A Note from Cottonwood Corners

The “Corps of Discovery” began their journey to the Pacific on May 14, 1804.  Ninety-nine days later they entered what would in the future become the State of South Dakota.

On August 20 near what is now Sioux City, Iowa, Sergeant Floyd became the expedition’s only casualty from what was probably a ruptured appendix.  He was buried with full military honors and the first United States soldier to die west of the Mississippi.

He was the only expedition member to die on that difficult and dangerous trip.

Floyd died just after they had stopped for dinner near the present site of Sergeant Bluff.  “He was laid out in the best manner possible.  We proceeded on to the first hills” wrote one of the sergeants.  The usual ceremony was performed by Captain Lewis as was customary back in the settlements.

Clark wrote in his diary: “Sergeant 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.’”  Those were Floyd’s last words.  A cedar post with “Sergt. C. Floyd died here 20th of August 1804” was placed at the head of his grave.

Captain Clark wrote:  “This man at all times gave us proof of his firmness and determined resolution to do service to his country and honor to himself.  After paying all the honor to our deceased brother we camped at the mouth of Floyds River.”

On August 21st at about 9 o’clock they entered the present State of South Dakota.  That evening they camped on the Nebraska shore near Miner’s Bend.

Lewis and Clark, on August 22, conducted the first primary election west of the Mississippi to determine which private would be promoted and assume Floyd’s responsibilities.  Three privates were in contention for sergeant status and only the twenty-three privates were permitted to vote.  Patrick Gass received nineteen votes, a clear majority, and was installed as Sergeant of the 2nd Squad.

Although they reached the extreme southeastern boundary of South Dakota on the 21st, the first South Dakota campsite was made on August 22nd when the group camped in Union County.  Since there was elk sign everywhere, they named the place Elkpoint.

Early on the 23rd a bull buffalo was killed between Elk Point and Burbank.  After breakfast, Lewis and twelve men went out to butcher the animal and bring the meat back to the boat.  They salted two barrels of meat for future consumption.  This was the first buffalo taken by the expedition.

On the morning of the 24th they started up the river at sunrise and proceeded on past a bottom land of large cottonwood.  There were smooth prairies back from the river so they stopped for breakfast on a high bluff overlooking the valley.  Buffaloberries were abundant and they also found a burning bluff which was very hot.  It had the smell of sulphur.  Earlier fur trappers, fur traders, and explorers made reference to this “hot bluff.”

As late as 1877, some scientists believed that the bluff was a true volcano which would erupt when the flooding Missouri River poured water onto molten rock in subterranean caverns.  By 1900, investigations proved that the eruptions were due to the heat of oxidation of damp pyrite and carbon caused by the erosion of the bluffs.

On the morning of the 25th some of the men set out from the mouth of the Vermillion River to visit the “mountain of evel Spirits.”  Spirit Mound is about eleven miles to the north.  Clark and his men left the river and after traveling about six miles their dog was so “heated and fatigued” that he was sent back to a creek that they had just passed.  At noon they arrived at the mound exhausted and complained of “great thirst.”  They went to a creek two miles to the northeast for water.  At sunset they arrived back at the mouth of the Vermillion River exhausted.  The heat and humidity were unbearable.

In the early afternoon of the 27th they passed the mouth of the James River where they stopped for dinner.  They camped on a large sand bar on the north side of the river between the James River and present site of Yankton.

On the 28th they camped on the Nebraska side of the river just below the present Gavins Point Dam.  They stayed at this location four days and held friendly council with the Yankton Sioux.  The American flag was displayed at the top of a tall pole.

By the 7th of September they had arrived at a Missouri River landmark called “The Tower.”  Located in Boyd County, Nebraska, it is cone shaped and about seventy feet higher than the surrounding hills.  They camped for the evening at the base of this formation on the Nebraska side of the river.

It was at this historic landmark that the “Corps of Discovery” encountered for the first time the black-tailed prairie dog.  They were called “barking squirrels” by Lewis and “prairie dogs” by Clark.  Unable to catch one, all members of the party carried water from the river to drive them from their holes.  Working until dark, they only caught one and brought it back to the boat.  This captured prairie dog survived the trip back to Washington for President Jefferson.

This is one of the most notable land marks on the river and by the 1830s it was labeled “Old Baldy” on maps.  Travelers and explorers to this area mentioned it in their records.  Ten years earlier Jean Baptiste Trudeau camped on this very spot.  Lieutenant Warren, a topographical engineer, in 1856 made it a bench mark as he established the Fort Randall Military Reservation.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on August 28, 2019

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