York, a black slave of William Clark, is one of the most remarkable yet mysterious characters of the Lewis and Clark expedition. During the expedition York obtained levels of freedom and notoriety experienced by few slaves. Yet, in the end, his experiences were fleeting, no lasting greatness gained. Although eventually freed, he died a poor and miserable man. His description in contemporary writings, expedition journals, and letters range from “slave/servant” to a man of spiritual force possessing “big medicine.” As an individual York had a good sense of humor, established himself as a passionate caregiver, and demonstrated excehent frontier skills in hunting and scouting. Physically, Ambrose describes York as a large, very strong, agile, and athletic individual of very dark complexion. No single individual within the expedition brought more attention among Indians than York. In the conduct of affairs among the Indians, York at times was more important to Lewis and Clark in successful negotiations than any of the trade goods or technological wonders could avail. Although York becomes an integral member of the Corps of Discovery, exercising freedoms and privilege not generaly enjoyed by slaves, he was never compensated with property or pay, as were the other “free” members of the expedition.
Little is known about York, with few exceptions, most that is revealed comes from the corps’ journals and correspondence by Clark. York was a slave of William Clark. Family records indicate that he was the son of slaves, Rose and “old” York, who were owned by the Clark family. William Clark inherited York when his Father died in 1799. As with most chhdren of slaves he has no “family” name, records, manifests, and other documents of the expedition always refer to him as just, “York.” Clark’s journals refer to York as his “servant.” As in the earliest mentioning of York in his journal on 5 June 1804, Clark writes, “…here my Servant York Swam to the Sand bar to geather Greens for our Dinner, and returned with a Sufficent quantity whd Creases or Tung grass…”(1). The term”servant” is significant, meaning that York was a “body servant” of Clark, “a term that signified the assignment of a young slave to his equally young master for companionship.”(2) During the yearly years York would have been a playmate to Clark. Clark told William Clark Kennerly that during his Youth of tramping the woods searching for game, fishing, and riding about the countryside, he was “always accompanied by his little Negro boy. “(3)
Although York’s exact birth date is not known, it can be ascertained that he was born in Virginia about 1770 and was roughly the same age as Clark, thirty-four at the start of the expedition. Of the original corps, York was the only married member. Clark notes in his letter that he sent back home from the Mandan vhlage on the returning keelboat, that York was sending two buffalo robes back downriver, one for “his wife and one for Ben.” In fact letters written by Clark to his brother Jonathan reveals that York not only had a wife (a slave who lived in the Louisville area), but also possibly had a family.(4)
On 14 May 1804 the Corps of Discovery set out on its exploration of the nation’s newly acquired lands and beyond. Its mission so precisely dictated by President Jefferson, directs this body of men to explore, establish boundaries, study and record the flora/fauna and topography of the land, and “‘, seek a water route to the Pacific. They were to study the indigenous peoples, study their warfare, languages, political structure, and economic relationships aInong other tribes and Europeans. It is during Lewis and Clark’s negotiations with the Indians that York’s contributions to the expedition are most noted in the journals.
As the Corps of Discovery proceeds on its mission of exploration York evolves into a valuable and trusted member of the corps. A transfomation takes place in the status of York. The journals indicate an individual given assignments, responsibilities, and freedoms not nonnahy associated with a .slave, but to those accorded to an equal within the ranks of the corps. York’s size and blackness brought both benefit and trouble to the expedition. Among the Great Plains Indians, especially the Arikaras, Mandans, and the Hidatsas, York was a curiosity, fascinating and at times frightening, possessing special spiritual powers. Among the Arikaras York became the center of attraction, being both attracted and terrified by his size and blackness. Clark writes concerning the Arikaras first contact with a black man, “The Indians were much astonished at my Servent, They never saw a black man before, all flocked around him & examined him from top to toe, he Carried on the joke and made himself more turribal than we wished him to doe.” Clark further records concerning the Arikaras’ assessment of York, “something strange & from his very large size more vicious than whites.” James P. Ronda states in his book, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, that among these tribes, York began to enjoy a new status:
“York thoroughly enjoyed his newfound celebrity status and had already ‘made himself more turribal’ than the captains wished. That afternoon York and hordes of Arikara children had chased each other, the black man bellowing at them that he was a wild bear caught and tamed by Captain Clark. What may have worried the captains in this playful sport was York’s boast that he ate human flesh. The Arikaras practiced ritual cannibalism of their fallen enemies, but that was a far cry from consuming village youth. With Arikara chiefs embroiled in factional disputes and Teton agents ready to use those tensions against the expedition, Lewis and Clark did not need rumors drifting through the earth lodges that the Americans kept a great he-bear ready to eat Indian children.”(5).
