One of the most fascinating yet enigmatic figures of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was William Clark's slave York. As with many members of the expedition, little information survives about York to present his life in a great amount of detail. The presence of York on the expedition also raises many philosophical questions about African-American heritage and the treatment of African Americans throughout our history.
The only African American on the expedition, York was also the only member who had no choice about whether or not he would go. As a slave, he was bound to do what he was told by his master, yet as a member of the Corps of Discovery, he had almost total freedom and participated in one of the seminal events of American history. York was a black man and a slave, and his return to Euro-American civilization carried dire consequences not only for York, but also in metaphorical terms for considering the role of African Americans in a society founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Racial bias of the Jim Crow Era (1890s-1920s) caused historians to dwell upon York's sexual prowess with Native American women and his role as the "buffoon" of the party. Nothing in the journal accounts corroborates this information, and in fact the record refutes it.
The best historical information seems to indicate that York was owned from the time of his birth by the Clark family. It was said that York and William Clark grew up together, and were about the same age. That would mean that York was born in Virginia about 1770, and was roughly 34 years old at the time the expedition began in 1804. York was the son of Old York and Rose, slaves who had also been owned by the Clark family from birth. William Clark inherited York when his father John died in 1799. John Clark's will (in the Clark family papers at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis) also stipulates that William Clark inherited Old York, Rose, two children named Nancy and Juba, and three "old Negroes" named Jane, Cupid and Harry. A list of William Clark's property dated July 5, 1802 (also at MHS) included "5 old Negroes, 7 above 16 yrs. old, 3 under 16 yrs. old and 3 children."
It was said that York was a large man, a little overweight, and very strong. At the time of the expedition both master and slave lived in Clarksville, Indiana territory, across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. We know from letters written by William Clark to his older brother Jonathan (discovered in the 1980s and owned by the Filson Club of Louisville, Kentucky) that York had a wife and possibly a family prior to the departure of the expedition. His wife lived in the Louisville area.
Few mentions of York occur in the journals, although he receives more attention than many of the other enlisted privates who went along. He was first mentioned on December 26, 1803 as working on constructing the fort and huts at Camp Dubois in Illinois. On April 7, 1804, York traveled with Lewis and Clark and one other man to St. Louis for a ball. York is not mentioned again until June 5, 1804, when he "Swam to the Sand bar to gather greens for our Dinner and returned with a Sufficient quantity [of] wild Creases [NB: Cresses] or Teng [NB: Tongue] grass."
One of the more disturbing aspects of York's expedition status is that he is never referenced as a slave in the journals, always as a "servant." Although not uncommon at the time, the distinction between the two terms is very great to modern eyes. There was also a distinction in the early 19th century, for a servant is a wage worker who earns money for his services, and is free to resign and seek other employment when he chooses. A slave, especially under the system of English Law as adopted in America, was almost certainly condemned to slavery for life, with few chances for obtaining freedom. All children of a female slave were automatically considered to be slaves themselves.
One wonders about York's status in terms of the expedition group. He certainly was not seen as a full-fledged member of the group at first, but merely as Clark's slave, the only "servant" along on the expedition, the only man not working for wages and the only one who could not expect a reward of land and cash at the successful completion of the mission.
Perhaps this status of York was shown most clearly on June 20, 1804, when Clark recorded that "York [was] very near losing his Eyes by one of the men throwing Sand at him in fun & received into his eyes." This type of horseplay was rare on the expedition, almost non-existent, if we are to believe the small number of accounts which mention it. Did the man who threw sand at York feel he could do so because York could not defend himself, since he was a slave? Did some of the men think they could bully York because he could not fight back? Perhaps the incident was truly just high-spirited horseplay that resulted in an accident, or perhaps Clark forbade any further trifling with York. The journals are silent in regard to this matter. It is interesting that this was one of the few times in the journals that Clark did not refer to York as "my servant," but mentioned him by name, perhaps revealing the concern he felt for York as a human being who had been injured.
That same concern was exhibited by York for another human being on August 19, 1804, when Sgt. Charles Floyd lay near death. Clark recorded that "Every man is attentive to him (York prlly)." Lewis and Clark Journal editor Gary Moulton felt that the best guess as to the meaning of this phrase was that Clark meant to say "York principally." York was later a primary caregiver to Sacagawea and other sick members of the expedition.
