Written by Jim Holmberg
“I am going away. I want you to write me a letter.” So requested Sergeant Charles Floyd of his captain, William Clark, shortly before his death 209 years ago today. The two men and the rest of the members of the Corps of Discovery were some 950 miles up the Missouri River on their way to the Pacific Ocean. The journey has gone down in history as the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It has been described as the American Odyssey; and the greatest exploring venture in United States history. It truly was an adventure, replete with adventure, danger, privation, suffering, and excitement. The all -important foundation for the expedition was laid at the Falls of the Ohio in the summer and fall of 1803. It was there that William Clark and the first permanent enlisted members of the Corps of Discovery lived. One of those members was young Charles Floyd, only about twenty-one at the time.
A member of the prominent Floyd family, Charles’s father Robert and uncle Charles were both frontiersmen and veteran Indian fighters. His uncle John was one of Kentucky’s pioneer military and political leaders. The Floyds settled on Beargrass Creek east of the infant town of Louisville in the fall of 1779. It was here that Charles was born about 1782. He grew up on his father’s farm. By 1799 the family had moved to Clarksville, Indiana Territory, where his father and brother Davis operated the ferry across the Ohio to Louisville’s lower landing below the Falls. Charles might have helped them, but he was busily engaged serving as the constable for Clarksville Township and as the post rider between Louisville and Vincennes, a weekly 220 mile round trip. When Clark received his friend Meriwether Lewis’s letter of invitation to join him as co-leader on the expedition he began recruiting the hunters and frontiersmen he knew they would need for such an undertaking. At the top of his list were Charles Floyd and the Field brothers, Joseph and Reuben. They were children of the frontier and Clark knew he wanted them on the journey. Their enlistment date was August 1, 1803, two and a half months before Lewis reached Louisville. They were the first three members of the renowned Nine Young Men from Kentucky who made valuable contributions to the success of the expedition. Two of the three sergeants of the Corps were Kentuckians – Floyd and his cousin Nathaniel Hale Pryor.
The captains kept journals on the expedition and they in turn instructed the sergeants and any other members that were so inclined to keep them. Floyd made his first entry on May 14, 1804, the day the Corps pushed off from their winter quarters Camp Dubois. He made his last entry on August 18, 1804. He was a faithful journal keeper and commented on events other journal keepers did not and made observations unique to his journal. Not wanting to complain, apparently, Floyd didn’t mention being ill until July 31st. He believed he was recovered, but in that hope he was sadly mistaken. In his last journal entry he made no mention of being ill, but by the 19th he was failing fast. What was wrong with Floyd? There is no definite diagnosis. Various ailments have been proposed; the most widely accepted one being a ruptured appendix with resultant peritonitis. All his comrades were concerned, including York, William Clark’s enslaved African American. They had known each other before the expedition due to the Clark-Floyd family relationship.
Clark commented that York paid Floyd particular attention, helping take care of him in his last hours. Lewis and Clark administered the standard medical care of the day (not specifically reported but likely purging and bleeding – the accepted treatment for numerous illnesses at that time). They probably actually hastened his death or might have even caused it, but it was what the best doctors back in Philadelphia would have done. Whether a premonition or not, shortly before he died Floyd announced “I am going away”; and said to Clark “I want you to write me a letter.” It would be his final farewell to his family back home. In the early afternoon of August 20, 1804, Sergeant Charles Floyd died south of present Sioux City, Iowa.
The various journalists reported that the Corps proceeded upriver to the first high hills and buried Floyd with the honors of war and performed a ceremony like one that would be held in the settlements. A crude coffin of sorts was constructed and a cedar post erected to mark the grave. This “young man of much merit” had left them and would be missed. As far as can be determined, Sergeant Charles Floyd was the first U. S. serviceman to die west of the Mississippi River. His comrades would continue on to the Pacific, completing their trek across the American West. Ironically, Floyd, who didn’t complete the journey, was eventually honored with a 100 foot sandstone obelisk over his grave; a monument larger than any other dedicated to a member of the Corps of Discovery. But that’s another story for another blog.
Today, August 20, has been proclaimed Sergeant Charles Floyd Day in Kentucky by the General Assembly and Governor Steve Beshear. It has also been proclaimed Sergeant Charles Floyd Day in Louisville by Mayor Greg Fischer. It is a fitting recognition to this young soldier and explorer who died – even if by natural causes – in the service of his country.
For further reading about Floyd’s life and monument and a facsimile of his journal with transcription and notes see James J. Holmberg, Exploring with Lewis and Clark: The 1804 Journal of Charles Floyd, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.
For more information about Kentucky’s Lewis and Clark people can go to