Death of Sgt. Floyd marred Lewis and Clark journey

August 20, 1804 

On this day the single fatality on Lewis and Clark’s two-and-a half-year, 8,000 mile odyssey across the American wilderness occurred with the death of Sgt. Charles Floyd.

Floyd (left) was just 22 when he succumbed, probably due to a ruptured appendix, along the Missouri River at the present-day Sioux City, Iowa.

He’d been enthusiastically selected as a member of the expedition by both Merriweather Lewis and William Clark, and in fact, may have been related to Clark.  While the location of his birth is sketchy, he was probably born in the vicinity of Floyds Station, Virginia, now part of Kentucky.  It is the well-documented birthplace of his first cousin, Robert Floyd, who went on to serve as Virginia’s governor. 

Said to be a natural pick for the mission due to his youthful vigor,  he also had the benefit of more education than most of the men of the expedition.

According to Clark’s journal,  young Floyd, the expedition’s quartermaster, became ill toward the end of July.  “I am very sick and have been for sometime but have recovered my health again,” Floyd wrote in his diary entry of July 31.  But the improvement didn’t last and by August 15, his condition had worsened again. 

By August 19, he was critical and Clark (left) and Clark’s slave, York, sat with  Floyd most of the night.  He died in the afternoon of the next day.

Clark called the cause of death “bilious colic,” what medical science today would diagnose as peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix.  And while the famous captains lamented their inability to save Floyd’s life on the frontier, Floyd would likely have faced the same fate at the most advanced medical facilities of the day.

St. George’s Hospital, London, circa 1740

The earliest record of an appendectomy was in 1735, when a British Army surgeon at St. George’s Hospital, London, identified an inflamed appendix while operating on a young boy without benefit of anesthetic.  The child, not surprisingly, must have died since medical historians list 1889 as the earliest successful surgically treated appendicitis.

A brief tribute rife with his Clark’s inventive spelling summarized Floyd’s life.  “This Man at all times gave us proofs of his firmness and Determined resoluiton to doe Service to his Countrey and honor to himself after paying all the honor to our Deceased brother we camped in the Mouth of floyds River about 30 yards (27 meters) wide, a butifull evening.”

Floyd was laid to rest atop a “a high round hill” with as much military ceremony as could be afforded.  Lewis read the funeral service and the grave was marked with a red cedar post bearing the sergeant’s name.

The explorers also named the site and the nearby river in his honor and on their triumphant return in 1806 the two captains climbed the bluff on September 4 to pay homage to their lost comrade.

Erosion caused by the Missouri River endangered the grave in 1857 and local settlers reinterred the remains in a different location on the bluff. 

Now located in Sioux City proper, it was reported that following the release of the sergeant’s journals in 1894, thieves stole the marker.  The remains were re-buried  a second time on this date in 1895 and a marble cornerstone was placed there in 1900.  The following year, however, a 100-foot high white sandstone obelisk (above) was erected, Floyd’s actual resting place was  moved to the foot of the monument.  It was designed by U.S. Army engineers, Capt. Hiram Chittenden (left), Capt. James Sanford, and Assistant Engineer, Bathurst Smith at a cost $12,600. 

The site, dedicated in 1960, was the First National Historic Landmark by the US. Department of the Interior. 

Sergeant Floyd River Museum and Welcome Center, U.S. Highway 75 and I-29 at Exit 143. on Sioux City, Iowa’s  riverfront is located on the  decommissioned M.V. Sergeant Floyd Army Corps of Engineersi nspection boat and features local information and Missouri River history. 

Next door, Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, 900 Larsen Park Road, provides interactive exhibits detailing the military organization of the Corps of Discovery expedition. The Keelboat Theatre explores the the expedition and the Native American cultures it encountered.  A 14-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Lewis, Clark and Lewis’s dog, Seaman is displayed on the grounds. 

The Sergeant Floyd River Museum is open daily from 10 to 4, closed only Christmas, New Years and Easter and admission is free.  For more information go to siouxcity museum. org or call (712) 279-0198. The Lewis and Clark center is open 9 to 5 Tuesday through Friday and noon to 5 Saturday and Sunday and admission is free.  For more information on the center, go to or call (712) 224-5242.

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.