SIOUX CITY | An unlikely character in Siouxland history passed this way 210 years ago, leaving a dark chapter in the Lewis and Clark Expedition adventure into the American West.
Wednesday marks the anniversary of the death of Sgt. Charles Floyd, a 22-year-old explorer, outside present-day Sioux City. He was the only member of the 2 1/2-year mission — headed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark — to lose his life along the way.
Floyd now lends his name to the region's roads, waterways, parks and more. But Sioux City Public Museum curator Grace Linden says the explorer's early life made no indication that he'd ever become a historical icon.
"This young man — all he was known for in life was his hunting and fishing prowess," Linden said.
Floyd was born near what's now St. Matthews, Ky., in 1782. Not much is known about his early life, but by 1803 he was recognized around the Louisville, Ky., area as a talented outdoorsman.
Those skills set him apart when Lewis traveled to the region in October 1803, seeking new recruits for a Corps of Discovery expedition to explore and map an area stretching from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast.
"What Lewis and Clark needed, essentially, was strong, young men," said Sioux City historian Bev Hinds. "They wanted woodsmen — people who could endure the hardships they were going to face."
Floyd was one of 10 Kentucky residents recruited for the mission. Shortly after enlisting in the army, he was promoted by Lewis to the rank of sergeant and named quartermaster for the expedition.
The group set out in May 1804. Floyd fell gravely ill only two months later while traveling up the Missouri River.
"He'd been sick, throwing up for several days, but they kept moving," Linden said. "When they realized he was just getting worse and worse, they stopped.
"He was not ill when he left on the expedition. He was healthy and strapping and going to live, but he got what they think is appendicitis," she said.
In late July, the symptoms of Floyd's illness began to abate, but modern historians believe the temporary relief marked the rupturing of his appendix.
On July 31, Floyd wrote in his journal: "I am verry Sick and Has ben for Somtime but have Recoverd my helth again [sic]."
Throughout his illness, other members of the expedition attempted to treat Floyd. They were unable to help him, however, because so little was known about appendicitis at the time.
"They'd given him what they thought was good medicine for his condition, but it turned out to be some of the worst," Linden said. "So he actually died a lot quicker than he would have if he'd been in a hospital."
After his death, the expedition carried Floyd to a high bluff overlooking the Missouri River — a spot the expedition named Sergeant Bluff, in present-day Sioux City — in order to bury him where water couldn't erode his gravesite.
Lewis and Clark arranged a military funeral at the site, and left a carved cedar post to mark the spot. But the wanderer's remains never stayed put for long.
Floyd was exhumed and reburied a number of times: in 1857, when the Missouri River washed away part of his corpse; in 1895, when a small memorial was established for him; and a final time in 1900.
For his final reburial, an association was formed to give the explorer a proper memorial. By 1899, Congress had awarded the group $5,000 and the state of Iowa matched those funds.
With the help of donors, the group was able to raise $20,000 to erect a 100-foot sandstone obelisk over his grave. The dedication ceremony drew an estimated crowd of 2,000 people.
Hinds says it was a fitting tribute to the man.
"This was a good, hard-working man," she said. "He was extremely knowledgeable about land, and it would have been interesting to see what he would have written about the western country."