Last updated: February 3, 2021
One of the most fascinating yet enigmatic figures of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was York, a man enslaved by the Clark family. 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 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, enslaved people 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 men 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 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 enslaved? 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.
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."
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.
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.
Clark claimed to the author Washington Irving that he eventually freed York, who started a drayage business (wagons and teams which hauled goods from place to place). Historians have been unable to verify this claim, however.
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 can be read in Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark edited by James J. Holmberg. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Last updated: February 3, 2021