Sgt. Jolm Ordway adds, “All the nation made a great deal of him. The I children would follow after him, & if he turned towards them they would run from him & hollow as if they were terrified, & afraid of him.” (6) This incident suggests more than just a “celebrity” status aong the Indians, but that in fact York had a significant amount of freedom in movement and to conduct self-expression as he sought entertaining to himself. The Arikaras viewed York’s darkness as a sign of commanding great spiritual forces. Gifts and demonstrated teclmologies of the expedition ah dimmed in significance before York. So fascinated with this extraordinary man of special “spiritual powers,” that for Arikara women to have sexual contact with York was to receive immense spiritual power and forces. As noted from the journals an Arikara man invited York to his lodge to have sex with his wife, guarding the door until the “affair was finished.”
York enjoyed the same fascination and privilege among the Mandans and Hidatsas as he did with the Arikaras. As Lewis and Clark were entertaining local Mandan chiefs by having them tour the keelboat, the dignitaries promptly pronounced the boat laden with its cargo of goods, as well as York to be “big medicine.” Among the Hidatsas, Chief Le Borgne notices York; hearing of York’s blackness from his warriors, thinking to be paint he spit into his own hand and vigorously rubbed York’s skin. “When York removed the handkerchief from his head and showed Le Borgne his hair, the chief was astonished and promptly declared that the black man ‘was of a different species from the whites.”(7)
Lewis and Clark would on many occasions throughout their trek use the Indian’s curiosity of York as a diversion for continuing negotiations. Such was a matter of fact with the Shoshones. As patience was wearing thin for Lewis and Clark as they negotiated for horses and information for the final assault to the Pacific they displayed York, knowing he would make a good show. (8) Lewis explains, “We have learnt by experience that to keep the savages in good humor their attention should not be wearied by too much business. ..matters should be enlivened with what is new and entertaining.”
However, there were other times in which York’s color and physic was not a curiosity, but was interpreted by some Indian nations as a threat. As the corps was advancing to cross the Bitterroot Montains, Flathead Indians saw the approaching expedition. To the Flatheads York’s “painted” .black face could only mean that this group was prepared to engage warfare. At a critical time in the expedition aong the Nez Pearce York’s appearance was interpreted negatively. The Nez Pearce stated that no one goes around painted black unless he plans to steal and kill his enemies in the dark. The Nez Pearce were quite concerned about the expedition, a Snake (Shoshone), an enemy of the Nez Pearce, had brought these people into their winter lands and this black man must mean trouble:
“He could bring much harm to us. Look at his hair not long and straight like ours. Look at his eyes -how he rolls them round! Much white show like in eyes of a mean horse. Have to watch out for him -may be dangerous.”(9)
In a chief council York and the fate of the expedition is further discussed.
“What should we do? What of that black man? No one goes around painted black unless he means to steal up an enemy in the dark and kill him. White men makes big talk, acts like friends, black man makes them liars. In the darkness, while they sleep, we will kill them, kill them, before they kill us.” (10)
Among the Nez Pearce, York was not a curiosity of great spiritual powers to be desired. He was a threat contributing to the possible demise of the expedition. If it had not been for the intervention of a Nez Pearce woman the members of the expedition would have been killed.
York’s contributions to the success of the expedition are well documented; they went well beyond that of being just a curiosity or diversion used by Lewis and Clark to assist in Indian negotiations. He became an equal member of the corps, contributing to its success. York rendered care to others. When Sgt. Floyd lay near death, Clark recorded, “Every man is attentive to him -York prlly (principally).” Later at the Great Falls, York, became the primary caregiver to Sacagawea. As the expedition went on, York was selected to accompany groups of soldiers on scouting missions. By the second year he had become a full-fledged member of the corps, working shoulder to shoulder with the other members of the group, apparently spared the usual indignities of discrimination associated with slaves in the states. He participated in dangerous missions, hunted for food, ministered to the sick, and was given the riglrt to voice his vote.
