gass and companions knew the party would receive a hero's welcome and they may even have experienced something of one themselves upon arriving at the Falls with news of the expedition's return. It is understandable that they would wish to be with their fellow explorers for their arrival not only in Louisville, but what was home for some of them, making it all that much more special. In this they were frustrated, however, because of Lewis and Clark's change in routes. Unless they were able to rendezous with them before they reached the Falls, Gass and companions joined them in Louisville.
Who might these "companions" with Gass have been? A few of the Kentucky recruits immediately come to mind. Even if they intended to remain in St. Louis and cast their lot with the West they had just explored, men such as Joseph and Reubin Field, Nathaniel H. Pryor, George Gibson, John Shields, William Bratton, and George Shannon certainly may have wanted to return to the Louisville area or further east. None of these men are listed with Lewis and Clark's return party to the east, but that does not mean they were not. The captains often were vague or inconsistent in reporting details. This could be the case here. No list of all the members of their return party is known to exist. Those that are named are mentioned either coincidentally or for a specific reason. Those men making the shorter trip to Louisville, and not continuing on to Washington, had even less chance of being mentioned than those accompanying Lewis, and perhaps Clark, all the way to Washington. It is known that Reubin Field, George Gibson, John Shields, and Alexander H. Willard (a Kentuckian already in the army when recruited for the expedition) returned to Kentucky by 1807 or 1808. It is possible that they, as well as Pryor, Bratton, Shannon, and Joseph Field, had returned to the Falls area in the latter part of 1806 either as part of the official party or on their own. In the settlement of Lewis's accounts for the expedition, it is noted that the Corps' members received an allowance to return home and also a deduction in pay for public monies spent on their subsistence after their discharge.13 This could be evidence of a number of the men heading eastward in the fall of 1806.
Another bit of evidence may concern Reubin Field. On October 15, 1806, an account appears in the store ledger for Fitzhugh and Rose in Louisville for one Reubin Field. Another entry was recorded on January 19, 1807. That same day the account was paid in full.14 Was this the Reubin Field of the expedition? The name, often misspelled, is spelled correctly. The time frame fits. The couriers coming from St. Louis with their captains' letters had reached Louisville by mid-October. By January, when additional purchases are made and the account settled, some of the "Young Men from Kentucky" may have been preparing to return to St. Louis. There was another Reubin Field in Jefferson County, and perhaps this account was for him. The account is cross referenced with one for a Samuel McClarty, who appears in the records as a store customer. For some unexplained reason, Field does not appear in additional store records for those dates, which he seemingly should. It may never be known if this is the Reubin Field of the expedition but the date of the entries are intriguing and leads one to speculate whether they relate to one of the exploring brothers. No other entries for Field -- or other expedition members other than Clark and York -- appear in the Fitzhugh and Rose accounts for this period.
If they did come eastward, some of them had returned to St. Louis by the spring of 1807. This is known from a petition that eight expedition veterans signed about April 1807 regarding the location of their land grants. Among the signers were the Field brothers, Gibson, Willard, and Gass.15 Were some of these men among Gass's companions that journeyed to Louisville in September 1806?
The petition definitely places Gass back in St. Louis by the spring of 1807. It is undated and Donald Jackson assigned an "after 3 March 1807" date to it. By the time word of the land grant proclamation reached St. Louis it may have been mid-April. In fact, that estimate is likely correct. It is known that Robert Frazer carried letters and documents from the East to St. Louis. On April 16, 1807, he wrote Thomas Jefferson from Henderson County, Kentucky.16 That would have put him in St. Louis in approximately another week, about April 23. It is likely that one of the documents that Frazer carried contained news of Congress's action concerning land grants for the expedition veterans. Upon receipt of this news -- or perhaps already knowing it if some of the signatories were accompanying Frazer or word had already reached St. Louis by other means -- some or all of the signers enlisted the aid of Frederick Bates to write the petition they submitted to Congress. Allowing for a few days to get this done, the date of the petition may be approximately May 1.
Therefore, Patrick Gass could easily have turned his face again to the west and returned to St. Louis by mid-April. It is reported that he returned to the Mississippi Valley in 1807, serving in that year as assistant commissary at Kaskaskia.17 When exactly in 1807 he returned to the West is unknown. He visited his family in Wellsburg, during which time he made contact with David McKeehan, editor of his expedition journal. However, before his journal was published, he had returned to St. Louis. Whether his route took him directly west; to the Washington and Virginia area to reunite with Frazer on his journey westward; or down the Ohio to the Louisville area for a possible reunion with him there, may never be known; but by about May 1, 1807, Gass and seven of his fellow explorers were in St. Louis. Being the veteran traveler that he was, the two thousand or so miles that Gass journeyed in less than a year after the expedition may have seemed of little consequence to him.
In answering queries from a historical inquisitor some sixty years later, Patrick Gass's journey eastward with William Clark's letter announcing the successful return of the Corps of Discovery remained a significant enough event in his memory to be noted to Draper. Did he falsely report his role in delivering Clark's famous letter? I think it unlikely. As already mentioned, these men had amazing powers of recall. And eventhough Gass termed his memory "trecherous," this event was significant enough that he most likely did not misremember his role in it.18
If Gass didn't confuse his role in delivering the letter, then one may ask, did he falsely report the part he played? Again, I think that unlikely. Why would he? There really was nothing to be gained by doing so. No great fame would be attached to the person that delivered Clark's letter to his brother, especially sixty years after the event. In fact, Gass does not report being the courier for the sake of being recognized as such but rather as a means of conveying to Draper his connection to George Rogers Clark, and in doing so this last survivor of the Corps of Discovery provided the answer for one of the little mysteries of the Lewis and Clark Expedition still with us today.
1 Patrick Gass to Lyman Draper, December 1, 1866, Draper Manuscripts, 34J61, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin (microfilm edition The Filson Historical Society collection); Gass to Draper, January 11, 1867, Draper Manuscripts, 34J62.
5 William Clark to Dear Brother [Jonathan Clark], September 23, 1806, Clark Family Papers, The Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Ky.; Check of original letter of Meriwether Lewis to Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, by Bruce Kirby of LC staff, March 10, 2000.
10 Lewis and Clark and their party left St. Louis in late October and arrived in Louisville on November 5, 1806. The best evidence of the route they took is Robert Frazer's April 16, 1807 letter to Thomas Jefferson. Written in Henderson County, Kentucky, while returning to St. Louis, Frazer makes specific reference to having passed through Henderson on his way to Washington the previous fall. Therefore, the captains for some reason apparently decided to take the southerly route from St. Louis to Louisville instead of the originally planned due easterly Vincennes route. The route the October-November return party therefore took was likely south to Kaskaskia, southeastward across Illinois to the Ohio River, and then northeastward through Kentucky, including Henderson County, to Louisville. Jackson, Vol. 2, pp. 409-10.
11 J.G. Jacob, The Life and Times of Patrick Gass (Wellsburg, Va. [West Va.]: Jacob & Smith, 1859), pp. 108-09. It is worth noting that there are a number of errors in the Gass biography. Many of them regard facts that seem unlikely for Gass to have forgotten or reported in error. It is much more plausible to conclude that Jacob failed to get or remember the details and consequently recorded a sometimes vague or misleading narrative of events.