York

Painting. Tall black man stands in center of earth lodge. Tribal members examine him while the rest are seated and look on.
"York" by Charles M. Russell. Date: 1908

Public Domain

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.
 
Screenshot of two people on a video call. Man on left wears a light blue shirt. A replica early 1800s explorer outfit hangs behind. Woman in park ranger uniform smiles.
Living history actor Hasan Davis talks with Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail ranger during Trail Talk webinar, "A Conversation with Hasan Davis: York, Equity, Race and the Lewis and Clark Story."

NPS Photo

Featured Article Series

Telling York’s Story: with Living History Actor Hasan Davis



This article uses quotes from a 2020 interview with Hasan Davis and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

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

  • “in a system where one person is given control and power....

    YORK'S EARLY LIFE

    Hasan Davis gives insight into York's early life and the nature of his relationship with his enslaver, William Clark.

  • York started to see himself differently, I think, because these communities saw him differently..

    TRAVELING WEST

    How did traveling West with the Lewis and Clark Expedition change York?

  • “It is such a powerful, painful place to see and realize that that Clark's perception of York didn't

    YORK'S FATE

    What happened to York when the expedition returned to St. Louis?

 

Why we tell York’s Story today


Davis insists that while York’s story is unique, its power also lies in the fact that it connects to the injustices suffered by so many.

“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.”



Continue reading about York in the articles below.

 

York

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    Last updated: August 8, 2022

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