A fronteirsman, hunter, and the first African American to cross the continent, York was an American explorer who made important contributions to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He was also the enslaved body servant to Captain William Clark and after the expedition's return was denied his payment and his freedom.
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Telling York’s Story: with Living History Actor Hasan Davis
The story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is a fixture of U.S. history and a landmark in Americans’ imaginations. No doubt, the journals left behind by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark have kept the history alive; more than two hundred years later we can still follow along with the Corps of Discovery as they travel thousands of miles across plains, mountains, and forests to reach the Pacific Ocean in 1804.
But one of the most compelling members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is a man whose story mostly lies between the lines. York was a skilled frontiersman. He was likely the first African American to cross North America. He was also a man with no last name, a person born into a system that considered him property, the enslaved body servant to William Clark.
Living history actor and activist Hasan Davis uses the Lewis and Clark journals, historical accounts, and oral histories to bring York’s story to life. Who was he? What was his fate? And why is it important to remember him?
Telling York's Story
Why we tell York’s Story today
“I think it's a great conversation to have with folks,” says Davis, “where we can look at the whole range of York’s experience and then we can see the injustice and recognize, you know, that and this is just one story of millions, where people work hard all their life for no benefit to themselves.”
Reflecting on audiences’ reactions to his living history presentation as York, Davis acknowledges that history from York’s perspective is not always easy to hear.
“In my interpretation you will laugh, you will cry, you'll sigh...it's all in there,” says Davis. “But it's all in there serving York and his storytelling not serving to make somebody comfortable with his story.”
But Davis also cites the powerful and unexpected connections he’s made through the years, and times when audience members surprised him and themselves when York’s story deeply moved them.
Davis says, “I think that we have to tell stories and invite people to bring their courageous selves to the stories and be willing to listen without blame.”
Last updated: August 8, 2022