During the course of the expedition York went from packing freshly killed animals on his back, as when he carried a deer for Clark on August 24, 1804, to carrying a gun himself. This was unusual; in fact, most colonial and state laws in the United States forbade the arming of slaves. Yet throughout most of the expedition, beginning for certain on September 9, 1804, York was one of the hunters who obtained meat for the group. Clark recorded that "In the evening after the boat landed, I Directed my Servant York with me to kill a Buffalo near the boat from a number then Scattered in the plains." In fact, Clark credits York with killing two buffalo that day. On September 19, 1804, Clark mentioned that "York my Servant killed a buck" and these references continue throughout the remainder of the journals.
Another aspect of York's participation in the expedition was as an object of curiosity to the Indian tribes that the men encountered. Clark recorded on October 9, 1804 that "The Indians [are] much astonished at my black servant and call him the big medicine. This nation never saw a black man before." The following day Clark repeated this information, continuing by saying that York "made himself more terrible in their view than I wished him to do, as I am told, telling them that before I caught him he was wild & lived upon people, [that] young children was very good eating. Showed them his strength &c. &c." "All flocked around him & examined him from top to toe. He carried on the joke and made himself more terrible than we wished him to do." Sgt. John Ordway added that "All the nation made a great deal of him. The children would follow after him, & if he turned towards them they would run from him & hollow as if they were terrified, & afraid of him." Altogether, it seems that York had a great deal of fun with the Indian peoples he encountered. They did not look upon him as a slave or as a mere man, but as an extraordinary creature more interesting and elevated than any of his companions.
As the expedition went on, York was selected to accompany groups of soldiers on scouting missions. On June 3, 1805, as the captains investigated two rivers to find which was the true Missouri, Clark selected some of his best men to accompany him on the reconnaissance. Clark chose Reubin & Joseph Field, Sergt. Patrick Gass, George Shannon and York to go with him. Similarly, on July 18, 1805, as Clark scouted further up the Missouri, York once more accompanied him as a selected member of his small group. It seems that by the second year of the expedition York was a full-fledged member of the Corps of Discovery, participating in dangerous missions, carrying a gun, hunting for food, and ministering to the sick.
In fact, York was allowed to go about entirely on his own, hunting for the group. On June 29, 1805 at Great Falls, Montana, York separated from Clark, Charbonneau, Sacagawea and her baby "in pursuit of some buffalo." A sudden heavy rainstorm came up which forced Clark and the Charbonneaus into a ravine for cover, which turned out to be a mistake, since the rains produced a gully washer of epic proportions, nearly drowning them all. Emerging back up on the level plain above the ravine, "they found the black man, York, in search of them. York had separated from them a little while before the storm, and had not seen them enter the ravine. When this gust came on he returned in search of them, & not being able to find them for some time was much alarmed." York's basic humanity, the care and concern he felt for other human beings, are revealed in passages such as these, and repeated throughout the journals.
By August 16, 1805, York had become not only a real member of the Corps of Discovery, but somewhat of a legend, one of the people who composed the group that made it unique and special, and that strengthened it, both in terms of group dynamics and in terms of the group's appearance to outsiders. When the party talked with Indian tribes about what made their group so special, what was magic and different about the Corps, they inevitably mentioned York. Lewis and Clark recorded that "Some of the party had also told the Indians that we had a man with us who was black and had short curling hair. This had excited their curiosity very much, and they seemed quite as anxious to see this monster as they were the merchandise which we had to barter for their horses." On August 17, 1805, after actually meeting York, the Shoshone were recorded as viewing the expedition as astonishing, "the appearance of the men, their arms, the canoes, our manner of working them, the black man York and the sagacity of my dog were equally objects of admiration."
But lest anyone feel that York was being treated more as a zoological specimen than a man, the apogee of his involvement with the Corps would dispel all such thoughts. This came on November 23, 1805, when a vote was taken to decide where the Corps would spend the winter. Each member of the group was given an equal vote, including York and Sacagawea. This incident may in fact be the first recorded instance of an African American being allowed to vote in American history. York had not only become a member of the Corps of Discovery, but had also been allowed to participate in the democratic process. He had tasted the American dream.
