History in the Hills: Expedition Login | News, Sports, Jobs

As a historian, I always look to our landscape to tell a story. I am fascinated by old maps, city plans and blueprints. I am lucky to have in my head the gift of being able to imagine and almost see a landscape that has disappeared. Just study the map. And believe me, many hours have been wasted looking at old maps. It is true that our landscape has changed dramatically, not only in recent decades, but in the past two centuries. However, the two things that have remained constant in these changes are the hills we inhabit and the Ohio River.

I have written and spoken about the river so many times, but I cannot overestimate the importance of this mighty tributary. The river is literally a story in itself. It has served as a source of food and water for at least 19,000 years of continuous human habitation in our region. Battles were fought over it, famous people shot it down, and it provided the means of transportation to get our manufactured goods out into the world. It still yields its water for our coffee and tea, and provides recreation and a beautiful backdrop for many stunning images of our river towns. Of all this history, an event that took place in part on our local river, stands out as one of the most important and historically significant aspects of our national history.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition, or “Body of Discovery”, began in 1803 under the leadership of President Thomas Jefferson. He had just negotiated with France to purchase 827,000 acres of land west of the Mississippi River known as the Louisiana Purchase for $15 million. The announcement of the sale came on July 4, 1803, but secretly Jefferson had been planning a western expedition since January when he sent a secret letter to Congress authorizing funds for an expedition to explore west to the Pacific Ocean. Merriweather Lewis was chosen specifically by Jefferson to undertake this trip. Lewis was Jefferson’s former secretary and also a native of Albemarle County, Virginia. On July 5, according to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello website, Lewis left Washington to begin his journey.

In July, Lewis stopped at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, now West Virginia, for supplies and later that month arrived in Pittsburgh. While in Pittsburgh, he would oversee the construction of his keelboats which he would use in his descent of the river. On August 31, he and 11 men left Pittsburgh for their westward journey.

On September 4, 1803, Lewis and his crew crossed the border of Pennsylvania and Virginia. Ohio, the 17th state admitted to the Union last March, was on the west bank of the river. The following evening, Lewis and his crew camped on Browns Island and endured a very stormy and wet night. After Lewis’s crew set up camp, two of their lifeboats were still missing. According to his diary, “I ordered the trumpet to sound and they arrived within minutes.” The trumpet was a tool Lewis used to keep in touch with his crew if they were separated by signaling with a brief sound of a note. This was first used on Browns Island during the expedition.

Early the next morning, Lewis and his crew descended the river but were overtaken by rapids or rocks in the river about two and a half miles south of the island. Lewis writes, “struck on a riffle which we crossed with some difficulty and at the distance of two and a half miles passed 4 others, three of which we were obliged to drag with horses; the man charged me the exorbitant price of two dollars for his trouble. Lewis continued on his way and sailed past Steubenville. In his diary, he describes the city. “Stewbenville, a small town on Ohio in the State of Ohio, about six miles above Charlestown (Wellsburg) in Virginia and 24 above Wheeling – is a prosperous and well-built little place which has several respectable families residing there, five years since it was a wilderness area.” After passing Steubenville, Lewis ran into more trouble, “We got along well until Stewbenville, which we passed on October 2. . . . struck on a riffle about two miles below the town, hoisted our mainsail to help drive us over the riffle, the wind blew so loudly that it broke the spread of it, and did not having now no help but by manual effort and my men, woarn by perpetual uprising, I was compelled again to resort to my usual recourse and sent in search of horses or oxen. It is clear that this stretch of river was difficult for Lewis and his men to cross.

The next morning Lewis and company passed Charlestown, later Wellsburg, described as “a beautiful little village containing about forty houses.” Wellsburg later became the home of one of the best-known participants of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Patrick Gass. Gass joined the group in 1804 after the death of one of the society members and became highly regarded. He kept a diary of the expedition which was later published, years before Lewis’s own account of the expedition was printed.

The diary was eventually published overseas in French and German and added to Zadock Cramer’s book, “The browser” who guided thousands of immigrants to the West. Gass has an interesting story. He was born in 1771 in Falling Springs, Pennsylvania, and eventually moved to “Catfish Camp,” later in Washington, Pennsylvania in the 1790s. He was stationed while in the army at Kaskaskia, Illinois, and it was there that he was recruited for the expedition.

After Lewis and Clark’s expedition ended in 1806, Gass remained in the army. He was a veteran of the War of 1812 in which he lost an eye, and later moved to Wellsburg, where his father was then living. In 1831 Gass married Maria, the daughter of his friend John Hamilton. She was 20 and he was 58, but despite the age difference, they were a happy home. From this union, they had seven children. Maria died in 1849, leaving Patrick to take care of his large family alone.

Not a wealthy man, Gass received $96 a year as a pension for his service in the War of 1812 despite lobbying for better veterans’ benefits. In 1867 Patrick was baptized in the Ohio River at Wellsburg and became a member of the Christian church. Finally, in 1870, he died at the age of 99, the last survivor of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. He is buried in Brooke Cemetery in Wellsburg.

With Gass’ passing, the Lewis and Clark Expedition went down in history. However, nationally and locally, our connection to this transcendent event in American history is strong.

The Ohio River and our region played an important role in the trip. In 2019, Congress expanded the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail to encompass the Ohio River and the route Lewis traveled before meeting Clark in 1804. Open Monday and running through March 4, Historic Fort Steuben will host a traveling national exhibit free called “Reinventing America: Lewis and Clark’s Maps” which describes how Lewis and Clark mapped the west during their travels.

It’s a wonderful way to highlight the importance of our region in the expedition. And it’s all thanks to the mighty but beautiful Ohio River.

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