August 20

This Day in History

Old West

Aug 20, 1804:

Corps of Discovery suffers its only death

Sergeant Charles Floyd dies three months into the voyage of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, becoming the only member of the Corps of Discovery to die during the journey.

Lewis and Clark left St. Louis the previous May, heading up the Missouri River with a party of 35 men, called the Corps of Discovery. Among the voyagers was Charles Floyd, a native of Kentucky who had enlisted in the U.S. military a few years earlier. When word went out asking for 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 of the soldiers, Floyd was a natural choice. The two co-captains not only selected him to join the mission, they promoted him to sergeant.

Sadly, Floyd's part in the great voyage of the Corps of Discovery was short-lived. By late July, Lewis and Clark reported that Floyd "has been very sick for several days." He seemed to grow better for a time, but on August 15, he was "seized with a complaint somewhat like a violent chorlick [colic]... [and] he was sick all night." Concerned, the two captains did what they could to treat Floyd's ailment, but the previously robust young man steadily weakened.

The illness grew severe during the evening of August 19, and Clark sat up with the suffering man almost the entire night. Floyd died in the early afternoon of this day, reportedly "with a good deal of composure." The members of the expedition buried his body on a high bluff overlooking a river that flowed into the Missouri, affixing a red-cedar post with his name, title, and date of death over the grave. Lewis read the funeral service, and the two captains concluded the ceremony by naming the nearby stream Floyds River and the hill Floyds Bluff.

Lewis and Clark regretted that their limited wilderness medical skills were inadequate to cure the young soldier, yet even if Floyd had been in Philadelphia, the best doctors of the day would likely have been unable to save him. Based on the symptoms described by Lewis and Clark, modern physicians have concluded that Floyd was probably suffering from acute appendicitis. When his appendix ruptured, Floyd quickly died of peritonitis. Lacking antibiotics and ignorant of the proper surgical procedures, no early 19th century physician could have done much more than Lewis and Clark did.

On their triumphant return journey from the Pacific in 1806, Lewis and Clark stopped to pay their respects at Sergeant Floyd's grave. Amazingly, Floyd's was the only death the Corps of Discovery suffered in more than two years of dangerous wilderness travel.

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