But it was not to last. When the expedition returned to St. Louis in September 1806 they were national heroes. Land bounties, extra pay, and other rewards awaited them. One would think that for Clark's "servant" there might be some reward, too. If not money, land or fame, what about the one thing that we all prize and value above everything else, the concept upon which the United States was founded - freedom?
Recent information has given us more knowledge about York and his life after the expedition. An important discovery made in 1988 brought to light a series of letters written by William Clark to his brother Jonathan in Louisville, Kentucky. The information in these new letters had not been discovered when Robert Betts wrote his book, In Search of York (1985), which was then the most detailed source of information on York. The Clark letters sadly related that York was not freed upon his return from the western expedition in 1806. And one of the letters complicated the story even further. In a letter written from Fort Mandan in April 1805, Clark mentioned that York was sending two buffalo robes back downriver, one for "his wife and one for Ben." This statement clarified once and for all that York was a married man when he went west in 1804. Few of the expedition members were married, and it was not suspected that York had a wife before he set out for the west until the discovery of this letter.
Trouble began between Clark and York after the expedition, when Clark decided to settle permanently in St. Louis after his marriage to Julia Hancock in 1808. Apparently, York asked Clark for his freedom, based upon his good services during the expedition and citing his wish to live with his wife in Kentucky. Clark refused to manumit York due to financial difficulties. York did not want to be separated from his wife, who was owned by another man, and pleaded with Clark to return to the Louisville area. But Clark was stubborn, and did not want to let York go, saying that he required York's services in St. Louis.
Clark's letters to his brother Jonathan reveal that he became increasingly irritated by York's attitude. In November 1808, Clark wrote that he would let York go to Louisville only for a limited period of a few weeks so that he might visit his wife, but he would not permit York to stay in Louisville and hire himself out. Since Clark felt that York was being disobedient, he also threatened to hire York out to a severe master in St. Louis until he changed his ways. Clark complained in May 1809 that York had returned from Louisville and was "insolent and sulky. I gave him a Severe trouncing the other Day and he has much mended Sence. Could he be hired for any thing at or near Louisville[?] I think if he was hired there a while to a Severe Master he would See the difference and do better." Apparently, Clark even had York jailed for a time because of his behavior. A system of punishments, followed by York's "improved" behavior for short periods of time, sounded more like the old-fashioned discipline of a child than the way a grown man would be treated. We know that York was finally sent by Clark to Louisville and hired out to a demanding master for at least two years. Then, the owners of York's wife and family made plans to move to Natchez, Tennessee, which made York long to be back in the care of Clark.
York was eventually granted his freedom by Clark after 1816, and set up in a drayage business (wagons and teams which hauled goods from place to place). On November 14, 1815, Clark and John Hite Clark entered into a business agreement to purchase and operate a wagon and team in the Louisville area; the driver of this wagon was York.
Clark told the author Washington Irving that York died of cholera in Tennessee sometime before 1832. His business had failed and it was reported that he was returning to St. Louis to be reunited with Clark at the time of his death. Some have theorized about and even repeated the legend that York traveled west after he obtained his freedom, and lived once more with the Indian tribes who had treated him so specially. There is no basis in any recorded history for this story, but perhaps it is true metaphorically. It is easy to think that as York worked in drudgery on the Louisville or Natchez levee carting freight from boat to boat, that his mind turned often to the fantasy of being once more in the west, once more free to roam the plains with gun in hand.
Unfortunately, York was not immediately freed after the Lewis and Clark expedition for his good services, and it took six or seven long years before Clark finally let him go. York's tale is perhaps one of the saddest of the biographies of expedition members. Like so many other African Americans throughout history, he was held back not for lack of talents or ability, but merely because of the color of his skin.
Clarke, Charles G. The Men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1970.
Jackson, Donald, ed. Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents, 1783-1854. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962.
Moulton, Gary E., ed. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, especially Volume 2, with a biographical sketch of York.
Ronda, James P. Lewis and Clark Among the Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
The letters of William Clark to his brother Jonathan are currently being edited by James Holmberg of Louisville, Kentucky for inclusion in a book. Only excerpts have been released to the public thus far. The greatest amount of information may be found in "'I Wish You to See & Know All,' The Recently Discovered Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark" by James Holmberg, Curator of Manuscripts, the Filson Club, in We Proceeded On, November 1992.