Historic Sites and Buildings
This 100-foot-high obelisk of yellow sandstone, looming over the Missouri, commemorates Sgt. Charles Floyd, the only member of the expedition to die on the transcontinental journey. He was also the first U.S. soldier to succumb west of the Mississippi and in the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase area.
Floyd was one of seven men recruited by Clark and one of the nine civilians inducted into the Army in the Louisville area. He was promoted to sergeant at Camp Wood. When he passed away near present Sioux City, Iowa, on August 20, 1804, undoubtedly from a ruptured appendix, his comrades carried his body to a high bluff about a mile east of the river, buried it with the honors of war, and marked the site with a red cedar post. As further memorialization, Lewis and Clark named the bluff and a small stream about a mile to the north after him. His replacement as sergeant was Patrick Gass, who was elevated to that rank from private.
The members of the expedition, returning from the Pacific in September 1806, visited the grave and found that some Indians had apparently opened it and left it partially uncovered. It was refilled. In the following decades, many travelers on the Missouri visited the site, whose cedar post served as a landmark to navigators. Included were such notables as Henry M. Brackenridge in 1811; George Catlin, who painted a picture of the bluff, in 1832; Maximilian, Prince of Wied, the following year; and John Audubon, in 1843.
During the 1850's, the Missouri River encroached on the bluff, and in 1857 a spring flood carried away a large portion of it. According to local tradition, not long afterwards someone noticed bones protruding from the face of the bluff. Realizing they must be those of Floyd, a committee of Sioux City residents decided to rescue them. One member, lowered on a rope, retrieved them. In May 1857, amid impressive ceremonies, they were reinterred in a coffin about 200 yards back from the face of the bluff. But the new grave was unmarked, and cattle and horses grazed over it.
Other changes took place. In 1877 a railroad built into Sioux City and ran its track along the base of the bluff. Dirt from the construction was dumped near the gravesite. Gradually its location was forgotten. In 1895 the Sioux City Journal agitated for its identification. As many people as possible who had witnessed the 1857 burial were assembled at the site. Excavation at the spot they selected yielded a coffin, containing a skull and some other bones.
About the same time, the Floyd Memorial Association was formed to raise funds to commemorate the 91st anniversary of Floyd's death, on August 20, 1895. On that ceremonious occasion, his bones were removed from the casket, placed in an urn, and reburied. The association also inaugurated a movement to erect a memorial. In May 1899 it purchased a tract of about 22 acres that included the gravesite. In addition, funds were raised to construct a monument. The Federal Government appropriated $5,000; the State of Iowa, $5,000; and the city of Sioux City, Woodbury County, and popular subscription provided $10,000 more. Subsequently, the Floyd Memorial Association deeded the tract to Sioux City, which continues to administer it as a city park.
The U.S. Corps of Engineers drew plans for the monument, and in 1899 construction began, later under the supervision of Capt. Hiram M. Chittenden. On August 20, 1900, exactly 96 years after Floyd's death, his remains were placed in the concrete foundation and the cornerstone laid. The dedication occurred on May 30, 1901.
Plaques have been affixed to each of the four sides of the monument. Three memorialize, respectively, Floyd; the late John H. Charles, who as president of the Floyd Memorial Association was instrumental in establishing the memorial; and the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the soldiers and pioneers who tamed and settled the trans-Mississippi West. On the fourth side is the National Historic Landmark plaque, the first ever awarded.
The monument, which is surrounded by an iron fence and illuminated at night, is situated in the midst of an area of rugged terrain. Unfortunately, adjacent to the park are many modern intrusions, including a maze of telephone and power lines. A small town, Sergeant Bluff, a few miles to the south, is named in honor of Floyd.
Although the site of Floyd's original burial is no longer extant and the vicinity has changed immeasurably since that day in 1804 when his comrades sadly laid him to rest on a quiet prairie bluff, one can still stand on it, look downstream, and take in the stretch of river where he died.
Last Updated: 22-Feb-2004