Because he spent most of his life as an enslaved man, York was never permitted to tell his own story. Taken together, however, the Expedition journals, William Clark’s letters, and other accounts provide a sketch of the man and his importance to the Corps. As the property of William Clark, the choice of joining the Corps was not York's to make. His feelings about leaving his wife behind to begin a journey across a continent were never recorded. His contributions, however, were considerable.
During the 28-month journey, York served the expedition in many ways. Like most members of the Corps, he hunted for game. Although an ordinary and necessary task, York's hunting is noteworthy because, at the time, slaves were not generally permitted to carry firearms. He also served as a scout, joining Clark and others to reconnoiter the trail. York assisted in cooking, carrying supplies during portages, and constructing Forts Mandan and Clatsop. All the while he served the needs of his master, William Clark.
Several of the tribes the Expedition met had never seen a black man. On occasion, Lewis and Clark used this to their advantage. When Lewis hoped to barter for some much needed horses, he stalled the departure of a band of Shoshone with descriptions of “a man with us who was black and had short curling hair.” Their curiosity peaked, the Shoshoni stayed.
York may also have been the first African-American man to vote in the United States. Did any member of the Corps consider the significance of York’s participation in the vote to determine where the Corps would spend the winter of 1805 and1806? The journal shows only a tally of names and how each voted. But in this instance, each man's (and woman's- Sacagawea also voted) vote carried equal weight.
At the Expedition's end, while York returned to a life of slavery, other members of the Corps received double pay and 320 acres of land. For many years, Clark denied York his much wanted freedom. In a letter written in December 1808, Clark detailed his thoughts on the matter: “I did wish to do well by him. but as he has got Such a notion about freedom and his emence Services … I do not think with him, that his Services has been So great/or my Situation would promit me to liberate him.”
Information on York’s last years comes from author Washington Irving, who in 1832 visited William Clark. Clark claimed that he had freed York. Although the exact year is unknown, it is unlikely to have been before 1815. Along with his freedom, York received a wagon and team of horses. With these, he started a business hauling goods. According to Clark, the business failed and York, “determined to go back to his old master,” began making his way to St. Louis. While traveling, York contracted cholera and died in Tennessee.
More information about York is available in the following books and web sites.
Books for adults:
Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark
I Am Sacajawea, I Am York : Our Journey West with Lewis and Clark
Did You Know?
Jefferson expected the Expedition to learn about the people, plants and animals of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. None of the men of the Expedition was a trained scientist, but fulfilling Jefferson’s instructions required skills in cartography, ethnography, botany, zoology, and meteorology.