The Lewis and Clark expedition is one of the most commonly known events in history with hundreds of articles and books written about the trials and triumphs adventure. While many are aware of the expedition, not many know about Clark’s slave, York, who accompanied him on this famous expedition. As the only known African American of the Lewis and Clark expedition, York is now commonly seen as a symbol of black pride.
York was legally inherited from Clark’s father in 1799, and assigned to Clark as a body servant. It is likely that Clark and York had known each other since childhood. Much of what we know about him is through the writings of white men, as York did not write anything that has been preserved. In many of Clark’s journal entries, York was said to be a skilled backwoodsman, knowledgeable in herbal medicine, and a skilled hunter. York’s contributions to the expedition were mainly due to the color of this skin rather than his character. On many accounts, York was commonly referred to as a man of great size, as “black as a bear”, and a comedian of sorts with his goofy nature. It is thought that York was like many he met on the expedition, and especially by Native Americans. The Corps of Discovery found that many Native Americans had never encountered an African American before, and even questioned their existence. One skeptical Native American named Hidatsa leader Le Borgne challenged York’s natural skin color by spitting on his finger and rubbing York’s skin in order to wipe off what he believed to be body paint.
When the expedition ended, York sought to be a free man. For some time after the end of the expedition, Clark would not grant York his freedom. It wasn’t until after 1811 that York was granted his freedom. York was set free and given a wagon along with six horses to ply between Nashville and Virginia. Ultimately, York encountered many troubles during his time of freedom and sought to go back to his master when he was taken with the cholera in Tennessee and died. While many do not know of the troubles and triumphs of Clark’s slave, York, his legacy now lives on as the only known African American to take part of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Currently, there is a statue in Louisville, Kentucky dedicated to York to honor his contributions to the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Recommended reading : ” The Journey of York: The Unsung Hero of the Lewis and Clark Expedition” by Hasan Davis available on Amazon
York- Lewis & Clark Expedition Member
- Kayli Dempster ( Falls of the Ohio State Park Intern)
- 2 Min Read