Charles Floyd was one of the first three men to volunteer in Louisville when William Clark put out the word that he needed some sturdy, steady frontiersmen to embark into the unknown American West. Before the expedition left St. Louis in May 1804, Floyd was elected one of three sergeants. In addition to managing his share of the men, Floyd was made responsible for the officers’ quarters and supplies. He also kept a daily journal.
On July 31, Floyd wrote in his journal that he had felt “verry sick” but was now on the mend. However, the relief was only temporary. On August 19, when the expedition was camped just south of present-day Sioux City, Floyd became suddenly, violently, alarmingly ill. Unbearable pain racked his belly, and he could keep nothing on his stomach. Lewis & Clark dropped everything, set up a tent, and assigned York to nurse Floyd. Both captains had medical training and turned their full attention to Floyd’s suffering. Everyone must have spent a sleepless night worrying about Charles.
But it was no use. Floyd went down with every hour. The next day, as the Corps was preparing a warm bath for him, he quietly told Captain Clark that he was going away, and asked Clark to write a letter for him saying goodbye to his family. Then he died. Sergeant Floyd was 21 years old.
The Corps chose a beautiful resting place for Floyd on a high bluff overlooking the Missouri River, and buried him with full military honors. It is near this spot on which stands the Sergeant Floyd gravesite and memorial today.
As we approached the towering obelisk that overlooks the Missouri River and Sioux City, I wondered if this humble young man would be astonished to see how he is remembered today. As it turned out, his bones had something of a time resting in peace. When Lewis and Clark passed this way again on their return journey, they found the grave disturbed by animals and reburied the sergeant. His grave became a river landmark for early travelers, but by the 1850s the bluff had eroded enough so that his bones began to fall into the river. The citizens of Sioux City retrieved the body and moved it to a new spot about 200 yards further back.
In the 1890s, there was a revival of interest in the Lewis & Clark expedition. The journals, including Sergeant Floyd’s, were published in their entirety for the first time, and the scope of the accomplishments of the Corps of Discovery could now be fully appreciated. Sioux City decided to erect a 100-foot sandstone obelisk as a permanent memorial to the sacrifice and service of Sergeant Floyd and all of the early frontier soldiers and pioneers. The monument was completed in 1901, and in 1960 became the nation’s first designated National Historic Landmark.
Before we came here, I didn’t fully appreciate the shock and horror that must have filled the Corps when Charles died. It must have shaken Lewis, Clark, and the men to their very core to have a young and healthy man like Floyd sicken and die within 24 hours. They had no way of knowing that Floyd died of a ruptured appendix, which would have been untreatable in that era even if Floyd were back in civilization. Nor could they know that, thanks to luck and leadership, Floyd would be their only casualty of the long journey that lay ahead. All they knew was that a good young man was dead. The next day they packed up and got back on the river.
Our hotel tonight was a nice Hampton Inn with good cold air conditioning! Before supper we went over to the nearby Southern Hills Mall, which is home to a 38-panel mural depicting scenes from the Lewis & Clark Expedition. It is always interesting to see how artists depict the expedition, and this case I was struck by the mood of loneliness that pervaded the surprising, impressive paintings. We had a nice dinner at the Outback before turning in for the night, full of unexpected thoughts about mortality and brotherly love.