Tuesday, September 21, 2004

What if Lewis & Clark kept a blog?

Siouxland’s claim to historic fame rests on the fact that Lewis & Clark and the Corps of Discovery passed by on their way to Pacific, and on their way back again. Small wonder, since the Missouri River was their highway deep into the interior, as it would be for any rational explorer. Not only did the explorers pass this way, but they also suffered the only fatality of the entire expedition (a marvel, that) very near what would later become Sioux City, Iowa. A Kentuckian named Charles Floyd, known to history as Sgt. Floyd for his rank in the Corps, came down with what Clark called “Biliose Chorlick” in August 1804.

From Clark’s journal: “Sergeant Floyd much weaker and no better... Floyd as bad as he can be no pulse & nothing will stay a moment on his Stomach or bowels. Floyd Died with a great deal of Composure, before his death he Said to me, ‘I am going away I want you to write me a letter.’ We buried him on the top of the bluff. 1/2 Mile below [is] a Small river to which we Gave his name, He was buried with the Honors of War much lamented, a Seeder post with the Name Sergt. C. Floyd died here 20th of august 1804 was fixed at the head of his grave. This Man at all times gave us proofs of his firmness and Determined resolution to doe Service to his Countrey and honor to himself. after paying all the honor to our Decesed brother we camped in the Mouth of floyds River about 30 yards wide, a butiful evening”

Modern medical opinion holds that the unfortunate Sgt. Floyd had a ruptured appendix, a good many decades before that was anything other than a death sentence. These days his bones are memorialized by an obelisk on the outskirts of Sioux City. I didn’t have time to stop by and pay my respects to Sgt. Floyd, but I caught a glance of the obelisk from I-29 as I drove back to Omaha. It’s hard to miss. One source claims that it’s the nation’s second-tallest obelisk, shorter only than the Washington Monument.

I did, however, drop by the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, on the Iowa side of the Missouri River across from my hotel, very near the bridge between Sioux City and South Sioux City. What caught my attention there was the center’s flag, an enormous 15-star, 15-stripe U.S. flag, big as some of those flags you see over car or mobile home dealerships, flying briskly from a tall pole that day. Near the flagpole is a slightly larger-than-life bronze of Lewis, Clark and their faithful dog, Seaman. The center itself is a small but well-appointed museum. My favorite exhibit was an amimatronic L&C, the two figures discussing the melancholy fate of Sgt. Floyd. It's rampant Disneyfication, I tells ya!

If I remember right, the Corps of Discovery carried a 15-star, 15-stripe flag with them, which made me wonder: weren’t there more than 15 states by 1804? Indeed, Ohio had become the 17th state in 1803. However, it took a while for the idea of adding stars to the flag right away to catch on, reflecting a refreshing early 19th-century casualness in these matters, something like Clark’s approach to spelling. It turns out that Congress added the two stars and two stripes in 1795, but didn’t revise things again until 1818, when it raised the total to 20 stars, and pared away the extra stripes.


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