May 14, 1804: A slave named York, accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition was the first American expedition to cross what is now the western portion of the United States, departing in May, 1804 from St. Louis on the Mississippi River, making their way westward through the continental divide to the Pacific coast. The duration of their perilous journey lasted from May 1804 to September 1806. The primary objective was to explore and map the newly acquired territory, find a practical route across the Western half of the continent, and establish an American presence in this territory before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it.
York (1770 – unknown) was an African American slave best known for his participation with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As William Clark’s slave, he performed hard manual labor without pay, but participated as a full member of the expedition. Like many other expedition members, his ultimate fate is unclear. There is evidence that after the expedition’s return, Clark had difficulty compelling York to resume his former status, and York may have later escaped or been freed, but nothing is entirely clear on this.
LEWIS & CLARK EXPEDITION:
May 14, 1804, Clark took his slave York when he joined the Lewis and Clark Expedition. York was a large, strong man who shared the duties and risks of the expedition, and was the only African American slave member of the Expedition. The journals record that the assignments given him attest to his skill in scouting, hunting and field medicine, but included manual labor in extreme weather conditions. York used a firearm to hunt game such as bison, as well as for “protection”. The native nations treated York with respect, and he “played a key role in diplomatic relations” because of his appearance. When the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean, York voted along with the rest as to where the Expedition would build winter quarters.
Historian Robert Betts says that the freedom York had during the Lewis and Clark expedition made resuming enslavement unbearable. After the expedition returned to the United States, every other member but York received money and land for their services. York asked Clark for his freedom based upon his good services during the expedition. Clark gave him his freedom.
A statue of York, by sculptor Ed Hamilton, with plaques commemorating the Lewis and Clark Expedition and his participation in it, stands at Louisville’s Riverfront Plaza/Belvedere, next to the wharf on the Ohio River.
Another statue of York stands on the campus of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Dedicated on May 8, 2010, it does not focus on York’s face, since no images of York are known to exist. Instead, it features fragments of William Clark’s maps “scarred” on the statue’s back.
The opera “York” (composer Bruce Trinkley and librettist Jason Charnesky), based on York’s life, was composed for the first international conference on the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial and performed at Penn State Opera Theatre.
“Yorks Islands” are a group of islands in Broadwater County, Montana, which were named for York by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The islands were originally named “Yorks 8 Islands,” but have since become known as “Yorks Islands” or simply “York Island”. The naming of “Yorks 8 Islands” is not found in the narrative journals of Lewis and Clark. Instead it is found in Clark’s tabulations of “Creeks and Rivers,” by the entry, “Yorks 8 Islands.”
The Lewis and Clark Expedition also named another geographical feature for York, “York’s Dry Creek”, a tributary of the Yellowstone River, in Custer County, Montana. This name was later abandoned, and the creek was renamed “Custer Creek”.
In 2001, President Bill Clinton posthumously granted York the rank of honorary sergeant in the United States Army.
Kentucky poet, Frank X. Walker has written two books of poetry about York: Buffalo Dance: the Journey of York (2004) and When Winter Come: the Ascension of York (2008). Both books were published by the University of Kentucky Press.