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Discover Mid-America July 2005
An uncommonly common man travels with Lewis and Clark
Exploring with Lewis and Clark: The 1804 Journals of Charles Floyd, edited by James J. Holmberg (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press), 120 pp., hardcover, $24.95; www.oupress.com.
As one of the men who solidified the Corps of Discovery and helped to make the Lewis and Clark expedition the success it became, Sgt. Charles Floyd has received the attention deserving a leader but has remained the Corps member least understood.
In Exploring with Lewis and Clark, Holmberg fills in history the Corps of Discovery’s Sgt. Floyd — one of William Clark’s first recruits and the only man to die during the expedition. He explores Floyd’s frontier origin, his death and the raising of his monument in Sioux City, IA. At the same time, Holmberg highlights the captain’s men as integral to the expedition’s success.
In 1803, William Clark had moved to Indiana Territory from his farm across the Ohio at Clarksville. Having gone broke attempting to help his brother, George Rogers Clark, out of his financial mess, writes Holmberg, “William Clark had impoverished himself.”
Clark’s new start at the Falls of the Ohio, however, changed direction when Clark received a missive from his good friend Meriwether Lewis. On Clark’s receipt of the letter, the Corps of Discovery was underway.
It was at that point he began to recruit men for the expedition. Having been directed by Lewis to find “good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried men, accustomed to the woods, and capable of bearing bodily fatigue in a pretty considerable degree.” Clark, having grown up in the frontier, with enough personal ambition to risk the journey, and wide contacts with the settlers of the Falls area knew whom to approach and what he was looking for in such men.
Charles Floyd was perfect for the job. A rider for the post, Floyd spent much time in the woods, faced with hostile natives and the vagaries of climate and topography. In addition, “Charles Floyd grew up in this frontier Kentucky. Self-reliance, vigilance, resourcefulness, a sense of duty, and other traits combined to help assure survival.”
As an experienced man, Floyd soon became trusted with the commands of his captains when they were away recruiting other men, making expedition preparations, and dealing with the fine print of a government-funded undertaking. More importantly, as an early leader within the Corps, he was integral in assuring that the men (some of whom he was familiar with from the Falls area) gelled as a team of mutually dependent individuals. The survival of the whole depended on the amalgamation of each and every man who committed to the expedition.
But Floyd’s tenure with the Corps was as important as it was to be short. About a year after Clark first tapped him to be a part of the expedition, the Floyd and the Corps took off from St. Louis. Dragging the keelboat upstream, along with a packet of other craft, the men moved from several to nearly twenty miles a day. The work was strenuous, often tedious, and sometimes dangerous. Each night, the men had a number of duties to attend, such as setting camp, hunting, cooking, and keeping watch — a chore demanded after an extremely physical day and after which followed another. Floyd became ill about a month into the journey. He told no one until it was apparent that he was seriously sick. Far from his civilization and cut off from help, Floyd died of what seems to be a serious intestinal infection near present day Sioux City.
Holmberg details the circumstances surrounding the marking and movement of Floyd’s grave, and the interest Sioux City locals took in Floyd over the next hundred years after his death. Floyd’s grave was lost, found, and part of it washed away and lost again before he formation of the Floyd Memorial Association in 1895. This led to the only monument to built for a Corps member, few of whom have even known burial places.
While expanding what we know about Floyd, the real interest in Exploring with Lewis and Clark lay in Floyd’s expedition journal. The book contains the first, photographic reproduction of Floyd’s journal—a boon to personal interest and scholarly research. This deepens what Holmberg has told us in his detailed, lucid and easily readable introduction. While this introduction is worthy historical material, the structure, script and use of words in the matter-of-fact chronicle reveal — on a personal level — an important, yet common, hardworking man. Holmberg lays a modern typescript (with the sergeant’s punctuation and spelling) next to entries in Floyd’s labored hand. Sidebars provide interpretation based on Holmberg’s close reading and background drawn from a wide bibliography of primary and secondary sources.
The problems with the book are few, and given the fascination of Floyd’s journal, easy to overlook. The work only deviates from Floyd’s portrait when Holmberg spends too much time with the Floyd Monument in Sioux City — here it begins to read like more of an institutional history for the Floyd Memorial Association.
Still, the whole of the book illustrates Holmberg’s
intention — to show how Floyd helped knit together common people
for greater goals, in life and in death.
Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine, the poetrysheet. His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly, eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review, Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same, and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
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