Upon the corps’ return to St. Louis the freedoms he enjoyed closed; the bands of slavery quickly reappeared. At St. Louis no one identified him with “big medicine.” While others of the expedition were being heralded as heroes, receiving land and other compensation, York was being confined to the codes of slavery for that time. He would have been prohibited from carrying a fireann, could not administer medicine to a white person, and would have been forbidden to leave Clark’s residence without a pass. (11) For compensation for his exemplary service to the expedition and citing his desire to live with his wife in Kentucky, York asked Clark for his freedom – Clark refused. However, in 1808 Clark let York go to Louisville to be with his family for a short period of time. Clark complained to his brother that upon York’s return, York had become “… insolent and sulky. I gave him a Severe Trouncing the other Day and has much mended Sence. Could he be hired for any thing at or near Louisvhle (?) If he was hired there a while to a Severe Master he would see difference and do better.” York was sent to Louisville and served a demanding master for two years. Finaily, in 1816 Clark granted York his freedom. York was given a large wagon and six horses to operate a drayage business in Louisville. In September of 1832 Washington Irving visited William Clark at St. Louis. At this visit Clark conveyed to Irving that York had died that year of cholera while in route back to St. Louis. Irving wrote these comments,
“His slaves-set them free-one he placed at a ferry-another on a farm, giving him land, horses, &c.-a third he gave a large waggon & team of 6 horses to ply between Nashvhle and Richmond. They all repented & wanted to come back. “The waggoner was York, the hero of the Missouri expedition & adviser of the Indians. He could not get up early enough in the morng- his horses were ill kept-two died-the others grew poor. He sold them, was cheated-entered into service-fared ill. [“]Damn this freedom, [“] said York, [“] I have never had a happy day since I got it.[“] He determined to go back to his old master-set off for St. Louis, but was taken with the cholera in Tennessee & died.”
York’s story is perhaps the saddest of any member of the Corps of Discovery. While on the expedition the bonds of slavery were lifted; he exercised freedom and self-expression not experienced by a slave. The corps members accepted and depended, upon him as an equal. Most Indian nations gave him near god like status. However, in the end York, could neither, as a slave, be compensated as an equal, nor later as a free man cope with the freedom he so desperately wanted.
1. DeVoto, Bernard, The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Houghton Miffhn Co., Boston/New York, 1997. Pg.7.
2. Ravage, John W., Black Pioneers: Images of the Black Experience on the North American Frontier, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, 1997. Pg. 72.
3. Betts, Robert B. In Search of York: The Slave who went to the Pacific with Lewis andd Clark, Boulder, CO, Colorado Associated University Press, 1985. Pg. 92.
4. The Lewis and Clark Journey of Discover, www.nps.gov/jeff/LewisClark2/CorpsOfDiscovery/ThcOthers/Civhians/York
5. Ronda, James P., Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, University of Ncbraska, Lincoln/London, 1984. Pg.59.
6. The Lewis and Clark Journey of Discover, www.nps.gov/jeff/LewisClark2/CorpsOfDiscovcry/TheOthcrs/Civhians/York
7. Ronda, James P., Lewis and Clark Among the Indians, University of Nebraska, Lincoln/London, 1984. Pg.59.
8. Salisbury, Albert & Jane, Lewis and Clark, The Journey West, Promontory Press, New York, 1998. Pg.106
9. Swayne. Zoa L., Do them No Harm!, Legacy House, Orofino, Idaho, 1990. Pg. 41. This is a historical narrative, developed from Nez Pearce oral history, Lewis and Clark journals, and other supporting documents.
10. Ibid. Pg. 43.
11. Betts, Robert B. In Search of York: The Slave Who Went to the Pacific with Lewis and Clark. Boulder, CO, Colorado Associatcd University Prcss, 1985. Pg. 107.