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York (Lewis and Clark)

York (1770 – unknown) was an African slave best known for his participation with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As William Clark's slave, he performed hard manual labor without pay,[1] 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.[2]

Early life

York was born in Caroline County near Ladysmith, Virginia. He, his father, his mother Rose and younger sister and brother Nancy and Juba, were slaves of the Clark family.[3] York was William Clark's servant from boyhood, and was left to William in his father's will.[4] He had a wife whom he rarely saw, and likely he lost contact with her when she was sent to Mississippi in 1811. He is also known for his heroic bravery for saving Lewis from a Grizzly Bear. It is not known if he fathered any children.[5]

Lewis and Clark Expedition

In 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,[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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 eventually gave him his freedom.

Ultimate Fate

As to York's later life and death, there are contradictory accounts by Washington Irving and Zenas Leonard. When Irving interviewed Clark in 1832, Clark claimed to have freed York, but that York regretted being free because he was a failure at business, and died trying to get back to serve his master as a slave again in St. Louis. Betts, as well as other historians doubt the accuracy of Clark's story saying that it reflects pro-slavery arguments that Africans were happy to be slaves, and could not lead successful lives as free people.[9]

Betts and Historian Áhati N. N. Touré suggests another possibility: that York simply refused to return to Clark, and escaped to freedom. Leonard reported meeting with an African man living among the Crows in north-central Wyoming in 1834, writing: "In this village we found a negro man, who informed us that he first came to this country with Lewis & Clark — with whom he also returned to the State of Missouri, and in a few years returned again with a Mr. Mackinney, a trader on the Missouri river, and has remained here ever since - which is about ten or twelve years. He has acquired a correct knowledge of their manner of living, and speaks their language fluently. He has rose to be quite a considerable character, or chief, in their village; at least he assumes all the dignities of a chief, for he has four wives, with whom he lives alternately."[10]


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.[11]

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.[12]

"Yorks Islands" are a group of islands in Broadwater County, Montana,[13][14] which were named for York by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The islands were originally named "Yorks 8 Islands,"[15] 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.”[16] 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.[17] 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.[18] 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.

See also

Further reading

  • Robert Betts, In Search of York: The Slave Who Went to the Pacific With Lewis and Clark. University Press of Colorado, 1985 (revised 2002).
  • James Holmberg, Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark. Yale University Press, 2002, 2nd Printing


  • “York: The Voice of Freedom”:
  • English, William Hayden. Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio, 1778–1783, and Life of Gen. George Rogers Clark. 2 vols. Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill, 1896.

External links

  • Clark's Unrepentant Captive
  • Lewis and Clark Journals, Members of the Expedition (U. Nebraska)
  • Who was York?
  • Find a Grave
  • Lewis and Clark website @ PBS [1]
  • Recognizing York: A Community Initiative. Lewis and Clark College, Portland Oregon.
  • York of the Corps of Discovery Darrell M. Millner, Oregon Historical Quarterly 104.3 (Fall 2003)
  • Searching for York, Oregon Experience (Oregon Public Broadcasting)
  • Vote 4 York Black Heritage Stamp 2013, Jackson Davis V
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