Sergeant Charles Floyd dies three months after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began the journey, becoming the only Corps of Discovery member to die during the journey.
Lewis and Clark left St. Louis last May, traveling up the Missouri River with a group of 35 men, called the Corps of Discovery. Among the travelers was Charles Floyd, a native of Kentucky who had enlisted in the United States military a few years earlier. When word was asked of volunteers to join the ambitious expedition across the continent to the Pacific, Floyd was among the first to apply. Young, vigorous, and better educated than most soldiers, Floyd was a natural fit. The two co-captains not only chose him to join the mission, but they promoted him to sergeant.
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Unfortunately, Floyd’s role in the Corps of Discovery’s great journey was short-lived. At the end of July, Lewis and Clark reported that Floyd “had been very ill for several days”. He seemed to be doing better for a while, but on August 15 he was “seized with a complaint much like a violent chick [colic]… [and] he was sick all night. Worried, the two captains did what they could to cure Floyd’s illness, but the previously robust young man gradually weakened.
The illness worsened on the evening of August 19 and Clark sat with the ailing man most of the night. Floyd passed away in the early afternoon of that day, apparently “with a great deal of composure”. Members of the expedition buried his body on a high bluff overlooking a river that flowed into Missouri, affixing a red cedar pole with his name, title and date of death on the grave. Lewis read the funeral service and the two captains concluded the ceremony by naming the nearby creek Floyds River and Floyds Bluff hill.
Lewis and Clark regretted that their limited medical skills in the wilderness were insufficient to cure the young soldier, but even if Floyd had been in Philadelphia, the best medics of the time would likely have been unable to save him. Based on the symptoms described by Lewis and Clark, modern physicians have concluded that Floyd probably suffered from acute appendicitis. When his appendix ruptured, Floyd quickly died of peritonitis. Without antibiotics and ignoring proper surgical procedures, no doctor in the early 19th century could have done much more than Lewis and Clark.
On their triumphant return voyage from the Pacific in 1806, Lewis and Clark stopped to pay homage at the grave of Sergeant Floyd. Surprisingly, Floyd’s was the only death the Corps of Discovery suffered in more than two years of dangerous wilderness travel.